In September 2001, Ken and Claire Burd were young and in love and worked right across the Hudson River from each other, he at the World Trade Center and her in New Jersey. Dan and Camille Speca were living in Queens. They had two children. Today, both couples live in East Greenwich, but their memories of their experiences on Sept. 11, 2001, offer a picture of the fear and chaos of that day.
On that day, Ken was at work at Oppenheimer Investments when the first plane hit the North Tower (1 WTC).
“We heard it. We heard something and our building shook a little bit and the lights went on and off,” said Ken. But his view of the other building was blocked and after a minute or two, people went back to work.
Claire, in her office, saw the first plane hit the tower and immediately tried to reach Ken. He didn’t pick up and he didn’t pick up.
Dan Speca was on his way work when the first plane hit. By the time he reached Manhattan and came out of the subway at Union Square, “everybody’s just staring in this one direction, where the Towers are,” he recalled. “Everybody’s just looking at the Towers.”
In the North Tower, Ken’s boss decided to evacuate his people, having been through the truck bombing of 1993 there. Evacuation meant climbing down 33 sets of stairs, so to sweeten the deal - there was no sense of urgency, Ken recalled - his boss told them he’d buy them all coffee when they got downstairs.
They were nearly down - “the fifth floor, I think” - when a voice over the intercom said that everything was all right and that people could return to their offices. Ken and his group, however, decided they’d made it that far and continued down.
It was from the mezzanine that Ken and his group began to grasp the terrible enormity of what had happened.
“We saw the hole in the other building and basically plane parts, debris, building parts, dead bodies, just everything all over” the outside plaza. “We went into shock,” he said. “I don’t know how long we actually stood there. It feels like it was forever but that’s when people were jumping out of the building and what not.”
They realized they needed to get out of the building.
Claire, meanwhile, was glued to her window. She didn’t need T.V. The drama was unfolding before her eyes.
“I actually saw the second plane coming down the Hudson,” she said. She imagined - “in my naive mind” - it was some sort of glitch in air traffic control that was sending planes toward the city.
“I was just sort of paralyzed as the second plane was hitting his building.”
Dan and his group had gotten to street level and were making their way to an exit when the second plane hit.
“It sounded like bombs going off,” he said. The exit ahead of them was on the same side as the plane hitting and it was immediately blocked off by debris.
“At that point, everybody panicked.”
They were able to exit the building on the other side and, said Ken, “we walked up about, ran up about two blocks to Broadway to get away from the building.”
He reached his mother by phone - he couldn’t reach Claire’s office - and asked her to call Claire, “because I knew she was seeing this whole thing happen.”
The two women were on the phone when the North Tower fell. Ken’s mother had just told Claire that she’d talked to Ken and he was safe. And the Tower collapsed.
“‘We need to know where he is, because his building just fell down,’” Claire recalled telling Ken’s mom.
A mile away, at Union Square, Dan Speca and his colleagues are watching the drama from behind huge fifth-floor windows in their office.
“We had a completely unobstructed view,” Speca said. After the first Tower fell, “then it became a big, ‘uh oh.’”
When the second Tower fell, he said, “at that point, everybody made the decision to get out of Dodge. Your survival instinct kind of takes over.”
The Specas’ son was in school on the Upper East Side. Dan decided to head uptown to get him, telling Camille the two of them would then somehow get home, where she and their 2-month-old daughter were. The subway was shut down by then. With a couple of friends, he started walking uptown. It quickly became surreal.
“You see a guy with camouflage standing outside of an armory with a tank on Park Avenue South and you’re like, ‘I didn’t even know this existed, all ready to go.’” Tanks in New York City - “that kind of stuff was just really strange.”
Ken Burd was heading uptown too, like so many Wall Street area workers that day who were refugees from a nightmare.
When the Tower fell - his tower - “it felt like an earthquake and the building started to come down," Ken said. He realized he needed to get to New Jersey, to reach Claire.
Every block he would find another phone (“they had pay phones then”) and call Claire, but the lines were down. Ken ended up getting the last train allowed to cross over to New Jersey. While in transit, the conductor had a heart attack. There was a backup conductor, but as Ken said, "that just added that much more kind of surreal ..."
In Manhattan, Dan reached his son's school and ended up collecting two other students from Queens that he said he could take. They continued north, through East Harlem to the Triborough Bridge.
"There were Blackhawk choppers flying overhead - we're talking low. It was like a Bruce Willis movie," he said.
By midafternoon, Claire was still making her way home.
"As we were approaching the Madison station, I got Ken's call," she said. "It was just the biggest sense of relief.
"He was my future."
Dan and his son didn't get home until dark. The baby was, of course, blissfully unaware, but Dan recalled thinking, "What have we done, bringing a baby into this world?"
Today, the two families live with blocks of each other in downtown East Greenwich. The Specas' son graduated from college last May. Their daughter, Sophie, goes to Eldredge. They moved here about two years after 9/11.
The Burds have a 7-year-old son who attend Frenchtown. But the scars of that day remain for Ken and Claire both. They keep a scrapbook filled with news accounts and personal items from Sept. 11. It's over - 9/11 - but it's not.