A Shaken City's Towering Inferno

What the hell was that?" Up on the 37th floor of the World Trade Center, the shout rattled the office of Joseph Gibney, 28, a federal attorney. Gibney was talking on the phone, finishing off a slice of pizza. He heard a tremendous roar, and the phone went dead. When he looked up, everything in his office was in motion, as though someone were shaking a TV camera to fake an earthquake. Far below in the basement, Joseph Cacciatore, 24, a refrigeration mechanic, had just glanced up at the clock on the cafeteria wall. It was 12:15 p.m. Cacciatore didn't even hear the explosion, which was so powerful it blew out his contact lenses and shattered an eye socket. The next thing he knew it was pitch dark, his face was covered with blood and people in the blackness all around him were screaming, "God help us!"

This was no drill. The explosion killed four Port Authority workers: a locksmith, an engineer, an operations superintendant and a secretary who was pregnant. A dental-equipment salesman hauled from the shattered parking garage died of a heart attack. Elsewhere in the World Trade Center, a complex as populous as many American cities, more than 50,000 people were thrown into chaos. Lights flickered, then went dark. Elevators stuck between floors. As greasy wisps of smoke filtered upward, people waited for instructions but got none. There was no emergency sound system, no backup lights to illuminate the stairwells. "We were on our own," said Jose Rivera, a vice president for Dean Witter Discover. The miracle was that so few people were killed. Tim Kelly, a New York firefighter found himself staring at a scene out of Dante. "When you looked into the crater," he said, "It looked like a giant barbecue pit with coals burning."

A few minutes after the explosion, Kevin Shea, 33, pulled up with the New York Fire Department's Rescue Company No. 1. As he was inching his way across the parking garage, the concrete beneath him gave way, and he fell four floors into the crater left by the bomb. He landed on a pile of office room dividers, breaking his left knee and right foot, losing his helmet and face mask. "Rocks and cinders were falling everywhere," he recalled. "I thought, 'This is it.' I prayed to God to take me quick."

Descending from the 107th floor, Anna Marie Tesoriero, a teacher, had to shoulder the burden of saving other people's children in a crisis that spun wildly beyond her control. She had just ushered 17 kindergartners from PS 95 in Brooklyn into an elevator. It was crowded, and they started calling off the floors together as they descended. Then the colored lights over the door flickered and went out. They were stuck in the dark between the 36th and 35th floors. She smelled smoke. "We told them not to worry, but the little ones really missed the light," she said. They sang the theme song from "Barney & Friends." She took out a rosary that glowed in the dark and led everyone in Hail Marys. She knew how terrified the parents of the children had to be. What she didn't know was whether anyone knew where the elevator was stuck.

New York pluck, born of blackouts and subway fires, came to the rescue. Amid all the fear and confusion, the strongest looked after the most vulnerable. Untrained, mostly undirected, they suppressed panic, keeping the casualty toll far lower than it might otherwise have been. When the lights went out, Geralyn Hearne, 28, an accountant a week short of seven months pregnant, was eating lunch on the 43rd floor. Smoke seeped in and she began to feel sick.

Then she had a seizure. Donna Anderson, 27, a friend, squeezed her hand, thinking, "If we didn't get her out of there, she could die." Four firefighters piled in and started to carry Hearne down in a chair. On the 34th floor, the sour smoke billowed in from everywhere. Hearne and Anderson heard people trapped in the elevators screaming. Three floors up on 37, Gibney, a disabled attorney, was sitting in his wheelchair. Two colleagues named Jack and Andy draped him over their shoulders and headed down the stairwell. The smoke thickened. Gibney could feel Jack sweating, but Andy's strength gave out first. A young Asian took over for him, shouting over and over, "We're going to make it. We're going to make it."

If the disaster had struck in a city less self-possessed than New York, hundreds might have been trampled to death. As it was, all save five pulled through. By the glow of the fire in the crater, Lt. Joe Ward, 56, of Ladder Co. 6, found Shea, and other firefighters hoisted him gently to safety. Cacciatore found a water valve and sprayed himself to fend off the heat; firemen found him an hour and a half later. Emergency medical service workers put Hearne on a gurney, carried her down 34 floors and took her to St. Vincent's Hospital. Doctors performed a Caesarean section and delivered a two-month premature baby girl; both were in intensive care but recovering steadily.

After five hours in the elevator, teacher Tesoriero and her young charges heard a noise. Firefighters were chopping a hole in the side of the elevator. A light appeared. "It was like Rescue 100," she said. When the elevator finally reached the ground floor and the doors opened up, one very worried school-bus driver was there to take them safely home to Brooklyn.