There are always plenty of unusual things to see in New York City, but even there a high-rise fire is a rare sight.
Andrew O’Hara was in a routine business meeting of his firm, Lizard Ltd., near the top of 30 Rockefeller Center when, suddenly, someone glanced out of the south-facing conference room window and said, “Oh, my gosh, look at the World Trade Center!”
From 30 Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan it was easy to see the World Trade Center at the southern tip of the island — and the thick, black smoke pouring from the center of the one of the two WTC towers.
With the meeting adjourned, O’Hara decided to buy a camera to document the unusual — even historic — event.
“I was standing in the lobby waiting for the elevator,” he recalled. “I heard a woman, standing by the window, start to scream. I looked over and saw the second explosion.”
He looked out the window toward the towers and saw black smoke rising and thousands of glittering metal and glass shards falling. It was the second plane hitting the south tower, World Trade Center 2.
He returned to his desk to find his boss telling everyone to leave immediately. A coworker in the lobby stopped him and asked about “the accident.”
“I didn’t know anything about al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden, but even then I said, ‘I don’t think anyone thinks this is an accident,” said O’Hara, now a member of Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in Overland Park.
As he exited the building, he could see the “TODAY” show being broadcast from outside, with all monitors focused on the World Trade Center. During his short walk home, he saw both shock and fear in people’s faces.
“I lived near a bridge, on Second Avenue near the [Queensboro] Bridge, from Manhattan to Queens,” said O’Hara. “The entire seven-lane street was filled with people walking up the street — no cars. That was very strange.”
Within a short time, all the tunnels, subways, bridges and ferries were closed. At one point, in an attempt to get some sense of what was going on, O’Hara strapped on his roller blades and skated as far downtown as he could get. There he encountered a line two miles long of people trying to get to New Jersey, and an even longer line of emergency vehicles waiting to be deployed downtown.
“There were rumors, and people evacuated on their own, because they didn’t know what to believe,” said O’Hara. “They didn’t want to take the risk of sticking around.”
Mercifully, he didn’t know anyone who died in the attacks — or even anyone who lost a loved one. But he eventually moved back to home to Kansas, partly to be closer to his family.
“I think, subconsciously, I decided that it was not worth living a life without family around,” he said. “I needed time to enjoy and be with them.”
He’ll never forget those days in New York, but with each passing year, the anniversary of 9/11 becomes less difficult.
“I would say, in the long term, I have an improved appreciation for my life, and the feeling of truly being blessed,” said O’Hara. “Every [anniversary] I get very emotional.
“I view it now as a time to set aside and to pray and be thankful for all that I have, that God has given me.”