I was one of the lucky ones. After the first plane hit that Tuesday morning, I was out of the World Trade Center within a few minutes.
Covering a breakfast meeting at a conference of business economists, I was in the ballroom of the Marriott World Trade Center hotel. The morning’s keynote speaker was well into his remarks when the impact of the jetliner sent an explosive shock wave through the building.
With no idea what was happening, we stayed inside as debris rained down onto lower Manhattan. Then security guards herded us out toward the south, and we got our first view of the giant, flaming gash in the north tower, 100 stories above.
I remained in the area long enough to see both towers blazing against the crystal-blue sky, and then I watched in horror and disbelief as victims trapped by heat and smoke made the terrible choice of jumping to their deaths.
Then I began walking away, and I basically kept moving until I was home with my family in Seattle a week later.
Five years later, I am still processing that day and my reaction to it, learning new details and trying to understand how it affected me and those around me.
And all the while I have wrestled with my decision to leave New York on Sept. 12 rather than return to the Trade Center site or remain in the city to report on the aftermath. I have always come to the conclusion that I made the only possible decision for myself at that time.
Yet even to this day when I tell my story to other journalists, I feel at least a hint of disbelief that I turned my back on the story of a lifetime.
True, I filed what was probably the first eyewitness account of a survivor to be published on the Internet, posting it less than three hours after the initial attack. But then, unlike other reporters who elected to go toward the burning structures or made their way downtown after the towers collapsed, I essentially wandered through Greenwich Village for much of that day. I halfheartedly interviewed doctors at St. Vincent's hospital, waiting for injured victims who never arrived, but I really did not know what I could contribute to the coverage.
Thoughts of quitting a career
In fact there were times in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when I seriously wondered why I should continue even to pursue my career. What was the point of being a reporter, I thought to myself, when I just experienced an event of such historic proportions and was unable to comprehend what I had witnessed?
By the time an editor finally contacted me the following morning with a plan of action, I had made my mind up decisively: I was leaving Manhattan that day to head home to my wife, Liz, and our two young boys.
One friend of mine, a veteran correspondent, asked me later why my editors didn’t demand that I stay in New York to help out. I think they knew that by then, 24 hours later, no amount of arguing was going to persuade me to change my mind. I had set my priorities as a husband and father.
Sept. 11 was a test that forced me to choose what was important to me in my life. In a strange way, even though I was 41 at the time, I felt like I became an adult on that day, with new responsibilities and a newfound awe for how quickly life can be taken away.
When I accepted the assignment to reflect on those events five years later, I found myself thinking about a couple of people who had helped me get through that day. So I decided to retrace my steps by tracking down and interviewing some of the people who had played important roles, trying to find out how their thinking had evolved in five years, and how they felt 9/11 had changed them.
In the process of returning to New York and doing so I learned more about what had happened to me — there really is no end to the stories of that day — and I had inspiring reunions with a couple of men who had helped restore my faith in humanity in the face of inhuman evil.
The first person I looked up was John Roccosalva , a Greenwich Village resident who invited me and dozens of others of World Trade Center refugees to use the telephone in his apartment on a day when people were desperate to communicate with their loved ones.
A modest, almost self-effacing man who works as a florist and has lived in the same tiny apartment for most of the past 30 years, Roccosalva, 55, downplayed the assistance he provided, noting that others had done so much more to help. But his eyes welled with tears as he recalled one young woman who was able to reach her family and assure them she was alive. The girl’s mother was so grateful she insisted that Roccosalva get on the phone himself so she could thank him for bringing so much happiness and relief.
“It was a little gesture, but I guess in its own way it made a difference for some people,” Roccosalva said. “The city was made up of a lot of people who made a lot of small gestures, and they added up to a lot.”
Don’t let Roccosalva's modesty fool you: New Yorkers don’t just open their apartments to people on the street and let them use their phone. And they certainly are not in the habit of going out and recruiting people on the street to come inside their home. The scene inside the tiny apartment that day was truly moving.
Ari Schonbrun , another person I met on 9/11, remembered Roccosalva as an “absolute saint.”
“He was a messenger from God, and I firmly believe that,” said Schonbrun, 49, an executive at Cantor Fitzgerald, the brokerage based in the Trade Center that lost 658 employees that day.
Fleeting friend turns out to be a hero
It was strange to hear Schonbrun’s voice on the telephone after five years. I had met him briefly in Roccosalva’s apartment and knew he had been in the 78th floor elevator lobby of the north tower at the moment of impact. But I only later learned that he had been a true 9/11 hero, helping a horribly burned colleague down all those flights of stairs and into an ambulance.
Schonbrun agreed to meet me in one of the broker’s new Midtown offices, and he offered me an inspiring personal perspective, saying the events of that day had reinforced his religious faith as an Orthodox Jew, even if he admits he cannot understand God’s “master plan.”
Schonbrun also forced me to make a revision in the 9/11 story I have been telling for five years.
In my story, I met a man who escaped from the north tower and stood with me outside the World Financial Center watching the two towers burn. This survivor also had been in the tower when it was attacked in 1993 and told me in no uncertain terms he was never going back inside. When the first victims began jumping from the top floors, I turned to him and said, “I can’t watch this.” He agreed, and we parted company making our way from the scene.
Two hours later, I met the same man in line at a phone booth in Greenwich Village, where Roccosalva plucked us out of line and invited us into his apartment. In telling the story, I always have assumed that man was Schonbrun, whom I did meet in Roccosalva’s apartment. But I now realize there was a third man. Checking my scrawled notes from that day I did find another name, but I have been unable to confirm the identity.
For me, it was a humbling lesson in the fallibility of memory even on a day when so many details were burned unforgettably into my mind.
As I talked to the people about the events of those days, I was reminded how badly shaken I was by the events of 9/11, especially the next day, when the impact of my close call began to sink in. Both my brother Jeff and my friend Laurie Berkman reminded me that I told them I might never return to New York City after that experience.
A return to New York City
I am happy to say that I did return to New York in 2002 and have been back several times since. Everybody I talked to feels differently about the city now — we know it is a target and we feel the city is more closely connected to geopolitical events. But while I am still uncomfortable with the new air travel security procedures, I am glad I have regained the confidence that allows me to fly to New York and other cities, maintaining my family connections and friendships and forging ahead with my career.
To this day, whenever I tell the story of what I saw on 9/11 — whenever I really tell it to somebody who has never heard it before — I am transported back to that time and place when I witnessed something that even today seems almost incomprehensible.
But retracing my steps and talking to people about that day has been surprisingly cathartic and has done nothing to change my opinion that I did the right thing — for myself and my family —by heading home Sept. 12 instead of returning to the scene of the crime.
For my generation 9/11 will always be the marker date — the before-and-after, the where-were-you, the date when everything changed. For me it was also the day when I was presented with a very clear decision — and I chose my role as a husband and father over my role as reporter and editor. And I will never regret it.
Martin Wolk is MSNBC.com's business editor.