ENGLEWOOD — Trapped in the stairwell minutes after an explosion rocked the World Trade Center, Shannon Mesenburg made it out alive on Feb. 26, 1993.
Little did she know eight years later, her former co-workers would die in the Sept. 11, 2001 bombing that destroyed both towers.
At the time, Mesenburg worked on the 91st floor in the North Tower for IBJI, a bond trading firm.
“I almost didn’t accept the position as I’m very afraid of heights,” said Mesenburg, who lives in South Gulf Cove. “The WTC was built so it could sway 6 feet in either direction to keep (the towers) from falling down in heavy winds.”
Mesenburg was only on the job three weeks when the building was bombed.
“Nothing could prepare us for what happened at 12:17 p.m.,” she said, adding a van with 1,200 pounds of explosives detonated in the WTC underground parking garage.
The terrorist attack killed six people including a pregnant woman. More than 1,000 people were injured, including 88 firefighters and 35 police officers. About 50,000 people evacuated from the WTC complex.
That morning, Mesenburg was late getting to the bank because her friend was on the phone.
“All of a sudden it felt like someone picked up the building and dropped it,” she said. “I tried to call my dad to tell him how much I hated working in that building. He wasn’t in his office.”
Then Mesenburg saw on TV there was an explosion at the World Trade Center.
“We ran to the windows and saw smoke pouring out of the bottom of our building, fire engines and ambulances from all boroughs were heading towards us,” she said. “Even though the bomb went off in the parking garage below our tower, the fire was so great that smoke was shooting through elevator shafts and stairwells making it very difficult to see.”
Mesenburg ran to tell her co-workers to get out. Her friend grabbed wet paper towels for their mouth and nose.
“I realized had we gotten onto the elevator, we would’ve been trapped with no ability to try get out,” she said. “I found out later, that in the event of an emergency, elevators are supposed to go straight down to the ground floor. The WTC elevators just stopped in their place. There was a group of school children, I believe a 7th grade class, going to the top floor to “Windows of the World” to lookout over the city. The bomb hit while they were in one of the elevators. They were not able to get out until late that night. Those poor kids must have been so awfully scared.”
Standing at the top of the wrap-around stairs, Mesenburg froze.
“My fear of heights and falling kicked in and I could barely move my feet. I thought I was going to fall,” she said. “Cantor Fitzgerald was on one of the floors above us. They were trying to keep our spirits up by making jokes. It worked. I found if I just stared straight ahead and not look down at my feet, I was okay.”
When they reached the 82nd floor, they opened the door and thick-sooty smoke poured in. People were screaming. The group continued to take the stairs.
“You could barely see 3 feet in front of you,” she said. “We all got extremely quiet. Around the 70th floor, we stopped. We found out later that there was a fire burning outside of our stairwell door on the first floor, so no one could get out.”
Smoke continued to burn their eyes and throats. A Cantor Fitzgerald employee had a can of seltzer in his pocket. He doused everyone’s paper towels to get them moist again. As they inched along, some became claustrophobic and left the stairs. More smoke was sucked in each time the door opened. After two hours, they nearly reached the 41st floor when everything went completely dark. Fire burned around the back-up generator.
“People got really scared. I felt so trapped,” she said. “I worried about my family not knowing where I was or even if I was alive. The same Cantor Fitzgerald employee who had the seltzer water pulled out a flashlight. I asked if he was a Boy Scout. Who carries this stuff?
“At the 10th floor, we saw the first of many of our heroes, — the firemen,” she said. “One stood on each landing with a huge light so we could see, while others with oxygen tanks, pick axes started the climb in their heavy gear to the top to look for people trapped. They just smiled at us.
“They are amazing men and women who were going up into a dark, smoke-filled building with only one thought in mind, to help people,” she said.
Once outside in the snow, there were television camera crews, ambulances, large crowds and chaos. Fires were still burning and debris was falling. Mesenburg and her co-worker were overwhelmed. Still trapped in the building, victims were throwing furniture through windows to get air.
“Big shards of glass were falling down around us,” she said.
Mesenburg and her friend rushed past the mob of people to find a bathroom.
“We both blew our noses and laughed at all of the black soot that came out,” she said. “We looked like skunks with black around our nose and mouth. We found payphones and called our families. That’s when I finally broke down and cried. I sat on the floor behind the phone booth and talked to my dad. Hearing his voice let me know everything was going to be okay.”
The subways and trains were down. It took hours before Mesenburg made it home. Two days later, her body hurt from all of the stress. Shortly after, she and others received a “welcome back” WTC mug and a $75 gift certificate for their troubles on the day of the bombing. Mesenburg didn’t speak about that day again. She later moved to Ohio.
“I didn’t talk about it until the Oklahoma City bombing (April 19, 1995),” she said. “I heard a woman on the radio talking about her brother being in the building. She feared he might be dead. My heart went out to her, so I called the radio station. I told my story and asked to please let that woman know she need not be scared. His thoughts are with her and he does not want her to worry.”
Once at work, a co-worker asked Mesenburg why she didn’t tell anyone about the horror of being trapped in the World Trade Center.
“I had no real answer other than I didn’t even know how to describe it, nor did I want to relive it,” she said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the bad memories rushed back as Mesenburg watched terrorists kill dozens of her former co-workers and friends.
“The first plane hit my building, right at my floor. All of my co-workers that were still working there died instantly,” she said. “I slid to the floor and just sat there for hours, watching the horror unfold in front of me. The horror that was my worst nightmare came true. I lost many friends that day, from both buildings. I stopped counting after 70. The only comfort I have is knowing that most of my friends died instantly and did not have to make the unthinkable choice of burning to death or jumping.
“I thought of my dear friends at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor who weren’t so lucky,” she said. “Those sweet funny men that kept our spirits and hopes alive in 1993 did not get a second chance to get out. They were sealed in by the plane hitting the floors below. To this day my heart breaks, no one was there to give them the same comfort and get them out alive. I had two of my three sisters who work for the government near the Pentagon. I was worried about them too that day. It will always be with me.”