After the World Trade Center

Date of Publication: 2001-09-17
Language: English

In 1999, soon after moving to the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, my wife and I were befriended by Frank and Nicole De Martini, a couple whose lives were closely twinned with the towers of the World Trade Center. Both Frank and Nicole are architects. As Construction Manager of the World Trade Center, Frank’s offices were on the 88th floor of Tower 1. Nicole is an employee of the engineering firm that built the World Trade Center, Leslie E. Robertson Associates. Hired as a "surveillance engineer," she was a member of a team that conducted year-round structural integrity inspections of the twin towers. Her offices were on the 35th floor of Tower 2.

Frank is forty-nine, sturdily-built, with wavy salt-and-pepper hair and deeply-etched laugh lines around his eyes. His manner is expansively avuncular and nothing pleases him more than when the conversation turns to a subject on which he can offer his expert advice. For Frank, the twin towers were both a livelihood and a passion: he would speak of them with the absorbed fascination with which poets sometimes speak of Dante's canzones. Nicole is forty-two, blonde and blue-eyed, with a gaze that is at once brisk and friendly. She was born in Basel, Switzerland, and met Frank while studying design in New York. They have two children, Sabrina, 10, and Dominic, 8, who are unusually well-matched with mine, in age, gender and temperament: it was through our children that we first met.

Frank and Nicole's relationship with the World Trade Center was initiated by the basement bomb explosion of 1993. Shortly afterwards, Frank was hired to do bomb damage assessment. An assignment that he had thought would last only a few months, turned quickly into a consuming passion. "He fell in love with the buildings," Nicole told me. "For him they represented an incredible human feat; he was awed by their scale and magnitude, by the innovative design features, and by the efficiency of the use of materials. One of his most-repeated sayings about the towers is that they were built to take the impact of a light airplane."

On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Frank and Nicole dropped their children off at their school, in Brooklyn Heights, and then drove on to the World Trade Center. Traffic was light and they arrived unexpectedly early, so Nicole decided to go up to Frank's office for a quick cup of coffee. It was about a quarter past eight when they reached Frank's office. A half hour later Nicole pushed back her chair and stood up to go. She was on her way out the door, when the walls and the floor suddenly heaved under the shock of a massive impact. Franks' office commanded a panoramic southwards view, looking towards the Statue of Liberty and the harbour. Now, through the thick plates of glass, she saw a wave of flame bursting out overhead, like a torrent spewing from the floodgates of a dam. The blast was clearly centered on the floor directly above: she assumed that it was a bomb. Neither she nor Frank were unduly alarmed: very few people knew the building's strength and resilience better than they. They assumed that the worst was over and the structure had absorbed the impact: it was now a question of coping with the damage. Sure enough, within seconds of the initial tumult, a sense of calm descended on their floor. Frank herded Nicole and a group of some two dozen other people into a room that was relatively free of smoke. Then he went off to scout the escape routes and stairways. Minutes later he returned to announce that he had found a stairway that was intact: they could reach it fairly easily, by climbing over a pile of rubble.

The bank of rubble that barred the entrance to the fire escape was about knee-high. Just as she was about to clamber over, Nicole saw that Frank was hanging back. She stopped beside him and begged him to come with her, imploring him to think of the family. He shook his head and told her to go on, without him. There were people on their floor who'd been hurt by the blast, he said; he would follow her down as soon as he had helped the injured on their way. She could tell that she would have no success in swaying her husband; his belief in the building was absolute; he was not persuaded that the structure was seriously harmed - nor for that matter was she, but now she could only think of her children. She joined the people in the stairway while Frank stayed behind to direct the line.

Frank must have gone back to the Port Authority offices shortly afterwards for he made a call from his desk at about nine o' clock. He called his sister Nina on West 93rd street in Manhattan and said: 'Nicole and I are fine. Don't worry.'

Nicole remembers the descent as quiet and orderly. The evacuees went down in single file, leaving room for the firemen who were running in the opposite direction. All along the way, people helped each other, offering water and support to those who needed them. On every floor, there were people to direct the evacuees and there was never any sense of panic. In the lower reaches of the building there was even electricity. The descent took about half an hour, and on reaching the plaza Nicole began to walk in the direction of the Brooklyn Bridge. She was within a few hundred feet of the Bridge when the first tower collapsed. "It was like the onset of a nuclear winter," she recalls. "Suddenly everything went absolutely quiet and you were in the middle of a fog that was as blindingly bright as a snowstorm on a sunny day."

It was early evening by the time Nicole reached her home in Fort Greene. She had received calls from several people who had seen Frank on their way down the fire escape, but he had not been heard from directly. Their children stayed with us that night while Nicole sat up with Frank's sister Nina, waiting by the telephone. It was decided that the children would not be told anything until there was more news.

Next morning, Nicole decided that her children had to be told that there was no word of their father. Both she and Nina were calm and perfectly collected when they arrived at our door; although they had not slept all night, neither their faces nor their bearing betrayed the slightest sign of what they had lived through. Nicole's voice was grave but unwavering as she spoke to her children about what had happened the day before. I was awed by her courage: it seemed to me that this example of everyday heroism was itself a small victory - if such could be imagined - over the unspeakable horror the city had witnessed the day before.

The children listened with wide-eyed interest, but soon afterwards they went back to their interrupted games. A little later, my son came to me and whispered: "Guess what Dominic's doing?"
"What?" I said, steeling myself.
"He's learning to wiggle his ears."

This was, I realised, how my children - or any children, for that matter - would have responded: turning their attention elsewhere, during the age that would pass before the news began to gain purchase in their minds.

At about noon we took the children to Fort Greene Park. It was a bright, sunny day and the children were soon absorbed in riding their bicycles and scooters. In the meanwhile, my wife Deborah and I sat on a shaded bench and spoke with Nicole. "An hour passed between the blast and the fall of the building," she said. "Frank could easily have got out in that time. The only thing I can think of is that he stayed back to help with the evacuation. Nobody knew the building like he did and he must have thought he had to do it."

Nicole paused. "I think it was only because Frank saw me leave, that he decided that he could stay," she said. "He knew that I would be safe and the kids would be looked after. That was why he felt he could go back to help the others. He loved the towers and had complete faith in them. Whatever happens, I know that what he did was his own choice."