Sitting in the shadow of ground zero, the Tribute World Trade Center Visitor Center is a memorial to the tragedy, loss and courage displayed during the events of Sept. 11. Within its walls, visitors can touch a piece of the North Tower, look at photos of the 2,973 people killed and follow a sobering timeline of how the events unfolded — complete with eye-witness accounts from the living and transcripts of phone calls and emails from the dead.
In one section, near a model of how the World Trade Center complex looked prior to 9/11, a movie runs in the background, composed of shared memories, personal photos and authentic video and audio from that day.
For some, these images relay the event’s awfulness. For others, they serve as a reminder and recall memories that are either faded or repressed.
Lt. Col. Christopher Hardej doesn’t need to be reminded. The movie doesn’t show him anything new, either. He has a front row seat to a private showing of his own: The images and sounds from that day that play over and over in his mind.
He didn’t watch the events unfold on television. He was there, part of it. Now it is a part of him. He’s not alone. Other Airmen in the New York City area also were there that day. Some were in the towers, some were first responders and others came in the aftermath, helping how and where they could.
These are two of their stories.
Manhattan, 7:15 a.m.
Sept. 11, 2001, started like a typical weekday for Hardej. His commute wasn’t bad and he made it to the World Trade Center at just after 7 a.m. A guardsman with the 106th Rescue Wing on Long Island, Hardej worked his “regular” job in the North Tower as an employee of New York’s Department of Transportation.
Getting to his office was easier at that time of the morning because most people didn’t start showing up until 9 a.m. or later. Once parked, he headed to the North Tower, hopped on the elevator to the 82nd floor and stepped into his office. He had a great view of the city, one he found himself looking at all the time.
That morning, however, he sat down and, turning his back on that wonderful view, started going over emails on his computer.
Elsewhere in the city, Senior Master Sgt. Edward Metcalf was sitting out in the Hudson Bay aboard Marine 1, a 129-foot fireboat belonging to the New York City Fire Department and stationed off the shoreline at 14th Street.
Also a guardsman with the 106th RQW and an FDNY firefighter for nearly 20 years, Metcalf wasn’t at home on the water and commanding a fireboat wasn’t his normal job. He was just “filling,” which means the department had put him where they needed someone.
Normally, he would have been working with Squad 252 out of Brooklyn. “I was a captain with 20 years of service,” he said. “And I was just moving around to different stations and filling in where they needed me.”
North Tower, 8:46 a.m.
Hardej didn’t see it coming. Had he be been staring out the window in his office, he would have seen the large airliner heading straight for him. However, his back was turned and he had no idea the first plane was about to crash into the North Tower.
“Right before it hit, I heard several seconds of a loud whooshing sound and then, chaos,” he said.
The plane, traveling at 490 miles per hour, hit the north side of the tower between the 94th and 98th floors and exploded into a ball of fire, sending vibrations through the building to its foundation.
One of the plane’s large wings tore through the building just a few feet from where Hardej was sitting, cutting through the room like a giant buzz saw. The lights went out, alarms started going off and an acrid smoke began to fill the area.
It was then that his military training kicked in.
“I just hit the deck,” he said. “At this point, I had no idea what was going to happen.”
All around him, he could hear people screaming and crying. Amid the chaos, he kept hearing the one question he was asking himself over and over. “What is happening?”
Marine 1, 8:46 a.m.
Metcalf didn’t see the first plane hit, either. But he did see it flying low, too low, over the city and out of view.
Then he heard it.
“It was a loud boom,” he said. “It sounded like a bomb going off.”
Then calls started pouring in over the radios.
At first, the details were sketchy. No one was really sure what had happened. Then, the details became clearer and it became apparent that a large plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
“You could hear sirens from other stations already on their way,” Metcalf said.
The men on Marine 1 also were anxious to get there.
“They just kept telling me, ‘Let’s go, let’s go,’” Metcalf said. “So I told them, ‘Okay, just do what you do,’ because I really didn’t know what they would normally do.”
The large boat changed course and headed toward the cloud of smoke that now marred the Manhattan skyline.
North Tower, 8:48 a.m.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” was the thought racing through Hardej’s mind as he fumbled through the wreckage that was once his office, looking for an exit.
“It was just so dark,” he said. “All of the lights were off and it was hard to see where you were going.”
He made it to the hallway, but still didn’t see anything or anyone.
Then, out of the darkness a voiced boomed.
“Come to my voice. Come to my voice.”
It was one of the security guards, trying to get people to the stairwell and off the floor. As the colonel made his way to the stairs, he found a couple of his coworkers. Together, they began the long journey to the bottom of the building, 81 stories below.
Manhattan, 9:01 a.m.
By this time, Marine 1 had docked. Metcalf left the boat and found a command post near the World Trade Center. He started to see just how crazy the situation was.
Smoke and fire were pouring from the top floors of the North Tower. Ash and debris were falling and people were panicking in the streets. Some were frozen, staring wide-eyed up at the building. Others were simply fleeing, running north and south, hands over their mouths and crying.
Firefighters from all over the city were there, checking in and heading out, radios in hand and a determined look in their eyes.
Then, Metcalf heard what sounded like grenades exploding.
“What was that?” he asked another firefighter.
“Jumpers,” came the reply.
With nowhere left to go and facing death from searing flames, some of the people above the airplane’s impact zone chose to fall to their death instead.
“It was sickening, horrifying and frustrating all at the same time,” Metcalf said. “You just kept hearing that sound and I looked away because I didn’t want to see it.”
Meanwhile, the firefighters were entering the building carrying cylinders, ropes and anything else they needed and began climbing the stairs. Their destination: 90 floors up.
“We all thought we could get the job done,” Metcalf said. “We just said, ‘Okay, it’s a fire. We’ll go up there, put it out and get everyone out of there.’ They all thought they could save those people.”
Then another plane came screaming over the city.
North Tower, 9:02 a.m.
The journey down the stairwell had been easy at first. Then, nearly halfway down, Hardej and the people with him ran into the rest of the people evacuating the building.
Gridlock. If they moved at all, it was slow. Too slow.
However, the evacuees were calm and waited for direction.
“No one really panicked,” Hardej said. “A couple of people were hysterical, but for the most part it was an orderly, calm atmosphere.”
Then, they heard a muffled boom.
“We heard something and then the security guys’ radios started going off. They told us another plane had just hit the South Tower,” he said.
It was around this time they started seeing the first firefighters headed up, toward the fire.
“Here were these guys, huffing and puffing, carrying so much equipment, and they’re trudging up these stairs and they have so far to go,” Hardej said. “You would make eye contact with them and they looked so determined. It was just like, what do you say in a moment like that? Thank you? Good luck? None of that seemed adequate.”
As he headed down and the firefighters headed up, he wished them good luck, even as he listened to their fading footsteps clanging up the stairs.
Manhattan, 9:02 a.m.
Metcalf saw the second plane hit. He heard the whining of the aircraft’s engines as the plane crashed into the enormous building and saw the resulting fireball consume several stories.
“It was surreal,” he said. “The whole thing was just so surreal.”
What looked like ribbons of confetti began falling from the building, streaming down in what seemed like slow motion.
“We realized it was pieces of the building coming down and everyone just started finding cover where they could,” Metcalf said.
The debris rained down in a shower of glass, steel and paper. Some of the pieces were 15 to 20 feet long.
Some of the firefighters, police and bystanders were injured and paramedics quickly set to work trying to give aid where they could. Some medical personnel mistook Metcalf for one of the wounded and transported him to a hospital in Brooklyn.
“I have a bad back and it went out,’” he told them. But they weren’t listening.
When they got to the hospital, there were so many medical personnel and so much equipment available that Metcalf got right in and found himself strapped to a gurney, naked and frustrated.
“The area hospitals were geared up to receive a lot of casualties, but none had showed up,” he said. “It was like I was the only one there.”
When he was allowed to leave, he had a new problem.
“They cut up my uniform, so here I am wearing one of those crazy hospital outfits and some funny looking shoes and I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to get back to the scene,” he said.
By this time, all the bridges and tunnels back to Manhattan were closed. He approached a parked police car convinced the cops inside to give him a ride.
North Tower, 9:50 a.m.
Hardej was not descending the tower’s stairs fast enough. Eventually, a security guard redirected Hardej’s group of approximately 150 people to a different stairwell. As the group started to cram into the new stairwell, Hardej led his coworkers to another stairway down the hall.
Finally, the group reached the bottom and emerged in the underground mall portion of the World Trade Center. As they were looking for an exit at 9:59 a.m., the South Tower began to crumble. Within 11 seconds the entire building had flattened, causing what felt like a powerful earthquake below ground.
“You have this giant building collapsing and the force of that is being slammed down where we are,” he said. “We heard a loud rushing sound and then saw a giant cloud of dust and debris coming at us.”
Hardej did the only thing he could. He ran behind a large column and held on with everything he had.
“The wind was intense and all the dust and bits of concrete were stinging me and chocking me, and it just got very dark,” he said. “I remember holding on and thinking, ‘So this is what it feels like to die.’”
But, a few seconds passed, then a few minutes and Hardej realized he was not dead at all. In fact, he’d survived with only a few scrapes and bruises.
Others weren’t so lucky.
“There were two people behind me that got picked up and slammed into a wall and I never saw them again,” Hardej said.
Hardej started calling out for his coworkers and, amazingly, they responded they were okay. Once reassembled, the group started forward again, this time literally feeling their way through the pitch dark, looking for a way out.
Under the WTC, 10:15 a.m.
It took a few minutes and a lot of stumbling and meandering, but Hardej and his coworkers finally found a way out. Nothing could prepare them for what they saw.
“It was like a scene out of a movie,” Hardej said. “The South Tower was gone. All that was left was a giant pile of rubble and the North Tower, my tower, was burning and there was a gaping hole where smoke was just pouring out.”
He had an uneasy feeling, too. He knew he needed to get out of there and fast. So, he hit the street and started heading away from the World Trade Center complex.
He’d only gone several blocks when he heard it. That same rushing sound he’d heard in the underground mall.
“I knew immediately the North Tower was coming down,” Hardej said. “I didn’t even look back; I just started running.”
And he didn’t stop until he got home. Tired. Angry. Battered and bruised.
When the two towers collapsed, thousands of people and hundreds of police, firefighters and other rescue personnel were killed. For those who evacuated, their ordeal was seemingly over. But for Metcalf and his fellow firefighters, their ordeal was just beginning.
“For the next six months I was on that pile, day after day,” he said. “At first we were searching for survivors, but very soon we realized we were just hoping to find bodies.”
But it is the personal loss that is hardest to deal with.
“I lost six guys from my squad that day,” Metcalf said. “Good guys, true FDNY guys that I’d known a long time.”
Overcoming the grief hasn’t been easy.
“I suffer from survivor guilt,” he said. “There’s not a day goes by I don’t ask myself why I survived and so many didn’t. It’s hard to come to terms with.”
But, Hardej and Metcalf each have found their own way of dealing with the demons that rose from the ashes that day.
Metcalf left his behind, retiring soon after and leaving the FDNY to a newer, younger generation of firefighters. But he couldn’t leave the job completely. He now works as the fire chief at the 106th RQW.
Hardej embraces his demons. Instead of locking the images away in his own head, he now spends time at the Tribute Center, giving tours and sharing his experiences with people from all over the world.
“It’s not about glory or recognition,” he said. “It’s about keeping the memory of that day alive. It’s important so that we don’t forget the tragedy and sacrifice of that day.”