Jerry Holcomb has always been uneasy about commuting into Manhattan, but he never dreamed events would unfold the way they did Sept. 11.
The networking product manager at Total Computer Systems, a Melville, N.Y.-based solution provider, took his usual 7 a.m. train and walked through the warm morning air to 75 Wall Street, where he is helping Chase Manhattan and J.P. Morgan integrate systems following the companies' merger.
About 8:40 a.m., Holcomb was walking to get coffee on Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan when he first noticed the top of the north tower in flames and debris raining from the sky. He picked up one piece near his feet--a page from a directory to the World Trade Center. Uneasy, he went back inside and called his family to find out what had happened. They told him that a plane had crashed into the 110-story tower. He told his wife he was OK, but to keep him updated via cell phone on developments. He went back outside just in time to see a second airliner smash into the south tower.
"I was about six blocks away, but you could feel the wind and the heat. It was coming right at you. It was so intense and so hot," Holcomb said from his home Wednesday. "It was the most frightening thing I've ever seen in my life. The sound was like watching fireworks from a distance, or like lightning and thunder. There was the force of the blast and then seconds later you hear a tremendous explosion. Glass was raining down. People were covered in soot. I've never seen concrete turn to dust like that."
A sea of people started running toward Holcomb. They were covered with blood and dust, crying and screaming.
"No one could really fathom what happened," he said.
Holcomb ran back into 75 Wall Street, up to the 12th floor where he was working. The dust cloud was so thick that no one could see out of the windows, he said. Minutes later, the building's fire wardens told people to descend to the fourth floor, where they would be safer.
"At that time, I felt it was a good time to get out of Manhattan," Holcomb said.
He left the building and ran toward the Brooklyn Bridge along with hundreds of others. He noticed one woman who could not keep up with the crowd.
"She had glass in her back and neck, small pieces in her legs," he said.
Holcomb helped remove the shards and assisted the woman to safety. He was on the bridge's ramp when the towers collapsed.
"The dust cloud was overwhelming. Everyone double-timed it to get over the bridge. The cloud was two car-lengths behind us. It was the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life," he said. "I still can't fathom the enormity of it. If I had left two minutes later, I would have been consumed by that cloud."
He helped the woman to the Brooklyn side of the bridge, where EMTs escorted her away for treatment. Holcomb did not see her again.
Once in Brooklyn, Holcomb found his way to a railroad station and caught a midafternoon train back to Long Island. He took the rest of last week off to recover from the ordeal.
"The biggest impact that this is going to make hasn't sunk in yet. I have so many colleagues and people I ride with on the train. I won't know what happened to them maybe for weeks," he said.
He will return to Manhattan, he says, perhaps this week. But his commute, his life, will never be the same.
"Whoever did this gave us a black eye and a good kick in the groin. It's very disheartening. Now we have to live in fear. Americans don't want to have to live in that fear. I remember a conversation I had with my parents about the state of the world. We said in 60 years America will be just like the Middle East. It wasn't 60 years. It was six days."