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A 9/11 survivor shares his story of escaping the Tower, along with the dust and debris storm

Posted at 7:42 AM, Sep 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-11 11:30:28-04

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Ground Zero has been rebuilt with a new tower, to replace the twins that were lost on September 11, 2001. It's been nearly 20 years since the attacks and stories of survival continue to rise from the ashes. For a Bakersfield businesswoman, her father was working in the North Tower on 9/11.

Dr. Alan Sokolow was an executive with Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield in 2001 and worked on the 19th floor. He had an early meeting that day and was just wrapping it up when he said he 'felt' something.

"A little bit like an earthquake, the building moved, something we never felt before," said Sokolow, "and right before that, we heard a jet engine, revving up like it was taking off."

He looked out the window and could see pieces of aluminum floating down, and thought clearly, it was something that was not good. He called his wife to tell her that he was coming home, and she turned on the television, telling him that the top of the building looked like it was burning. As one of the only executives on the floor at that hour, Sokolow said he told people to start moving towards the stairs.

"It was like a fire drill, people were walking with their coffee, showing little concern," said Sokolow, "then, you could smell fuel, like kerosene, the second indication that something was wrong."

The evacuation was slow, as firefighters began walking up the stairs, as workers tried to get down. By the time they reached the 12th or 13th floor, Sokolow said the fire crews were coming back down with burn victims. It was at this point he believes he heard the plane hit the South Tower.

When they arrived on the 5th floor, they were greeted by water flowing down the steps from sprinklers or fire suppression efforts above them. Sokolow said that's when people began to run down the stairs.

The workers were directed through a sub-basement that housed a shopping mall underneath the World Trade Center. They emerged on the opposite side of the plaza and Sokolow started heading for the Millennium Hotel, where a makeshift triage was being set up.

An ER doctor for 20 years, Sokolow began assisting the injured coming out of the buildings, including a man who was in an elevator lobby where one of the planes hit the building. He suffered blast injuries to his shoulders and chest, and Sokolow got him immediately into an ambulance headed for a trauma center.

A short time later he remembers staring up at the top of the South Tower, right before it came down.

"It looked like ice cream melting in a cone, dripping and wiggling," said Sokolow, "then it turned, tilted and started to drop."

He remembers the screeching sound and rush of air and started to run behind the hotel, taking cover between an ambulance and a wall.

"We were in total darkness and I was afraid I would suffocate," said Sokolow, "I thought I stayed too long and killed myself."

When the dust finally started to settle, he realized he could breathe and he started walking out of the area. He reached another hospital when the second tower came down and he was able to view the dust cloud from a distance.

Sokolow said he was headed to Grand Central to try and get a train back to Connecticut, but the lines were shut down.

"I was planning to walk the 30 miles if I had to, in order to reach my family," said Sokolow.

He jumped on a bus that was taking anyone out of the dust zone, then a driver in a pickup truck took him the rest of the way to the Terminal. He isn't sure how long it took to get back home, but it was late afternoon, early evening by the time he got home.

His secretary Gloria McCarthy was able to get hold of his wife, to tell her that he was OK, but Sokolow was having trouble getting cell service.

The man who suffered blast injuries that Sokolow helped out had asked him to call his wife. He finally managed to reach her, but she didn't believe him.

"She thought I was a scammer, and I told her that I put her husband in an ambulance and sent him to the hospital," said Sokolow, "he was not in the building when it collapsed."

Of the nearly 3,000 victims, ten worked on the same floor with Sokolow, including a security guard who stayed behind to make sure that everyone got out.

He has returned to Ground Zero to visit the memorial site, adding that his memories of that day will never go away. He hasn't suffered any health-related conditions from the dust and debris cloud but believes he will most likely have lung issues down the road.

He is still working, now residing in Vero Beach, Florida with his wife.