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Lawsuits likely after WTC attacks

By Phil Hirschkorn

NEW YORK -- Sharon Simmons thought the rumbling sounded like the window washing machine that often graced the windows of her 87th floor office in the south tower of the World Trade Center.

"It was pretty quick in terms of how it got louder and louder. Very soon thereafter there was a large loud explosion," Simmons recalled, sitting in her Brooklyn apartment that has a view of where the twin towers used to stand.

Immediately after the hijacked American Airlines jet crashed into WTC 1, the north tower, Simmons and about 100 colleagues in her office fled, proceeding to a fire stairwell. It was around 8:45 a.m. EDT.

"There was no stopping and thinking about what it could be. I knew it was bad," said Simmons, a business analyst.

When Simmons reached an elevator sky lobby on the 78th floor, she saw hundreds of people congregating, waiting for instructions. She kept going, thinking to herself, "If it's terrorism there's going to be another building, and it's going to be the second tower."

Down on the 73rd floor, Robert Hickey, a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley, the towers' largest tenant, had no idea what had happened when he saw fireballs outside his window.

"We were just trying to get away from a fire," Hickey says. "We just wanted at least to start heading downstairs." The firm had 3,500 employees spread out on more than 20 floors -- offices that soon emptied. "It was fairly calm. No one really knew what had happened," Hickey said.

From his office on the 47th floor, insurance underwriter Ray Bartels had a clear view of the flames next door. "I saw the entire sky filled with debris, bright shiny metal, paper. It was just incredible, my jaw just dropped," Bartels said.

After placing two quick phone calls -- to his wife and his mother -- Bartels became the next to last of 60 people to flee his office. "I think everybody felt this was not a safe place to be." Once in the fire stairwell, Bartels said, "We had never thought at any time that we were in jeopardy."

For some, fatal directions

For Simmons, Hickey and Bartels, there would be no turning back, in spite of an announcement over the public address system shortly after 9:00 a.m.

"They told us there was an accident in tower one, that the fire department was on its way, that our building was secure and safe, and that we could return to our offices shortly," Hickey said.

"They kept saying, 'Repeat, building two is secure, repeat, building two is secure,'" Simmons said. "A number of people did turn around."

"'Stay where you are. This is a secure area. Please remain in the building. Stay where you are,'" Bartels recalled the announcer saying. "We didn't slow down. We just ignored it, kept on moving." It was 9:06 a.m.

"The announcement stopped. There was silence. We got hit," Bartels said. The hijacked United Airlines jet had struck the south tower, WTC 2.

"There was a terrible smell, burning ... and something very unnatural, a cracking sound," Simmons said. Alarms were sounding and hallways filled with smoke. "We were all agitated. Somebody started praying behind me," she said.

"Most people either fell to the floor, dove to the floor, people were screaming," Hickey said. "I thought at the time the building was coming down, I really thought that was it for me," he said.

Around 9:30 a.m., all had made their down to the lobby and encountered emergency workers, who directed them through the underground shopping mall to the street. Around twenty minutes later, WTC 2 imploded, killing whomever remained in the building.

In hindsight, survivors believe their choice to evacuate WTC 2 immediately after WTC 1 was attacked -- less then 20 minutes before the second plane struck the second tower -- made all the difference.

Hickey said: "If you were trapped above the plane it seemed you didn't have a chance. If you were moving right away after the first attack, who knows?" Only six Morgan Stanley employees are missing from WTC 2.

"It's possible a lot of those folks thought, 'I'll just tidy up my desk, I'll leave in half an hour,'" Bartels said. "I don't think anybody could have thought a scenario like this could ever occur."

Procedure seemed 'right at the time'

Mike Cherkasky, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who investigated the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, agreed.

One reason people in tower two were asked to stay put was so emergency workers could get into the first burning tower more quickly, said Cherkasky, president of Kroll Inc., a private security firm that helped the complex revamp its security measures after the first terrorist incident.

"They had the necessity to evacuate that tower and to fight that fire, and to do that successfully you didn't want to have more people moving out of that area than necessary," Cherkasky said.

"If you tried to evacuate two towers at once it would have made it more congested and more difficult to take people out of the north tower," he said.

Staying inside tower two would also have protected people from falling, flaming debris. He does not second-guess the buildings' handling of the crisis.

"The other attack of the south tower was simply not foreseeable," Cherkasky said. "The assessment appeared to be right at the time."

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which ran the World Trade Center since it opened in 1974, won't comment on the evacuation.

The towers were leased for 99-years by developer Larry Silverstein in July. Through a spokesman, Silverstein would only say, "Existing Port Authority procedures regarding security protocols continued to be followed when Silverstein Properties assumed management of the World Trade Center."

Plan could spark litigation

Lawsuits over the September 11 terrorist attack are likely, legal experts and plaintiff attorneys agree. Claims stemming from the 1993 attack have yet to be settled.

Hundreds of individuals and companies allege that the Port Authority was negligent for failing to implement proper security measures despite recommendations, for example, to close underground parking garages to the public.

A rented Ryder truck loaded with explosives detonated in an underground garage on February 26, 1993, killing six people, injuring 1,000, and causing property damage that took months to repair.

"I am sure there are going to be lawsuits," said Blair Fenterstock, lead plaintiffs' attorney on the 1993 case, slated for trial next year.

He said some relatives of victims of last month's attacks have already contacted him. The instruction to people in WTC 2 to halt their evacuation should be part of the case.

"I think that announcement will be a highlight," Fenterstock said. "The defendants would say what you're doing is holding us responsible for some madman," said liability law expert Victor Schwartz. "You can't sue the terrorists."

Schwartz sees the argument plaintiffs would make, but he doesn't agree with it. "They would claim that it was wrong conduct, that they caused people to lose their lives because ... the guards didn't immediately tell people to evacuate the building [WTC 2]," he says.

It is a form of Monday morning quarterbacking, Schwartz said. "Well, you should have done this and you should have done that. I call that 'should have' law, and 'should have' law is not good law in my view."

Or good policy, some would argue, since the families who lost loved ones in the WTC attack are destined to receive generous compensation from the government and charities.

"For most people it didn't become terrorism until the second building was hit. That's when it was clear the first situation was no accident," Schwartz said.

But for survivors like Sharon Simmons, the first explosion and fire, no matter the cause, was enough to send them running from WTC 2.

"In my view, people that were actually on the same floor located right next to us who did not continue down with us, who turned around and went back up, or who hesitated, or who thought about it and looked out a window, who didn't make it out," Simmon said. "Those 18 to 20 minutes probably contributed to them losing their lives."

--CNN Correspondent Deborah Feyerick contributed to this report.


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