The moment Roy Bell hit the elevator button on the 78th floor of One World Trade Center to go to the 102nd floor, the first plane hit. Little did he know he was about to cheat death several times in the next 90 hair-raising minutes.
Sheets of fire shooting out of the elevator shaft enveloped him and a woman waiting for the elevator doors to open. Suddenly, the elevator dropped two feet and jammed.
Had he punched the elevator button just seconds earlier, the elevator would have carried him and the woman up to an almost certain death.
"I would have been incinerated. No one got out above the 82nd floor where the plane hit. Ive never seen fire like that," said the senior account executive for Alliance Consulting, whose New York office on the 102nd floor could only be reached be changing elevators in the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor. The Philadelphia-based companys New York office was usually occupied by about 15 people, while its 100 consultants fanned out daily to client sites around the city.
Another irony is that Bell and his boss, who remains unaccounted for, had originally planned to go to the office at 8 a.m., but because they had taken clients to a ballgame at Yankee Stadium the night before (it was called on account of rain at 9 p.m.), they decided on 8:45 a.m.
The torrent of fire raining down on him was just the beginning of his harrowing escape, one that thousands can also tell and, sadly, one that many thousands who went through it cannot.
Bell, 46 years old and from Jersey City, where once he could see the World Trade Center out his apartment window, doesnt recall leaving the elevator lobby. All he remembers is ending up in an office on the 78th floor at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned and ran the 16-acre World Trade Center complex of seven buildings.
"Im running through this fire shooting through the elevator to an office where there was no more fire. A woman was freaking out and crying because I looked like a ghost with my hair and clothes burning. People came over to me and patted me down and whacked me to put out the flames. The skin was falling off my hands," he said. "My right hand got it good."
A fire marshal in the office promised to get Bell out as he called his wife, leaving a message that he was OK and that he loved her.
After 3 or 4 minutes, the woman he had been waiting for the elevator with came into the office severely burned. A man whom he only knew as "Avi" promised to carry the injured woman out of the building. The perilous trek down 78 flights of stairs began about 10 minutes after he left the fiery elevator.
"Avi was just a brave man," Bell said. "So it was me, her and him helping her. It was 9:02. When we hit the 50th floor, nothing was moving because it became single file, with the firemen, who must have lost their lives, coming up."
The firemen took one look at Bells burns and the injured woman and ordered everyone in the line to make way for them. They were on the move again.
"We went into the fast lane past hundreds of people. I hope they got out. I think they got out," Bell said after a long pause. "There was a lot panic. People were shrieking, wailing and screaming."
When they arrived at the lower level at 9:30, Bell and the injured woman were taken to the worst possible place given what would happen 35 minutes later - the buildings basement two floors below ground.
"They said they had stretchers and wheelchairs down there, but I just wanted to get the hell out of the building," he said. "I ran into a building engineer, who told me there was only one safe exit out and that the building wasnt stable."
It didnt take long for Bell to decide to run out of the basement. Once outside he was pulled into an ambulance (Bell believes he was one of the first of the injured to emerge from building). The injured woman was taken out by EMTs; Bell presumes she survived.
He was taken four blocks away to an outdoor staging area, where the ambulance driver was ordered to return to the World Trade Center to rejoin his triage team. Bell jumped out.
"I told him, Dont go to the building. Its not stable. He told me thats where the injured are." Bell said. "His chances were not good."
It was 10 a.m., 5 minutes before 106 floors of the 110-story south tower would topple to the ground and 28 minutes before the one housing Bells office would do the same. As he watched the first one fall, he sprinted north.
"I had a four-block lead on the dust cloud. Then it was two blocks. Then it was a block and half. But I outran it. It never caught me," Bell said with some pride.
He stopped at Canal Street, where he was picked up by another ambulance and taken to St. Vincents Hospital. He said he was the first of the injured in the World Trade Center disaster to be released from that hospital.
Doctors told Bell itll be two weeks before his burns on his hands and face will heal.
"We fear the worst," said Senior Vice President John Wollman of the Alliance employees still unaccounted for. "We feel sick." He declined to name those missing to protect their families.
Colleague Fran Rabuck, who works in Alliances headquarters, still views Bells amazing story with disbelief. "I cant wait to see him and give him a hug," he said.