McHENRY – Eight minutes after Joe Dittmar fled the south World Trade Center Tower Sept. 11, 2001, the building collapsed.
He had started the morning on the 105th floor in an insurance meeting with 53 other people. Only he and six others survived.
In honor of the eight-year anniversary of the attacks, Dittmar, a former Aurora resident, donned a flag-patterned tie along with a 9/11 Remember pin and told his story to Centegra Health System employees Friday afternoon.
The conference room for the event was similar to the windowless room he’d started 9/11 in on the 105th floor, the highest occupied floor in the tower that morning.
“It’s a little scary being in this room today,” he said.
When the first plane hit the north tower, the only indication Dittmar had that something happened was a flicker of the lights.
“We didn’t hear anything, we didn’t see anything. We didn’t sense anything,” he said. “Fifty-four intelligent human beings ... all reacted the same way - ‘It’s New York City. Stuff always happens in New York.’”
A short time later a volunteer fire marshal convinced everyone to leave. They eventually evacuated the room – something Dittmar knows for sure because he was the last one out.
They then started trying to make calls on their cell phones, but quickly realized it was a futile effort. The cell tower for all of southern Manhattan was on the north tower.
While heading down the stairs he realized that everybody was stopping on the 90th floor to look out the window.
“I followed everybody out,” he said. “That was the worst 30 to 40 seconds of my life because that was the first chance we had to look out the windows.”
Outside, he saw gray and black plumes of smoke and huge gaping holes in the side of the north building.
“It was a crystal clear day. I thought ‘How could that pilot have missed [seeing] the building?’” Dittmar said. “It was an unbelievably gruesome ... sight.”
Many others stood frozen watching the other building, but Dittmar decided to head toward the stairwell.
“I couldn’t watch,” he said. “I just wanted to go home. I didn’t want to be there.”
One man, Lud Picarro, said he'd follow Dittmar out, but first he wanted to use the bathroom.
“That simple decision cost Lud his life that day,” Dittmar said.
At that point, an announcement came over the loudspeakers telling everyone that the south tower was safe and suggesting that they all return to their work stations.
“Outside it [was] raining concrete, steel and bodies.... It was the logical thing to do,” Dittmar said. “Who would have ever thought that in 18 minutes the exact same thing would happen?’”
He ignored the advice and headed toward the ground floor. On the way, he saw his friend Mary Weiman, a successful insurance industry woman who’d convinced Dittmar to come to the morning’s meeting in the first place.
She was waiting for the elevator on the 78th floor, but he opted instead for the stairs.
“That was arguably the best decision I’ve made in what is still my life,” Dittmar said.
He was three to four stories down when the second plane hit his building. It came at an angle, striking the 78th through 82nd floors.
Dittmar later learned that just the friction created between the plane and the building would have resulted in a 2,000-degree Fahrenheit heat – killing Weiman and others instantly.
“They literally did not know what hit them,” Dittmar said. “It was a blessing because there was no pain.”
Although he wasn’t in the direct path of the plane, his stairwell shook violently.
“This concrete fire stairwell rocked back and forth,” he said. “You would think that there would be this massive pandemonium, but there was nothing in that stairwell but silence.”
Dittmar and others walked down flight after flight, passing abandoned shoes, laptops, backpacks and food.
“It was stuff that people needed to ditch,” Dittmar said.
The group of people on the stairs continued down and were doing fine until they reached the 35th floor. That’s when they ran into the police, firefighters and paramedics on their way up.
“They knew,” Dittmar said while tearing up. “Just the looks in their eyes told all of us that they knew. They were going to fight a fire they couldn’t beat ... to save lives they couldn’t save. They knew that they were not coming back.”
Further down, Dittmar passed a maintenance man with a Nextel phone. Suddenly the group heard a man’s voice come over the phone’s walkie-talkie saying that he was on the 82nd floor and couldn’t get out.
The maintenance man started running back upstairs. When Dittmar asked what he thought he might be able to do, the man didn’t hesitate.
“He said ‘I gotta go up and save my friend,’” Dittmar said. “That nameless maintenance man is a true American hero.”
When they reached the 18th floor they started to hear a man standing on the 15th floor singing God Bless America with “a voice only a mother could love on payday,” Dittmar said. “And he didn’t even know all the words.”
But it was enough to keep people moving out of the building, he added, comparing it to the musicians who played while the Titanic sunk.
While following others through a shopping mall area in search of the next stairwell, he saw a Starbucks. It was open, and people were in line.
“It’s an incredible thing to see people who aren’t thinking in a time of crisis,” Dittmar said.
By the time he got to the exit, bulldozers already were working to clear debris from in front of the building.
He was eight blocks away when the south tower collapsed.
“[There was] the bloodcurdling sound of the same scream ... at the same exact time,” Dittmar said.
While evacuating, he’d managed to find a friend, David Duffy, and the two eventually decided to take the subway to Duffy’s house.
When they reached Penn station, Dittmar realized that Amtrak was running, so he decided to take a train to his parents' house in Philadelphia.
When he attempted to hand the Amtrak woman his ticket, she refused.
“She said ‘What? Are you … kidding me?’” Dittmar said. “We aren’t collecting tickets today.”
When his mom spotted him coming toward the house, she gave him a huge hug, while repeating, 'My baby. My baby.'
“That’s exactly what I needed at that point,” Dittmar said. “I needed my mother’s love.”
The next morning he called his office to check in and found out that they’d thought he was dead.
He decided to take his rental car and drive back to his family in Illinois. A trip that normally takes 14 hours, he did in 11 1/2.
When he got into town, Dittmar met his wife, Betty, at a special Mass being held in honor of 9/11. When he walked in the back door of the church, she jumped over the pew and ran toward him.
“I knew at that moment that I was home,” he said.
Dittmar now lives in Maryland and makes a point of visiting ground zero when in New York City.
“It’s like going to church for me,” he said.
Lesley Addison, who works at Centegra Health Bridge Fitness Center, said she found Dittmar very moving and inspirational.
“I haven’t heard something as detailed as this,” she said.
The experienced changed Dittmar's perspective on life and he strives to pass on things he’s learned to others.
“I witnessed incredible acts of bravery,” he said. “I learned there are no guarantees. Don’t take anything for granted and don’t put off expressing your love.”
He added that he just wants to continue telling people what happened that day.
“I’m not some great orator,” he said. “This is the story. ... I believe it’s my obligation to tell the story ... so that those who were lost that day can be heard.”