After escaping the burning north tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Leslie W. Kipp saw people jump out of the building, first one or two here and there, then a string of two or three dozen, one after another.
“What I recall is that they had no control,” Kipp says. “They were just flailing on the way down. I sensed the utter hopelessness of their situation, and a feeling of empty dread welled up inside me as I watched them fall.”
The scene was, he says, chilling. And there were days, early on, when he was shaken by the horror. Yet he isn’t traumatized. He has never viewed himself as a victim.
“The only thing I was,” Kipp says, “was an up front and close eyewitness to history who had enough sense to walk out of a burning building with several thousand other people.”
Sept. 11 made a deep impression on him in other ways.
Kipp was speaking on the phone in his office at Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, on the 31st floor, when hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the building. He and other workers fled. He reached the lobby of the north tower in about 45 minutes, where Port Authority of New York & New Jersey police supervised a dash between buildings. Outside, Kipp crashed into a woman who had frozen in her tracks, horrified by the human leg that laid in her path.
From the Merrill Lynch building in the World Financial Center across West Street, Kipp saw the jumpers, including a couple that held hands as they plunged. He watched a man waving a large white towel from a high window. He still sometimes wonders what that man, seeing others safe on the ground, must have thought.
But the strongest image of that day—even stronger than the sight and sound of the collapsing towers—was the determination on the faces of the firefighters as they entered the building. Dressed in weighty turnout gear, pulling heavy, long hoses with brass fittings, they took the stairs step by step, pacing themselves like distance runners or high-altitude mountain climbers.
“You could see them concentrating on getting to the top,” Kipp says. “It was a long, arduous trek. In fact, they never made it.”
It is their heroism and other acts of heroism—people caught in tragic circumstances helping others—that lives so strongly with Kipp these 10 years later.
A colleague, at risk to her own safety, walked another woman, paralyzed by fear, down the stairs. She explained how two men threw them over their shoulders and carried them away. As Kipp made his way uptown, he saw a line two blocks long of people waiting to donate blood at a hospital. He watched a lumber truck piled with firefighters drive blindly into a cloud of dust and smoke, unaware or unafraid of dangers they might face.
“What life experience did they have that made them go into that building?” Kipp says. “They must have known it was a hopeless errand they were on, yet they did it.”
In the end, official emergency responders did what they could in the hours it took to fully coordinate the response, Kipp says. It was “individual Americans, working on their instincts, who stepped into the breech. The best example may be the passengers on Flight 93.”
That resolve lives on in our everyday conduct, Kipp says. He sees it in Little League coaches, in women who bake cupcakes for the school fundraiser, in people who take CPR classes—in all the people who volunteer their time and talent to a worthy cause.
“This country has an incredibly, incredibly deep bench that we take for granted until there is a situation like 9/11,” he says. “But people help in 1,001 different ways.”