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9/11 Stories: Getting Out Alive

Fort Lee’s Fire Chief makes it safely out of Tower 1

On Sept. 11, 2001, Mike Degidio worked on the 64th floor of Tower 1 as a Supervisor of Technology Projects in the Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals Department for the Port Authority.

“On cloudy days, as I drove from the turnpike to the Path station, I’d joke that if I couldn’t see the Twin Towers through the clouds, then I didn’t have to go to work," Degidio said.

DeGidio was born in the section of Fort Lee known as “The Hollow;” that low-lying area at the bottom of Catherine Street, centered between John Street and Anderson Avenue. A graduate of Madonna School, Bergen Catholic Class of ’82, and Stevens Institute of Technology, DeGidio was not only an employee of the Port Authority, but the chief of the Fort Lee Fire Department on 9/11. 

Every morning, DeGidio and three of his colleagues would have breakfast together in the cafeteria on the 43rd floor. On 9/11, two were running late, so DeGidio and his co-worker got their coffee and sat at a table near a window. 

"We were sitting there talking when the building started to lean--actually bend--and I had to grab my coffee cup before it slid off the table," he said. "I looked out the window and  saw flaming papers and burning debris flying by."

Those in the cafeteria who had been present for the ’93 bombing were sure that it was a bomb.  

Some people didn’t know whether to return to their desks or leave. DeGidio grabbed his friend and headed to the stairwell. Everyone in the stairwell was calm and allowing people from the lower floors to cut in front of them so they could all get out safely. 

“Everything was calm until this one guy starts yelling, ‘Let’s go, let’s go!’ and started pushing people out of his way," Degidio said. "Someone told him to calm down before he started a stampede and got people killed.”

Somewhere in the teens they stopped moving because smoke was starting to enter the stairwell. 

“We got off on the 18th floor and went into an empty office to look out a window," Degidio said. "We saw nothing but fire trucks and emergency services vehicles on the streets. I momentarily considered taking the elevator, but went back to the stairwell instead.”

As they neared the 11th floor a police officer was running up. In response to everyone’s question, he told them, “A plane just hit the building.”

“Two thoughts entered my mind when I heard this," Degidio said. "One: when he said a plane hit the building, it made sense because I used to see Cesnna’s flying around the building all the time; and two: if it was a bomb, would he really tell us in the stairwell and risk causing panic?”

Reaching the bottom, they were escorted onto the Plaza and ushered by police to West Street. 

“We were completely unaware that a second plane had hit Tower 2," he said. "I learned about it from my pager’s newsfeed."

It’s at this point that DeGidio hesitates.  

“You know they call the FDNY the bravest, but I was standing right in front of those guys where they were staging on West Street, he said. "I was looking at their faces as they stared up at the fire that was raging on the upper floors of the Tower 1. They had a look of absolute fear. I’ve gone into burning buildings, but nothing like this. These guys knew that they had to go into that building. That was their job and they accepted it. But you could see on every single one of their faces that they knew they might not come back out."

DeGidio looks down and reflects upon that moment before adding, “We were all staring up at Tower 1. We were all looking up at the people standing at the open windows waving for help.”

He continues, “I heard it before I saw it. The sound of a thousand shot guns. I thought it was a piece of siding. And then I realized. I saw. It was the sound of people falling and hitting concrete. I will never get that sound out of my head. Again and again and again I heard it. If jumping was the better alternative, what kind of hell was up there?”

When an FDNY fire chief redirected his men to avoid anyone from getting hit by a falling body, DeGidio knew he had to get out of that spot and made his way further west where there was a police barrier. 

As soon as DeGidio reached the police barrier he heard a tremendous rumbling; like a speeding freight train. 

“Suddenly a massive tidal wave of dust and smoke came rushing towards all of us," he said. "I turned and ran as fast as I could expecting to be knocked to my knees. Then there was nothing but darkness, but I kept running  thinking that I’d just run right into the Hudson River so I wouldn’t be killed by whatever this was. But it got me. I couldn’t breath. Debris was pelting me and filling my eyes, my nose, my mouth, my lungs. I was choking, grasping for any bit of air I could get, but all I got was more debris.”

DeGidio kept telling himself to keep moving because as long as he could move he knew he was alive. 

The darkness lifted and through the stinging grit in his eyes he started walking the West Side Highway in an effort to make his way to the George Washington Bridge and get home to Fort Lee. 

“I still didn’t know that the tower had fallen,” he said. “Then I began to hear that rumbling again. I looked over my shoulder and that’s when I saw the second tower just crumble and disappear. I couldn’t believe that in a matter of seconds, this massive structure was gone.” 

Panic set in.

“Out of nowhere this Ford Bronco comes driving towards me," Degidio said. "I jumped on its hood and told the driver through the windshield that I had $50 that was his if he could get me to the George Washington Bridge.”

“He got me there,” DeGidio remarked. “And he took my $50.”  

Despite the fact that the bridge was closed, DeGidio was able to get a ride from a Port Authority police captain he saw who knew him.  

Upon reaching Port Authority headquarters DeGidio learned the severity of what he had just escaped from. And he learned that if he hadn’t moved from his position on West Street, he would have been buried under tons of twisted steel and rubble.

“After talking to people at the Bridge Plaza facility it occurred to me for the first time that not many people could have gotten out from my office," he said. "I kept staring at the flip chart with the names of every employee known to be in the towers. 16 people I worked with died that day. For weeks I did little but go to funerals. I still can’t stop thinking about the children I know who lost a parent. That haunts me most.” 

Reflecting upon the last 10 years DeGidio says, “Ten years later I still have survivor guilt. If the planes had hit 15 minutes later, I would have been back at my desk with the rest of my group. Ten years later, nothing much has changed. I still feel the same pain of all that I saw and all that was lost on 9/11 every single day.”

Anna September 08, 2011 at 07:32 PM
This is a moving story. Thank you for sharing it.

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