The following article was published in The Rafu Shimpo in October 2001.
Robert Ideishi still wakes up in the middle of the night. Images of his escape from the 55th floor of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 are etched in his mind.
Ideishi, 46, cost accounting manager for Kingston Technologies, was in New York to attend an international trade seminar at the World Trade Center. It was his fifth business trip to New York in nine months.
The trips had become relatively routine. However, shortly after arriving at the WTC, Ideishi felt the huge building surge and sway. He didn’t know it then but a jetliner had crashed into the WTC North Tower – an act that would have worldwide repercussions and perhaps change America forever.
Ideishi says what will remain with him are the courage of the firefighters and police officers and the compassion of the many kind strangers who offered help throughout his odyssey.
Here is Ideishi’s detailed account of the entire experience:
Sept. 11, 6:45 a.m. The alarm went off, but I couldn’t get out of bed. I had stayed up until 2:30 watching television in my hotel room and was really tired.
This was my first time staying at the Helmsley Windsor. I always stayed at the Lucerne. The travel agent had done this before, trying to get me closer to the World Trade Center. I just felt comfortable staying at the Lucerne, knew the subway system from there, the restaurants in close proximity. I almost called at the last minute to change my reservation. This would play a factor later as the Windsor is on 58th Street and 6th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan and the Lucerne is on 79th Street and Amsterdam on the Upper West Side.
I ended up getting out of bed at around 7:10 a.m., took a shower, got dressed and was out the door by 7:50, which put me behind schedule by about 20 minutes. I always allowed 20 minutes to take the subway down to the WTC. The seminars were always scheduled to start at 8:30, but I liked to get there by 8:00 in order to eat from the complimentary continental breakfast. I had to walk a few blocks to catch the subway, contributing to an even longer “commute” to the WTC. It was a beautiful day, so clear and sunny that I thought about going up to the observation deck on top of Tower #2 at lunchtime.
I arrived at around 8:20 a.m. and walked up to the mall area on the first floor. I checked in at the lobby, got my access card for WTC 1 and made my way to the elevator area that was designated for floors 44 through 77. I took the express elevator to the 44th floor, got off and then got into the elevator that would take me to the World Trade Institute on the 55th floor. I checked in at the table in the main hallway and started towards Room 11. As I turned the corner, I saw the breakfast layout. Once inside the classroom, I sat in the back row in the seat farthest from the door.
The instructor always started by having everyone introduce him- or herself, their company, and the type of products they were involved in. We went around the room, and then the instructor introduced himself, Bill Hayes of Hayes International in San Diego.
Mr. Hayes went through the first few introductory slides of his presentation when suddenly we heard this extremely loud “boom.” It sounded like a gigantic sonic boom was right on top of us. Then the building started to shake…violently!! I don’t know how long the shaking lasted but it seemed like it was at least five seconds. Knowing I was the only other person from California, Mr. Hayes looked at me and said, “Feels like a big earthquake, doesn’t it?” I didn’t know what it was but I said, “yeah” anyway. Then the building started to sway…A LOT! It seemed to sway once to our left and then once, WAY to the right. When it swayed right it felt, for an instant, that there was a possibility that the building could tip over.
Everyone was frozen! After the swaying stopped, those of us in the back row could look out of the open door to our room and see debris raining down the side of the building. You could smell the smoke. The woman next to me yelled, “We’ve got to get out of here, NOW!” I remember thinking, “That was no earthquake, that was a bomb!” I grabbed my portfolio case and ran out of the room following the rest of the people.
We ran out into the main hallway when we heard a voice yelling, “In here, get in the stairwell and move!” It was a building maintenance or security man, holding the door open while waving his free arm, windmill style, encouraging everyone to get off the floor. I got into the stairwell, where there was a line of people in front of me but we ran down the first flight of stairs pretty fast, double file. After we had gone down one or two floors we came to a dead stop on either floor 54 or 53. “Why aren’t we moving?” more than one person yelled down the stairs, but to no avail. Some women were sobbing and you could sense a few people starting to panic.
Surprisingly, most of the people seemed pretty calm, or maybe like me, they were too scared to yell or panic! I figured if there was a bomb up above our floor, there had to be more bombs, probably in the middle of the building and at the bottom, probably timed to go off at intervals. Stuck in the stairwell 50+ floors up, I could only assume that the next blast would end it for us. I didn’t think we had any chance to get out alive.
A man about a half-flight of stairs above me started telling tales of the last bomb blast that hit the World Trade Center back in 1993. He started recalling for everyone how many people died and how many floors were affected, etc. More women started to sob and moan. “Keep your stories to yourself!” a woman in a blue pantsuit said forcefully, with an even tone. “This is not the time for storytelling. You’re just upsetting everybody.” I appreciated what she said. The storytelling man shut up, and I looked behind me and just shook my head.
The woman who had spoken up looked right at me and winked. I actually chuckled and smiled, and we made eye contact. It was like she was telling me, “It’s all right. Stay cool. Stay calm.” She was holding her arm around a heavyset woman in an orange print dress who was crying. I thought to myself, “Man, this lady is cool!” Well, if she could be cool, so could I! And for the rest of the journey down that stairwell we would make eye contact every so often and exchange a smile, even if it was forced at times.
My being calm didn’t change the facts. I was really scared. I still felt we had no chance to get out of there before the next bomb exploded. I had resigned myself to fate since there wasn’t much I could do about it other than staying calm, trying to keep others around me calm, and follow the example of the cool, brave lady in the blue pantsuit.
We started to slowly make our way down the stairwell. As we began to walk down slowly I could hear a lot more people sobbing. Most of the sounds were muffled as people put their hands over their mouths.
Tears started to well up in my eyes as I came to the realization that I would never get the chance to say goodbye or see my wife, Susan, or my daughters, 10-year-old Erin and 6-year-old Jill. I was kind of in a surreal daze. I was thinking that I’m never going to meet the men that my daughters will marry when they grow up. I won’t be there to walk them down the aisle. My spirits were really sinking.
We would walk down one floor and then come to another complete stop. People must be coming out of all the floors below us, like merging traffic on the freeway. This was going to take a long, long time.
We got to about the high 40s when we heard, “Move to the right! Injured coming through!” We all moved up against the wall into a crowded single-file line. A woman came down first. She was walking but her face was catatonic. Her clothes were torn to shreds as if someone purposefully took a pair of scissors to them. She had black burn marks on her forehead and arms and was bleeding from her head, face, neck, shoulders, arms, and legs. It was horrible!
Next, two men carried a woman down. She was bleeding more profusely than the first lady and her legs were cut up. She also was either dazed or in shock. A third lady was coming down, walking and bleeding all over with black burn marks and torn clothes. I looked away and stared at the wall. The woman in front of me was mesmerized. She was staring and sobbing, “Oh, my God!” with her hand over her mouth and her body shaking. I gently put my hand on her outside shoulder and tried to slowly turn her away. “Don’t look. Don’t look,” I softly said over and over again. “Look at the wall or look at me,” I said. Slowly she started to turn towards me.
Just as I thought she was going to regain her composure, she glanced at the injured coming down out of the corner of her eye. I was not convincing enough. She couldn’t take her eyes off of the rest of the people, mesmerized with terror. A total of six or eight injured people either walked or were being carried down past us.
Then a blind man with a seeing-eye dog appeared one flight above me. “Blind man with a seeing-eye dog coming down,” someone shouted. Everybody stayed to the right against the wall, and the blind man proceeded slowly down the stairs along the inside of the stairwell with one hand on the railing. As he moved down step by step, I saw many hands reach out and touch his right arm to make sure that he kept his balance.
How much longer did we have? I thought for an instant that maybe the other bombs would be duds like during the last WTC bombing, where they said there were other bombs in the building that didn’t go off. Nah, that was wishful thinking.
A really heavyset woman, maybe 30 years old and about one flight of stairs below me, was sobbing uncontrollably and having trouble breathing. “I can’t make it! I can’t make it! I can’t go any farther!” It appeared that she was about to quit, give up and just sit there. Then an African American gentleman at least 65 years old reached down and put his arms under her left arm. “Come on now. You can’t stop here. You HAVE to keep going. We’re gonna make it out of here.” Then he reached down and helped her up and kept her propped up by supporting her big body with his arm. He “carried” her that way all the way down to the ground floor.
We were around the low 40s when the first team of firefighters reached us. They were wearing their heavy gear and their hard hats. Each man was perspiring profusely. They were carrying so much gear I couldn’t believe it. Each man had some combination of hoses, picks, axes, shovels and huge tanks. A few of them collapsed right at our feet, on their hands and knees, exhausted.
Whenever one man would collapse like that, one of his comrades would grab something off his back to lighten his load and then shout words of encouragement to pump him up and get him going again. “Come on, I got your hose,” one fireman said. It was inspiring to watch them work together, pump each other up, help each other. We cleared a path along the rail so that they could continue their ascent. A man in a white shirt with a badge that said “Chief” started asking me questions.
“What floor did you come from?” he asked.
“The 55th,” I answered.
“Did everyone get out?” was the next question.
“Yes, I think so.”
“Was there any damage? Any windows broken?”
“No, I didn’t see any damage.”
“Okay, try to stay calm and keep everyone else calm. You guys are going to make it. A plane hit the building on about the 80th floor.”
Then he stepped back and raised his voice loud enough for the people one stairwell above and below me to hear. “You’re all going to make it. All the trouble is above you. A plane hit the building. It’s all clear below. We just came from there and it’s clear all the way down. Just stay calm and you’ll all get out of here.” Then he gave me a smile and headed up the stairs followed by the strongest, bravest, most heroic men anyone can imagine.
As they went past, a few of them would give you a smile or thumbs up. “You’re going to make it,” they said as they trudged their way up. For the first time we had hope. Actually it was more than hope. I really believed I was going to make it. Almost everyone was now calm. The reassuring words of the “Chief” buoyed our spirits, made us believe.
As we continued down the stairwell, it seemed more orderly, fear was still present but the element of terror had gone away, replaced by a business-like attitude. I would guess that we were passing teams of firefighters about every five floors. We were going down to safety. They were headed up to the unknown. Yet, one of them would always say, loud enough for everyone to hear, “You’re going to make it. Just keep going.”
These men saved our lives, for if they hadn’t gotten to us as fast as they did, climbing 40+ floors of stairs and reaching us some 20 minutes after the initial explosion, the growing sense of despair and panic may have started a stampede of people rushing down the stairs. I can envision the chaos and people being trampled. None of us might have made it out. The New York City firefighters and policemen were, and always will be, heroes.
Although the evacuation proceeded in an orderly manner, there were still some people who were crying and sobbing. For the most part we were making progress but it was still slow. 33, 32, 31, 30, 29, 28, 27 … We would still come to complete stops but they were more infrequent. I tried calling my wife on my cell phone. It wouldn’t work. I tried over and over and it still wouldn’t work. Someone mentioned that the antennae for several cellular services were on the top of the very tower that we were in.
When we finally reached the single-digit floors, water became a factor as some flooding had occurred. The water became a little deeper the closer we got to the first floor. Many women wearing high heels had taken them off to walk easier barefoot. As we approached the fifth or sixth floor, there was broken glass in the stairwell. I don’t remember anyone saying anything, but every male started to scrape their shoes across the stairs, pushing the glass aside and clearing a safe path for the barefoot women.
It was pretty amazing. Everyone chipped in and helped in any way they could. I saw a couple of men lift up and carry a couple of women so they wouldn’t have to walk at all. The water was getting deeper and when we reached the second or third floor the water in the stairwell was almost ankle deep. On the first floor it WAS ankle deep.
We reached the last set of stairs. I can’t tell you how relieved I felt. There was a line of people, New York police, Port Authority police, FBI, Fire Department, all yelling and waving, “Go! Go! Go! Don’t stop. Don’t look back. MOVE!”
A wall of water was coming down across the entire entrance. There was no way around it, and I had to walk right through it. I got drenched. My head and shirt were completely soaked. My pants got wet but not soaked. The water went inside my pants and now my underwear was also wet. I stepped into a big puddle right at the entrance and now my socks were wet and squishy. All the authorities were yelling, “Move! Move! Move! Don’t look back! Move!”
What is going on? I thought we were safe now that we had reached the ground floor. Maybe they just want to clear the building as fast as possible. Following the line of emergency workers leading to the outside, I ran through the mall. I kind of hopscotched around the ankle-deep puddles and made my way to the outside. I hit the outside running and there were police everywhere.
There was debris all over the place and a cloud of smoke or dust. I couldn’t really tell which. I didn’t wait to find out. I just ran. I didn’t look back. “Go north! Go north!” the policemen were yelling. North? I didn’t know which way was north. I just wanted to get away from the building. As I was running I heard people say that a plane had hit the South Tower as well. I tried calling my wife on my cell phone but it still wouldn’t work. I somehow ended up running somewhere near City Hall.
It took us about an hour and 15-20 minutes to get out of the building. I guess this means that, according to the timeline, the South Tower had already collapsed. I know there was a lot of debris and dust but, since I never looked back, I didn’t associate it with the South Tower.
One policeman started yelling that the subway was working, so go ahead and go down there and head uptown. I hesitated as I thought that I wouldn’t want to get stuck underground if buildings started to fall. I decided that the subway would be faster than walking. Just as I stepped onto the waiting platform, I missed the subway train that was leaving. I cursed myself for hesitating. Then as the train was almost out of sight, it stopped, and I could see the last car with the green #4 on it.
Over the public address system it was announced, “Everyone go above ground. We have lost all power in the subway system.” This message was repeated over and over. Everyone headed for the stairs and rushed up to get to the street level.
I started off again this time at a fast walk, making my way into Chinatown. Policemen were keeping people out of the middle of the street so that the emergency vehicles could get through.
People are hustling down the street, and I am trying my cell phone over and over but it just won’t work. My wife must be going crazy. I hope my girls don’t know. I pass a pay phone with only one person in line and I stop and wait to call. The person in front of me finally gets off, and I try to make my call but it will not go through. I try again, same result. No sense staying here so I start off again still moving as fast as I can.
I remember that I have a pocket guide in my back pocket and find the page for Lower Manhattan. I was also checking the street signs, trying to figure out where I was. I know I have to get to my hotel on 58th Street and 6th Avenue. I’m now thinking that it sure is a good thing that I am not staying at my usual hotel, the Lucerne, which is way up on the Upper Westside.
I reached the Soho district, still on Broadway, and things seemed relatively calm. Somewhere around Houston or Bleeker street there were groups of people congregating together watching televisions set up in the windows of apartments and stores or people gathering in groups and listening to radios.
I walked down the middle of the street and a group of six people, seeing that I was soaking wet and dirty, stopped me and asked if I had come from “back there.” “I was on the 55th floor of Tower #1.” They told me to look back up the street and I turned around. All I could see was a big cloud of dust and smoke. A young guy with a blue print shirt told me that they liked living at this location because you could see the Twin Towers right down the middle of the street. Now they were gone! I couldn’t believe it! I had never looked back and this was the first time I’d seen the devastation. I was shocked and scared all over again.
Then these six strangers proceeded to care for me like I was their neighbor or friend. A young, long-haired man with glasses told me to stay put and he would be right back with some cold water from his apartment. After he took off, a pretty, blonde woman offered me a sip of her lemonade. She told me to keep it.
An older woman, who looked like she was out grocery shopping, offered me a banana and an apple. Another older woman said that I look tired and maybe I should come up to her apartment and lie down for a while. The long-haired man returned with two bottles of ice-cold Dasani water and I downed them quickly. “I should have brought a shirt down for you,” he said. Then he literally offered me the shirt off his back. I said that I was okay.
What I really needed was to use a phone to call my wife back in California. A man walking behind the group must have heard me because he thrust his hand toward me and said, “Here, use my phone. Call your wife right now.” I called Susan and told her I was okay. She didn’t know what floor I was on but knew I was at the WTC.
It was now 11:00 a.m. East Coast time, two hours and 15 minutes after the initial crash. I gave the phone back to the man and thanked him. He gave me a hug and then took off to wherever he was going. I couldn’t believe the kindness and humanity being shown by the people of New York. I started to tell these people about my experience in the building, when we heard a loud voice from maybe a block away.
A man was shouting something in Arabic. All of a sudden a horde of people came sprinting around the corner right at us. “What’s going on?” we asked. Somebody running by said, “He’s got a bomb!” I just took off running as fast as I could. So did everybody else. I don’t know how long I ran but it was a good distance. I made another left because I knew I had to head north to get to my hotel. As I ran by, people asked, “What are you running from?” “I don’t know but you better move it!”
Now everybody is running in the streets again. I made my way over to Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue) and headed north for the long walk to 58th Street and my hotel.
I wasn’t tired or breathing hard. My legs didn’t even hurt. In fact, the only thing I had on my mind was to count down the street numbers as I made my way north. 3rd St, 10th, 15th, 20th, 30th, 38th, etc. all the way to 58th Street.
I got to my hotel and people seemed removed from the incident. It was like business as usual, and I was dumbfounded. I went up to my room and turned on the television. I was now seeing for the first time all that had happened. I called my wife and told her I was safe.
I called my work and told them that I just wanted to get home. I didn’t know how I was going to accomplish that but I would figure out something. They didn’t have to worry about me. CFO Koichi Hosokawa and Controller Ron Yoshihara thought I should sit tight and wait until things calmed down in a day or two. They also made a good point that I wouldn’t want to be caught outside after dark somewhere in the city since nobody knew what was going to happen that night. Would there be looters and rioters in the street?
I was watching the news looking for any way to get off Manhattan. The television was reporting that everything was closed in and out of Manhattan. Then there were rumors that bombs may have been planted in the city. I heard that the ferries were working but that the lines were really long. I decided against the ferry. I didn’t want to be in the middle of the Hudson River if a bomb went off on the ferry.
I decided that maybe I should wait, but I knew that I might need to take off running again at anyttime if things starting happening again. So I got my gym bag and my portfolio and threw everything into a pile in the middle of the room. I had to pack one bag with only the essentials. I packed underwear, socks, T-shirts, one extra pair of pants, my toiletries bag, my laptop computer and then, thinking that I might need a collared shirt sometime if I had to eat in a restaurant, I packed one polo shirt (how dumb!). I put the bag in the hallway leading to the door and went back to the television.
I figured that if I was going to stay put, I better get something to eat. Jennifer’s, an Italian restaurant across the street on 58th, was open for business just as if it was a normal day. I ate a Caesar salad and shrimp scampi then ordered some fried calamari to go and took it back to my hotel room. It was now about 3 p.m. When I got back I called one of my good friends, Carey Tokirio, and asked him to please email a bunch of people we know and let them know that I was all right.
I called my brother, Roger, who lived with his wife and young daughter in Philadelphia. Roger told me that I had to get off Manhattan. “Find a way off anyway you can and get to New Jersey. If you get to New Jersey I can come and get you.” I told him I didn’t know of any way except the ferry, an idea I had nixed, or the George Washington Bridge, which was pretty far north and had a rumored bomb threat.
I would probably end up sitting tight for the night and figure a way out the next day. About 10 minutes after I hung up, the phone started to ring. It was Roger with news that the trains were running. “Can you get to Penn Station?” he asked. I told him I would try. My cell phone was now working and I told him I would call him periodically on my walk from 58th down to 34th Street
I grabbed my gym bag and headed out of the building, made a right and approached 6th Avenue. The streets were eerily near empty. Just emergency vehicles, police, fire trucks, a car here and there. That’s about it. I had taken a few steps down 6th Avenue when all of a sudden, like a miracle, a taxicab pulled right up to the curb next to me and the driver asked, “Do you need a ride?” I told him I needed to get to Penn Station, which was on 34th Street. He told me he wouldn’t take me that far. He was definitely afraid and said he would only take me to 42nd Street.
I walked the eight blocks to 34th Street and went down the stairs of Madison Square Garden to Penn Station. The station was packed with people. The big board showed all the trains were delayed or cancelled. I went to a machine and bought a $45 Amtrak ticket for Train 175 to Philadelphia. But all the trains being called were for the New Jersey Transit Authority. The trains all left from tracks that were one level below. An escalator led down to each of the 18-20 tracks. The escalators were only wide enough for a single-file line of people. So every time a train was announced a mob of people would rush to that escalator. I was kind of wondering why people were running and pushing. Didn’t they have reserved tickets?
I watched about five or six trains being called – all NJ Transit. When were the Amtrak trains going to start running? It was nearly 7 p.m. Should I leave now and head back to the hotel? It would be dark about 8 p.m. and I might be stuck in the train station all night unless I wanted to try to walk in the dark of night. An Amtrak employee told me there was no current schedule. He said they were still trying to get crew members to come in and operate the trains. They would keep trying but they couldn’t guarantee anything.
He told me that if I wanted to get to Philadelphia I should just get on any train going south, NJ Transit or Amtrak. It didn’t matter. They weren’t taking tickets anyway. I watched as three or four more trains were called but I couldn’t get to the specific escalators in time to beat the crowd. It was getting close to 7:30 p.m. I would probably have to leave and go back to the hotel for the night.
Suddenly, there was a tap on my shoulder. It was the Amtrak employee. “Aren’t you the fellow trying to get to Philadelphia? Well, in about 10 minutes a train going to Washington, D.C. is going to be called for Track 15. If you go stand right by that escalator you can be one of the first people on the train.” I went and stood by the escalator and sure enough, the train to Washington, D.C. was called and I was the first one on the train!
One-and-a-half hours later I was in 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, where my brother Roger picked me up. I now felt safe. I guess I could have stayed there a few days but I just wanted to get home. I needed to see my girls. My workfolks told me that they would keep booking me on every flight leaving Philadelphia until the airports were opened and I could take the first flight back. No thanks; I was not in the mood to fly. I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I would somehow find a way.
Roger and I looked on the Internet and called the train station trying to see what was available. The first available train was leaving a week later and would take four-and-a-half days. We next tried the bus station. If I couldn’t get on a bus, I would try to rent a car and drive all the way cross-country. Luckily I got a bus ticket that left Wednesday night. I was finally going home! The bus ride was a whole adventure in itself but at least I was headed in the right direction.
I arrived in L.A. on Saturday afternoon, never happier to be home. My daughter, Jill, unaware of exactly what took place, said she was glad I was okay. Her older sister, Erin, understood a bit more. She even got up in front of her class to explain that her father was in the building when the plane hit.
When I got home, Erin and Jill had decorated the inside of the house with pictures they’d drawn, welcoming me home. Those beautiful pictures are still up today. I also made a point of going to Erin’s school. I walked around to show everyone I was fine and answered parents’ questions.
I couldn’t sleep the first week I came back. I still wake up in the middle of the night but only once. I see the faces of the firemen and policemen. These are my heroes. I credit them with saving thousands.
Experiencing a life-threatening situation changes your perspective on everything. My threshold for what’s trivial has changed. My wife and I have a stronger bond. We spend more time together. I try not to let little things bother me anymore. I know Susan lets things go, too.
As a co-coach of the girls’ athletic league, I want each girl to have a positive experience. That means de-emphasizing the winning part and making sure every girl rotates and has a chance to start.
I will never be the same again. I saw so many terrible, horrific things. But the countless acts of bravery and genuine concern for fellow human beings that I witnessed are more uplifting than I thought possible.
I wouldn’t consider myself a religious person, but I know that I am very lucky to have made it out since so many did not. I’m also lucky to have had the great support of friends and co-workers, who took care of everything at home for me and made sure all I had to do was focus on coming home.
When I finally arrived home and hugged my precious family, six-year-old Jill asked, “Why are you crying, Daddy?” There are so many reasons.