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Interview

When ash fell like snow: 20 years on, a fire warden’s 9/11 memories still haunt

Volunteer fire warden Alan Fromm rushed into 5 World Trade Center to evacuate his office building; after the South Tower collapsed, he was found unconscious under an ambulance

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

  • People run from the collapse of World Trade Center towers in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 after terrorists crashed two hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and brought down the twin 110-story towers. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett)
    People run from the collapse of World Trade Center towers in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 after terrorists crashed two hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and brought down the twin 110-story towers. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett)
  • Alan Fromm (Courtesy)
    Alan Fromm (Courtesy)
  • Police officers help rinse a man's eyes after the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, in New York City. (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)
    Police officers help rinse a man's eyes after the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, in New York City. (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)
  • The layout of the original World Trade Center complex (via Wikimedia Commons/NOAA/Public domain)
    The layout of the original World Trade Center complex (via Wikimedia Commons/NOAA/Public domain)
  • Rubble-buried cars and a destroyed building in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.(AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)
    Rubble-buried cars and a destroyed building in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.(AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)

Alan Fromm, 66, of Plainview, Long Island, may be the luckiest unlucky man in New York.

At 15 years old, he was struck by lightning in summer camp. He survived a serious heart ailment in his early 20s and a more recent bout of West Nile disease that his doctors said would have killed an older man. In 1993, Fromm was several weeks into a new job at the World Trade Center when it was bombed in a terror attack. Months later, he was traveling on the Long Island Rail Road when gunman Colin Ferguson opened fire on random passengers, killing six people.

“People say they either want to stay near me, or they want to stay far away from me,” Fromm told The Times of Israel this week. “Looking back on it, it’s like, oh my gosh, if I were a cat, I’d have one life left.”

Still, nothing prepared him for September 11, 2001, when the volunteer fire warden of one of the buildings in the World Trade Center complex found himself fleeing a black, grey and orange cloud of “debris, pulverized cement, and bits and pieces of whatever it consumed and picked up in its path.” What Fromm was seeing was the World Trade Center’s South Tower, 56 minutes after being hit by an airliner, during the deadliest terror attack in American history. Debris raining down, his face and clothing caked in ash, he crawled under an ambulance and used his trusty Land’s End briefcase to shield his face from the rapidly piling up rubble.

“I was going to die. Right there on Church Street, a block-and-a-half from my office, miles from home, and with no one to hold my hand, I was going to die. Someone would step over my body as I had done over someone else’s less than an hour before. But I was not ready to go yet,” Fromm wrote days later. (This article is pieced together from Fromm’s detailed written account from September 13, 2001 shared with The Times of Israel, and an interview this week).

He thought about his son and his upcoming bar mitzvah. They had been studying the Torah portion together. “The last thing I remember thinking is that I didn’t want to miss his bar mitzvah. I didn’t want to miss learning with him. I wasn’t ready.”

Then everything went dark.

People flee the falling South Tower of the World Trade Center on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

A pair of glasses, a paperback, a plane engine

Just over an hour earlier, Fromm emerged from the subway station to see smoke and crowds billowing away from the World Trade Center. Undeterred, he continued toward 5 World Trade Center, where he worked as the vice president of training for Credit Suisse. The area had already been cordoned off, but Fromm, who previously worked for the transit authority and retained an official badge, was able to slip through.

“I ducked under the yellow ‘do not cross’ tape and I ended up at the Tobin Plaza, which is right at the trade center,” he said. “When I got to the plaza, I stood there and looked up and the first plane had already hit the first tower.”

A group of firefighters standing in the plaza remarked that a small aircraft had struck the building. But Fromm, who pilots planes recreationally, intuited that a small plane could not cause such a conflagration. They were standing there together, gazing up at the burning North Tower, at 9:03 a.m., when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south face of the South Tower.

Smoke billows from one of the towers of the World Trade Center as flames and debris explode from the second tower, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Chao Soi Cheong)

“We all stood transfixed for a moment or two, helpless witnesses to the horror unfolding before us. Above us.”

Then he sprang into action. Fromm was the volunteer fire warden in the nine-story building in the complex where his offices were located, across the plaza from the north and south towers. The firefighters were unable to ascertain whether the building had already been evacuated, so he convinced them to join him in ensuring no one was left behind.

A firefighter moves through piles of debris at the site of the World Trade Center in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Graham Morrison)

“Making our way to the entrance, I saw a boarding pass and a copy of Business Week. I walked carefully over a pair of glasses; the lenses were still intact, and I took care not to step on them. A paperback book that would never be finished. A sneaker. An airliner’s tire. A shoe with a foot still in it, and a briefcase still being gripped by the hand of its owner. But the owner was not attached. The man’s watch was still on his wrist.”

As they approached the building, the more horrific moments of the attack were unfolding above their heads.

“Sickening debris was still falling into the Plaza from both impacts, and one of the firemen cautioned us to watch for it. But along with bits of the plane, the papers, the files, the expense reports, the magazines, and the photographs, human bodies were raining down around us. Looking up, we saw men and women falling, plummeting, spinning to the pavement below. Some had possibly fallen or had been blown or sucked out by the gusts of wind. Others had probably jumped, like the three people we saw careening down, their arms interlocked, their screams suddenly coming to a stop, replaced by the sickening sound of their lives coming to an abrupt end as they impacted the ground.”

The layout of the original World Trade Center complex (via Wikimedia Commons/NOAA/Public domain)

At that time, building 5 was still relatively intact, recalled Fromm. Accompanied by the firefighters, he stepped over shattered glass to enter the building, shouting for people who may have remained inside. The building, however, was empty, having been evacuated a short while earlier. They made it to the eighth floor and passed his office. But Fromm didn’t stop to take any personal items, still believing in that moment, he said, that he would be back at work the next day. They continued to the ninth floor, where a cafeteria was located. There were no workers there, either.

Instead, they found one of the engines from the plane that hit the South Tower. The second plane.

Had it fallen from the first plane, remarked Fromm, it would likely have struck the busy cafeteria at breakfast.

“You stand there and you look at it and it’s like, oh my God,” he said.

Alan Fromm (Courtesy)

They moved to the World Trade Center’s underground mall, past a deserted Duane Reade, Gap, a flower cart, a sandwich kiosk. After establishing there was nothing more he could do, they parted ways.

“My little group stood for another moment or two, and I thanked them for their help. We shook hands, wished each other luck and parted. I went to the right, out the doors to Vesey Street. They went to the left, back into the mall. I was never to see them again.”

Just ‘pure blue sky’

Fromm stepped out of the World Trade Center and began to speak to a policewoman. “I don’t remember the name that was on her shirt. But I will never forget her face.” It was 30 seconds after he left the World Trade Center when the rumbling began, according to his account.

“And then we saw it. A massive grey and black and orange cloud heading north on Church Street. Heading right for us. We turned, grabbed onto each others’ arm, and ran. But we could not outrun the cloud,” he wrote.

Rubble-buried cars and a destroyed building in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.(AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)

“Debris, pulverized cement, and bits and pieces of whatever it consumed and picked up in its path washed over us, and the force of the blast knocked us both down. We lost contact, and I could not breathe. I could not open my eyes. I pulled my shirttail out of my pants, pulled it over my mouth, and tried to breathe, but it was like trying to inhale with someone sitting on your chest.”

He climbed under the ambulance and wedged his briefcase over his head and lost consciousness.

Police officers help rinse a man’s eyes after the fall of the twin towers on September 11, 2001, in New York City. (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)

When he awoke some three hours later, he was in the passenger seat of another ambulance, after being retrieved from the rubble. He did not have any injuries, or “any idea” that the towers had collapsed until he saw it hours later on the news.

“They put me in the front of the ambulance. It was facing where the World Trade Center was. The windows were all covered with soot and debris. As the windshield wipers were going, I looked out and it was like pure blue sky. Something didn’t look right. And that’s where the buildings had been standing.”

‘Death and destruction’

Over the protests of the medics, he left them behind and ventured into the streets.

“The ash was almost an inch high. Not unlike the kind of a snowstorm that covers the streets and the cars and the buildings in a blanket of white. But this was more like a shroud of grey. There was nothing peaceful about this. It reeked of death and destruction.

Pedestrians flee the area of New York’s World Trade Center in lower Manhattan on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

“I looked back at the site, almost afraid to –– fearing that I might turn into a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife –– but I did. What had taken six years to build toppled to the ground in less than six seconds. Gone.”

In his home, Fromm’s wife, Susan, and children, Brian and Julie, waited for signs of life. Fromm’s cellphone, like most of the phone service in Lower Manhattan, was down. He sat down on the curb.

“My eyes were burning. Not so much from the ash and dirt. But from the tears that I realized were falling from them as I cried and shook as I stood there. And then, an arm came around my shoulder. It belonged to a black woman with a green FBI jacket on. She hugged me, and together we cried and shook and sobbed without saying a word to each other. We separated. She went south, toward the destruction. I wiped my eyes with the towel, draped it over my shoulder, and headed north toward safety.

Pedestrians in lower Manhattan watch smoke billow from New York’s World Trade Center on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

“And then I saw her again: The policewoman from the ESU that I ran with. Across the avenue we noticed each other, and ran towards each other like a pair of long-lost friends. She looked as bad as I did, but it didn’t matter. She was still a beautiful sight. We hugged for a few moments, and we parted.”

On the corner of West 10th and Greenwich Street, another stranger, Gerri, offered her nearby apartment to wash up and use the phone. Fromm stood in the doorway, declining to enter to avoid making a mess. The phones were still down. They parted as friends.

People cover their faces as they escape the collapse of New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett)

Gradually, he made his way up to his Midtown office, stopped at the dry cleaners and then home, arriving there around 7:30 p.m., some 14 hours after he left for just another day at the office.

“I pulled up into the driveway, locked my car, and walked the path to my front door. I didn’t even get the key in the door, when it opened. There was Brian, standing there looking at me. I stared back at him, and our eyes started pooling with tears. He looked at his watch, looked back at me, and said simply, ‘Well, it’s about time you got home.'”

Alan Fromm and his family, 2001 (Courtesy)

‘I could close my eyes and see everything’

Twenty years later, Fromm said the emotional scars from that day have mostly healed, save the occasional flashback or dream, or memories brought on by a glimpse of the Lower Manhattan skyline from a plane. He never found out what happened to the firefighters he pulled into the World Trade Center building, or the policewoman with whom he ran. Every 9/11, which he tries to keep low key, he makes contact with Gerri.

He still has his Land’s End briefcase, which he credits with saving his life, in his attic (the company sent him a new one when he shared his story). His colleagues survived, and despite his close exposure, Fromm suffered no long-term health effects. The Torah reading with his son, now an ER doctor, at his bar mitzvah was a triumph, he said proudly.

Fire and smoke billows from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/David Karp)

Several days after the attacks, Fromm returned to the site of 5 World Trade Center, which suffered major damage after the towers fell, though it did not collapse. He spotted his desk hanging off the side of the building. Months later, he returned to Ground Zero with his children and found the spot where he had landed. An escalator and stairway remained and little else. Today, he has no desire to return to the site.

“I lived through it. I don’t have to see the remnants. I could close my eyes and see everything. I could close my eyes and smell the smells that were down there,” he said.

Thousands of Americans gather at Ground Zero in New York City to mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center (photo credit: Rachael Cerrotti/Flash90)

Ahead of the 20th anniversary, he said: “The families deserve a lot more recognition. I think there were a lot of heroes of the day, certainly I’m not counting myself in that group, but there are a lot of people that just kind of faded out. There were a lot more people that participated in one way or another in helping people, getting people out of the building.”

Given the chance, would he do things differently? Would he again run into the building after both planes had hit the adjacent towers — or turn back into the subway, away from the carnage?

“Yeah, in a minute I would do it again,” said Fromm, who again volunteered to be the fire warden at his current job. “Although, like I said, if I’m a cat, I only have one life left so I’d have to be extra careful. But I would do it again. Don’t tell my wife I said that.”

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