Earl Johnson was on the 51st floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower when the first plane hit.
Johnson said everyone knew instantly something was wrong. The people on his floor rushed into the stairwell and began running down the stairs. People on other floors had the same idea. A couple of flights down, Johnson encountered a jam of people all trying to get out of the building.
“We probably ran eight or nine flights until we came to the back end of a line,” Johnson said. “We didn’t make much progress. In that point of time, we really discovered where we were.”
Then the second plane hit. Although the two towers were not connected, Johnson said he could feel the shockwave of the crash from the south tower.
Contrary to what many people believe, Johnson and the rest of the people in the stairwell were not screaming or pushing each other. Johnson said once the second plane hit, he and complete strangers held the hands of those around them.
“There was no panic in the stairwell I was in,” Johnson said. “We took care of each other.”
Johnson shared his story at a ceremony Monday at South King Fire and Rescue Station 64 to remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The ceremony was held not only to remember the 2,996 people who were killed in the terrorist attack, but also to honor the 343 firefighters who died trying to save people in the towers.
As the herd slowly moved down the stairs in Johnson’s building, the air quality started to deteriorate. Johnson said many people covered their faces with clothing. Then someone opened a door on one of the landings, and they could smell and feel the fresh air of that office.
Many people, including Johnson, started rushing into that room. Johnson said he got around 10 feet inside before his knees buckled, and he was pushed over by the herd of people. When Johnson stood up, he made eye contact with one of his friends. He knew they had to continue going down the stairs.
“I have absolutely no problem telling you that was God’s hand in Earl Johnson’s life that day,” Johnson said “I have no other explanation for [going back into the stairwell].”
After squeezing back into the stairwell, Johnson went to catch up with the rest of the group that was attempting to exit the building. He and a friend strangely heard laughter. When he looked down the stairwell, he saw people smiling and cheering. He thought he was going crazy until his friend confirmed he also heard laughing.
Then they saw what everyone was happy about: A New York firefighter was running up the stairs, telling everyone they were going to be safe and that more firefighters were coming to help.
After slowly going down all the stairs, Johnson said he was finally able to escape the north tower.
Once Johnson got outside the World Trade Center, he got to see for the first time what viewers all over the world had been watching for over 50 minutes.
“Your brain could not accept what your eyes were telling you,” Johnson said.
Johnson soon saw the buildings collapse. He avoided the smoke storm by only two blocks. He was able to contact his family and let them know he was safe.
“We came here today, A) To never forget, and B) show as part of our community the support of the men and women who are going to be there for you at 2 a.m. when we need them,” Johnson said.
Monday’s ceremony was held next to the 9/11 memorial at Station 64. In 2011, two South King Fire and Rescue firefighters crisscrossed the country to retrieve a steel beam from the World Trade Center. The memorial also honors the civilians and first responders who died in the attacks.
“These emergency workers were the ones running up the stairs when everyone else was running down,” South King Fire Chaplain Julie Westfall said.