MONTVILLE, NJ – May 16 was a special day for Lazar Middle School students as it was “Living Lessons” day – the day they met and heard from several guest speakers who talked about the perilous and incredible situations they faced and overcame.
Manuel Chea, who is a 9/11 survivor, is one of them. Chea spoke to several sixth- and seventh-grade classes at the school about his ordeal escaping the building – and how he decided that the day’s events would change his life, and his career, forever.
“The badge became my recovery,” Chea told the students. Chea changed his career completely after the terrorist attacks, from information technology specialist to working in emergency management in New York City, working along with firefighters, police officers and others responding to emergencies and disasters that affect the city.
But Sept. 11, 2001 started just like any other day, working for a major bank on the 49th floor in the north tower.
“I came in at 8 a.m., before my co-workers, and got a call at 8:45 that there was a problem with the internet,” he recalled for the students. “Then the building began to shake and it felt like there was an earthquake. I heard a grinding sound, then a rumble, and the building was tilting. Then I heard a loud explosion above.”
Chea grabbed his bag, ran down the stairs, and kept going, which became slower as more people joined him in the stairwell.
“People hesitated when someone said they smelled smoke,” he said.
He tried to call his wife when he saw a phone while trying to find another staircase, but he couldn’t get through to her office line. He did manage to reach his father and told him he thought a bomb had exploded in the building. He then wet some paper towels to cover his face and kept going down stairs.
“A guy had a pager and the readout said, ‘We were hit by a plane,’ but we had no other clue what was going on,” Chea said. “Now we were walking single file down the stairs and the firefighters were coming up the stairs. They were handing out water and soda from vending machines they had smashed. I later met the widow of one of those firefighters. Someone asked a firefighter, ‘Which building is worse?’ and the firefighter told him the other tower. It was then that I realized we were clearly under attack – and it became much more urgent to get out.”
Chea said the firefighters encouraged the civilians to “keep going and you’ll be just fine.” They exited the building and were directed to walk in a certain direction. He realized that it was to avoid being hit by jumping people and debris from the buildings, and he made sure to look away since he didn’t want to watch a body hit the ground.
“When the south tower started to collapse, people started running,” he said. “I looked back and saw it collapse straight down and with a huge cloud of dust.”
Chea walked to Chinatown and found a payphone where he again reached his father’s home and told his sister, who had answered, that he was ok – but he still couldn’t get through to his wife.
“Now I saw my tower collapse,” he recalled. “The first thing I thought was, ‘All those first responders dead.’ All the people in the south tower were dead too, but now I was just standing there and I could think. And all I could think was, ‘They’re all dead.’”
Chea was able to reunite with his wife, who obviously was very relieved to see him alive after so long not being able to reach him.
Chea’s recovery from the ordeal stuck with him, as it did with everyone, but perhaps in a different light.
“The responders’ dying bothered me a lot,” he said. “How can you not feel something when you witness 3,000-something killed in three minutes and people still dying today from the dust? How can you not have a sense of guilt?”
Chea said he asked himself if he’d done enough, and it bothered him so much that eventually his job became meaningless. He was earning money but people had died. He hesitated to leave his job because he needed to fund his children’s college funds, but he wanted more from life.
“Then fate intervened – there was a bank merger and I got laid off,” he said.
He went back to school, got a Masters in public administration and emergency management. He now works for the New York City Emergency Management Department.
“My co-workers are paramedics, firefighters and police officers,” he said. “The same people who got me out of the tower – they’re my colleagues. I became a responder myself. I go into response mode – I responded during Hurricane Sandy, the plane landing on the Hudson. There, my first job was help passengers with blankets and hot chocolate and to reconnect them with their families.
“It feels good to help people now. I am no longer ‘tinkering with computers.’ 9/11 changed me and this was the result. It was one of the worst events in American history – but it was also one of the brightest.”
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