A Story of Heroism and Regret From the 74th Floor
John Pyndus helped save the lives of several people during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and now shares his first-person account of the day.
Editor's note: Many New Jersey residents saw firsthand the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Now, 10 years later, we've asked some of them how the event changed their lives.
The light was unmistakable. Not from the flames, dripping through the ceiling of an abandoned hallway, but from the sun, the actual sun. And there in the stairwell, at nearly 1,000 feet above the ground, a soft breeze carried the air – fresh air from the east – in through a gaping hole in the side of the skyscraper on a cloudless morning in New York City.
Reflecting on that day nearly a decade ago, there’s a hint of regret in John Pyndus’ voice as he recalls seeing, with unparalleled clarity, the faces of those he knew who would never make it out alive. Perhaps it’s simply a realization, whittled down from sleepless nights of panic to, now, weary recollections told from a wicker chair on a painted porch, that on Sept. 11, 2001 Pyndus cheated death.
The realization that he’ll forever be reminded of it.
Before reaching Stairway B, Pyndus struggled to escape, finding in one case a stairwell with a locked door – Pyndus said this was the result of a security measure designed to facilitate faster evacuation of higher floors – and another blocked by a collapsed wall. In the lobby with the express elevator he had ridden to the 74th floor for work as a manager at Morgan Stanley just hours earlier, flames rolled against the wide expanse of glass. He had shared both the elevator ride and a friendly conversation with his broker. It was the last time Pyndus would see him alive.
He dwells on the what-ifs of that day, an unmistakable burden that clings to hindsight even in the most trivial of situations. What if he had gone back up the stairs to look for people with the security guard who never came back down? What if he had implored the maintenance worker to stay back? What if he could have known that the plane that struck World Trade Center tower one wasn’t a terrible and unimaginable accident, but part of the most calculated and deadly terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil?
What-ifs always come up in his mind; he just can’t help it. His actions saved the lives of several people that day, but he won’t call himself a hero, just a man who did what he was supposed to, but couldn’t do enough.
Pyndus is a hero. His actions, regardless of what keeps him from taking solace in that fact, whether it’s his own humility or frustration over limitations, our limitations as inherently fragile creatures, saved the lives of several. His reluctance to tell his story has meant relative anonymity over the last decade. Aside from a couple of newspaper clips and a freedom award given to him at a conference in Utah, talk about Pyndus and his efforts that day has been limited to what he’s been compelled to share.
Until now, it hasn’t been much.
The day after the attacks Pyndus went back to work, this time in a branch of his office in New Jersey. The objective was to find out the whereabouts of all of the Morgan Stanley employees that worked in the World Trade Center. This was when Pyndus first wrote what he could remember, a detailed account of the attack and his reaction. For the next couple of days he added to it, additional thoughts, recalled conversations, until he put it down, and left it for 10 years.
When the second plane struck tower two, his tower, Pyndus said his immediate reaction was to get himself and his fellow employees who still remained following the strike on the first tower out of the building. When he finally reached the stairwell it was oddly empty, an early indication that those trapped on higher floors would not make it out. Still, Pyndus was not only able to guide those left behind to the only available exit, but also help three people trapped by lifting a wall that had fallen on top of them.
“When you’re in something like that, you don’t, I didn’t cry, I didn’t feel grief or sorry for myself. From that point you kind of go automatic, you tell yourself you’ve got to get your people out of here,” he said Tuesday at his Rumson home, recounting the tale as if it were a war story, stripped of all the glory and pride. “We tried to get out but we couldn’t make it down the hallway, it was too hot. There were flames dripping out of the ceiling, dripping. I changed from having this cock-sure attitude that I could do this – I was going to do this – to wondering how we were going to get out. I thought if we don’t move, we’re going to die.”
Pyndus makes a point to recall the details that shaped that day one decade ago and the rest of his life since. When the first plane hit tower one he remembered noticing from behind the safety of his own building’s windows, aside from the black smoke billowing out, paper, countless pieces swirling silently in the air, an explosion of copier and paper stock. Then there was the generic corporate art piece of some Revolutionary War scene hanging on the wall in the offices where he had worked for the past 14 years, including during the 1993 terrorist bombing. He said he even felt a bit guilty when he shattered the glass covering the picture after the impact from the second plane, this one blowing a hole 10 floors tall just above him, launched his body backwards into it.
He remembers the firefighters that passed him going up the stairs as he helped carry a woman down: the trailing one a young man with red-hair and bright red cheeks laboring to carry a chest, his gear, and himself up dozens and dozens of flights on the way to the top of the tower, maybe making it to a floor, maybe dying there with the rest of the crew on the hike up the stairs. He remembers following a trail of blood down 70 flights and emerging from the towers just minutes before the awful sound of twisting steel shrieked out from high above and the tower began to fall. He picked up a woman’s alligator-skinned wallet and her alligator-skinned handbag dropped in panic, he recalled, and ran and ran and ran.
The memories used to keep him up nights. Some of his coworkers, including his boss, quit their jobs or retired. Almost all of them entered some type of counseling; a couple of coworkers were even institutionalized, he said. Now 65, Pyndus said he’s never gotten counseling or therapy for what happened that day, or how he’s judged himself since.
“I had this guilty feeling, like I should have died,” he said. “I can count, there were four times I could have died, and I don’t know why I didn’t.”
Perhaps Pyndus will find the answer to that question, but perhaps he’s no longer looking for it. Detailing his story in a narrative was cathartic for him, and he said he’s sharing it now for anyone who wants to read it. On his way down Stairway B Pyndus encountered plenty of people. Most, if not all of them, died. There was no happiness among those faces – dread was all around – but there was determination. They’ve all got families, Pyndus said, and if his story reaches any one of them, he hopes it could bring them some solace.
And, perhaps it will bring him solace, too.
The following is John Pyndus' personal account of Sept. 11, 2001, unedited and in his own words:
In 1993 the stairway was dark. There was a cold smoke coming up stairway A and there were thousands of people walking down. The sound of the people was on the floor before getting into the stairs, and in the stairways. You put your right hand on the shoulder of the person in front and your left hand on the rail. Sometimes you said “step” as you came to a new set of stairs. We were 1000 feet up in the building with no elevators working, no fast way out and some type of fire below. I was scared. It took an hour and fifteen minutes to walk out. I learned a new kind of fear and I learned where 2 of the 3 fire exits were.
It is a beautiful September in New York in 2001. I buy my bagel and cream cheese with black coffee and walk into the building. Fast elevator up to the 44th floor sky lobby and walk to the smaller elevators to go from 44 to 74. “Hey Lindsay”. “Hey John”. “Have a good day”. “You too”. My former Financial Advisor and a friend, Lindsay rides to 73 and I stay on to 74. This is our highest floor in the building and the highest floor you can get to from this sky lobby.
Check the market. It looks like a few tech stocks were showing pre-opening up-ticks. Future markets were slightly up. We could use a good day. Check the emails. We spin emails and it is not unusual to get over 100 of these things a day. People are starting to come in now. Go through my compliance approvals. ‘Why didn’t we let this one go? Write a note on this’…
Irene yells “it’s going between the…(buildings?)” Roar…ba-boom. It takes one more time of hearing this sound to know I heard it this first time. There are papers in the air, thousands and thousands of papers in the air. A few of them are burning. All of these papers are just floating through the air. I go to the northeast conference room next door to look north at the other building. It has a massive hole going up several floors. Flames. Smoke…lots of smoke. How are those people up there going to get out? You can see them looking through the windows above the black hole just like I am looking out after the noise. Irene comes in from her office down the corridor on the north side of the building. “It was a plane, it hit the building”. “How do you know?” “I saw it”.
Go back to my office. Change from emails to the news and there it is. Building One with that black smoke coming out. I call Rita. She is at the cabin in Skaneateles. “Turn on the TV. It is the other building, I am fine”. The major networks do not have it on yet and the cabin does not have cable. It comes on and she can see it on the national networks. We talk for a second and I get another call. It is a branch. I answer the question. Another call, it is my daughter-in-law in the Red Bank branch. I hang up and go out of the office.
Linda N. and Lenny are moving their people off the floor. Good thinking. Linda W., Irene and their group are out and the Product Development offices are empty. Linda N. and Lenny swept the half of the Trade Center floor that we occupy. ICS was on the other side and Kathy and Michelle did the same thing over there. Marion says “can I go?” “Yea, get out”. The fire alarm starts going off. I call Rita again. We talk. I put her on hold to get the phones that are really starting to ring. Marion gets the first one. Merle is still here…he packed his bag with his sneakers laid out…all on his desk. What an organized person!
Another phone rings. This time at Linda W’s assistant’s desk. I pick it up. It is Linda’s father. He is 75 and wants to know where his daughter is. “She is out”. “She left and besides, it is the other tower that was hit and not us”. The fire alarm starts again and the flashing lights start going off. Linda’s dad gets concerned, “What’s that?” “They are just telling the rest of us to get out”. He wants me to be sure she is out. He’s very upset. I talk to him.
“Marion, if we are going to answer these things, we have to do it without sounding like we are in panic…relax…just talk to them”. She agreed and really settled down on the phones. Merle is now answering Elliott’s (my boss’) phones. I check Elliott’s office, he had some appointment today so he is out. (a follow up cancer check) Linda W’s phones ring again. It is Irene’s sister from Arizona. “Is she out?” “Are you sure?” “How do you know?” Keep talking. The announcement starts “Tower Two is secure. There is no emergency in tower two. There is no need to evacuate. The problem is contained to the other tower. If you want to leave the building you can. But there is no need to evacuate. You can return to your desk”. Then the ‘all clear’ sounds on the fire alarm. I hang up with Irene’s sister and walk back to Marion who is just hanging up on the phone. Merle is walking back from Elliott’s secretary’s desk.
The roar. The ba-boom. ‘What is a plane doing that close?’ I remember the sound and not the shake from the impact, which occurred just a few floors up. It was a two-fold noise. First, the impact. Second, the explosion. But who knows exactly what it was? ‘Is it something from the other tower?’ I do remember hitting the wall and hitting Marion’s cubicle which are 6-7 feet apart. Marion remembers grabbing her desk. But the sound is what I remember most.
“Let’s go…NOW!” I know I screamed the last word. Merle and I walk down the north corridor that runs from our east side to the west in order to turn left down the perpendicular hallway that head south to the other end of the building and all fire exits. “Marion, common!” “Where is she?” “Marion!” I go to the exit hallway and there is smoke and heat. Intense heat. Searing heat. I sink down to get under the heat and it is just as hot on the floor as standing. ‘Got to get through’. This was my path in and out for the last 13 years. It worked in 1993. Stairway A is only a few feet away. ‘It is this or nothing’. We can’t get through…we can only go back. But, back to what? The only way to live is to go out. There is no living if we turn back, but we do. It is a decision made out of fear from the immediate heat and death, but there is no comfort in the decision.
We go back. There’s Marion barely visible in her cube. Doing something. Merle suggests getting her. I respond with some uninspired comment that we might not have anywhere to take her if we did get her.
We walk south along the east side of the building over pictures on the floor and under the fallen ceiling parts and wires until we arrive at the central east/west corridor to head west towards the center part of the building. More smoke. More heat. Not quite as bad. Get low under the smoke. The ceiling is down and stuff is sharp on the ground. Ten feet into the hallway and the heat is too much. There is no air to breathe. Go back. The decision to retreat is easier this time. What is not easy was the knowledge that my attitude is not only going to take my life, but Merle’s and Marion’s too. I got them into this by not forcing them to go. My ‘do the job, nothing can hurt me’ attitude hurt others.
Retreat back from the hall and onto the floor. Look down to Marion’s cubicle. She is bending over doing something still. (She is changing her shoes.) No need to get her down here. We aren’t going anywhere. My thought is where will we go to die? In an office? On the floor? Can I get through to Rita? Do the phones work?
We walk south again past our Sales Desk. There is my niece’s desk. She made it out.
Go down the hallway across the south end of the building, then right into the other end of the north/south hall. We can get down the hallway to the fire escape door! We see the door and it is not in the smoke! To get there we pass the elevator lobby on the left. There is smoke and flame rolling in the lobby against the glass doors. Merle goes for the stairway C paneled door across from the lobby.
How could they do this to us? We tried. We started to give up, but we tried again. It is locked. Merle says something about “the fire floor may lock automatically. It might be for the sake of the people above us”. He starts working the four-button combination. I go past him to the wooden doors that connect the rest of the two crossing hallways. The left door is blown shut; the right is partially open. On the other side it is black. It is hot, silent, still, no air, and very smoky. The north/south and east/west hallways come together just after the doors. Straight ahead is the real intense heat (from others’ accounts on 73 and below, the floor ahead was probably missing.) I turn left to head west toward the ICS side of the 74th floor. There is stuff on the floor. I crawl along through the stuff to get under the smoke, but there is a lot of smoke sucking I am doing and not much air breathing. It is almost as hot as the two hallway entrances before, but there is an invitation to go forward. Maybe the light from the west side building windows is behind the smoke. Maybe I care less this time; I might be giving up. Until this moment, I never saw a third stairway, but I heard there is one. It could be down here.
There is a door on the right. Try it. It opens.
Only about a foot, but it opens. There is clean, fresh air coming out of the stairway. The lights are on in the stairway. There is even a clean wind blowing in from the stairway (that is feeding the fire on the floor).
“Merle…Marion…I got a door. Merle…Marion…can you hear me?” It was like a dream where you want to scream, but you can’t. I was spitting this stuff and choking on the smoke. “Merle…Marion… I am at stairway B” I read the sign four inches from my nose. Then I realize ‘how do they know where stairway B is?’ What an idiot I am! “Merle…Marion…come through ICS…it is by ICS…can you hear me? Let’s do this…I shout questions…you shout answers…do you hear me? Just then Rick from ICS comes out of nowhere and runs by me “Thanks!” “You’re welcome…are you guys out?” “Yea, we’re out!” And he was gone down the stairs. “Merle…Marion…” And there they are…coming through the smoke, bent over and coming down the same hallway I just came through. Merle is holding Marion’s hand as he did for the rest of the time in the building.
They go through the door onto the landing of stairway B. They stop. Not knowing what they were looking at, I say “keep going, get her down”. Merle points at something and Marion says “I am not leaving you”. “I am coming…just get down”. He leads her down and he keeps her moving the whole way down and out of the building. Merle saves Marion’s life that day and she will never forget that.
I go through the door and learn why it only opens 15”. A firewall had come down across the door and is blocking its opening path.
There are people under the wall.
I try to lift the wall, but I can’t move it. There is an aluminum cap across 4-5 panels that are each 3” thick, 10’-12’ long and 2’-3’ wide. I pull the cap off and I still can’t move even one panel. ‘God, this wall has got to go up’. And then, it does. The first one is hard. By the time I get to the third, it flips back with one hand. That was not me that lifted that wall.
There is a man and two women under the wall and two guys on the stairs above trying to lift it. One woman under the wall has a pretty bad head wound with blood everywhere. Her pupils are equal however, so the injury probably won’t stop her from walking down. The two guys above the wall start her down and we do not see them again; although we see the blood trail all the way. They make it. Another woman under the wall stands up and she has no shoes. She is very heavy and has real back problems. She is being propped up by a tall, well built black security guard who had been walking her down from 90 when the second explosion blew down the wall on 74. I follow them down a flight or two when I notice he has a megaphone hanging from his belt. “There are people up there…they can’t get through…there should be a lot of people on these stairs and there’s just us…if you take that megaphone up there you might be able to call to them and get them through…I can take her…or I can take the megaphone…” He looks at me for a second. He says nothing. He holds up the lady’s arm. I take it. He starts to walk upstairs. He doesn’t come down.
I caused that. He could have walked her down as well as I could have. It was my idea, why don’t I go back up? I will never forget him.
I hold the lady up under her arm. She pushes up on the railing. We walk slowly step…step…step…and then we rest. As slow as this is, we still catch up with Merle and Marion from time to time. At one point I look at Merle while they are resting. “That was it, you know”. “Yea…that was it”.
There is no one on the stairs. No one passes us. We hear no one above us. After the 60th floor we see the first fireman walking up. “Where did you guys come from?” “She came from 90 before the second explosion. We started at 74 together”. “What is the lowest fire floor?” “By now 74 is fully involved”. “How are the stairways?” “Stairway A has to be bad, we could not get to it. Stairway C was either locked or blocked by a wall. This stairway B was the only one we could use”. “Is 74 a re-entry floor?” “I don’t know”. He calls the information in to someone and he goes on, ax in hand, never to return. As he leaves he shouts, “if you see a building guard with a key, send him up”. I do not think of the building guy who was there already. I wonder if they ever met.
We walk a few flights and we stop. Sometimes she rests on the stairs. Sometimes I sit with her.
We meet Jesus. (pronounced “Hey-sus”) He is wearing a gold jacket, he is a building guard in another part of the building, and he has a nametag. I say to the lady, “look…it’s Jesus…who better to be here with you right now?” Hey-sus laughs, the lady laughs and they sit down on the steps. He has his arm around her. We hug Hey-sus. I tell him about the fireman who needs a key. He hesitates…maybe he’s not sure he has the right one. He continues up.
In all we see about 10 firemen on the stairs. Ten is my guess, we aren’t counting. We run into 4 NYPD Special Forces guys around 20. One gray haired guy, one red haired kid who is carrying the biggest pack. This kid is beat red and gasping for every bit of air he can get. All of the firemen have turn-out coats, helmets and boots. Most of the firemen have air packs on and they are walking up. It is a phenomenally exhausting effort for everyone going up. We see Merle and Marion for the last time on 15 or so before they went straight down without stopping any more. We see two guys in their 60’s just standing around 10. They had come from the 80s after the first explosion and are not walking any more at this point.
We get to the bottom of the stairs finally. The lady hugs the last fireman at the door and we walk into the large WTC II lobby. There stands a Battalion Chief with a radio. He is big. He looks like he is running the world. “Where did you come from?” “74” I say. Then he says something to the effect of “Oh you’re it”, or “You’re the ones”. I am not sure of the exact words or the context, but he may have been the one on the phone with the first fireman we saw around 60. He says “go to Victoria’s Secret and turn left”. We walk a while and I turn to the lady and ask, “where is Victoria’s Secret?” She stops, looks up at me and says “how do you think I know where Victoria’s Secret is?” (I guess you had to be there).
We walk around an empty shopping plaza under the Trade Center when a young fireman yells and asks us where we came from. We say “Tower Two”. “Tower Two?” “Yea Two”. Then he asks the lady if she wants triage. She stops, considers it and then says she just wants to get out of the building. He shows us the way to the escalator. We ride up. We go out the doors into the air. We are alive. We did it. We never thought…
CRACK…SNAP…emergency people looking up start to scream. Look up. The top our Tower is twisting to the south. Run. Don’t look up. Run. It is not over. It is never going to be over. It just keeps going. But, am I really running that hard anymore?
The thunder…the wind. Another lady in front of me drops her alligator checkbook from an alligator bag. I reach down to pick it up. Give it to her. Get her out of the way. She’ll be trampled. Look back. There is no one there. Just a cloud coming fast. They’re dead. All of those people are dead. The rest are dead.
The dust cloud got us, not the beams, cement pieces, or big glass bits…just dust.
So long Lindsay, Hey-sus, the fireman with questions, the Battalion Chief, the four NYPD guys, the two old guys, and the security guard I talked into going back. They are dead. I am alive. The line between where each of us has never been so faint.
At some point the lady and I say good-bye. I start to walk home. I have one prayer that recurs for hours…’tell Rita I am okay’. By the time I get past City Hall, I am surrounded by ‘suits’. These are the people from the downtown office buildings all walking to try to go home. I see a man leaning on a car. He is a black man, in a black robe with a skull cap on his head…he is Muslim. He is covered with the same stuff I have all over me, and I just catch his eyes as he caught mine. I walk closer and stand in front of him as the world walks behind us. “Are you okay?” “Yea, are you okay?” he responds. He stretches out his arms “blessings be to you”. We embrace. “Blessings be to you, too” I said as we look at each other and smile slightly.
Much walking. Watching WTC One fall with 10 meatpackers on Hudson St while we hug; we cry; and it drops at the end of Hudson St. A police officer named George offers me his lunch when I walk by NYU. He sends a Venezuelan girl named Carolina to get me to a phone to call my wife. Her cell doesn’t work. She takes me to two phone stores, but no one’s phones work. A black lady is preaching on a street corner. “Today, you saw Jesus!” “Yes, I did”. “You were saved!” “Yes, I was”. And the lady, Carolina and I stand there holding hands while she talks to a crowd.
Turn down an on-the-air interview with Fox News…it is not me they should be talking to. Finally there is a phone without a line around the block. A Verizon guy says “it’s working”. There is a rush for the phone, but they don’t have Carolina to block and push everyone else back. It’s around 2:00pm. Dial the cabin number. It rings. She answers. “I’m alive!!!” I scream. She screams. The 20 people in our Skaneateles cabin scream. Half of the people on 17th St. scream. And our marriage of 32 years continues. She got my prior message that I was okay. That is good, because as you may remember when this whole thing started…I had put her on hold.
Since then the guilt remains; the nights last forever; we all jump at loud noises; the truly important things are obvious; you can tell who went through it by their eyes, not their accounts; my account is only one of thousands; there are real heroes out there and I have met many who lived; there is no anger…at least not for many of us close in; and the miracles? The many, many miracles?