Though the infamous 9/11 attacks are nearly 15 years behind us, every American adult remembers where they were that day. Chapel Hill resident Joe Dittmar will certainly never forget.
He was in a meeting on the 105th floor of Two World Trade Center. Of the 54 insurance executives at that meeting, Dittmar is one of seven who made it out alive.
Dittmar travels to tell his account of 9/11, and on Saturday a group of 40 people gathered at Granville County Library System’s South Branch Library to hear it again.
Dittmar spoke twice last year at the county’s library events and came back due to popular demand. Library system director Jonathan Bradsher said the events of 9/11 are the reason he joined the Navy and served his country for 10 years.
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“Every time he tells his story, it is just as powerful and moving as the time before,” Bradsher said.
Dittmar, a Philadelphia native, has been in the insurance industry for more than 35 years and works for Rockhill Specialty Programs in Durham. On Sept. 11, 2001, he had no desire to go to New York City for a meeting. He said he wanted to go on a golf outing instead. But work prevailed.
His meeting began at 8:30 a.m., and at 8:48 a.m. the lights flickered in the south tower.
“We didn’t hear anything. We didn’t feel anything. Just this light flicker,” Dittmar said.
Someone burst into the meeting, saying there was an explosion at the north tower, but they all just sat there.
“It’s New York. Things happen,” Dittmar remembers thinking.
However, a fire marshal in the group insisted they begin the long trek down 105 flights of stairs.
“Each and every one of you knew way more about what was going on than those of us inside the building,” Dittmar told his audience.
On the 90th floor, the door was propped open and Dittmar experienced what he described as the worst 40 seconds of his life.
Through the window he could see the black holes in the north tower and a plane lodged into the side of the building.
“It was a clear September day and they were the reddest flames I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It was an unbelievable, awesome, gruesome sight.”
Dittmar just wanted to get out of there, but the people around him were frozen. He said they were screaming, but not moving.
He headed back for the stairwell. A friend from his meeting said he was going to use the restroom. That cost him his life.
Dittmar started back down the stairwell as a PA system announcement said that the south tower building was contained, safe and people should stay where they were. But he didn’t stop.
Dittmar neared the 72nd floor as the second plane crashed into the south tower just floors above his head.
“The building is shaking back and forth. The steps were moving like waves,” he said. “You would think there would be this massive pandemonium. But there was just silence.”
He and others fleeing down the stairwell came across people in wheelchairs and walking with canes. They became a team and helped one another.
The stairs were covered in women’s heels, electronics and coats that people ditched in their rush down.
At the 35th floor, he encountered police, firefighters and paramedics.
“Just the looks in their eyes told the whole story. They knew,” Dittmar said.
“They knew they were going up the steps to fight a fire they couldn’t beat and to save lives they couldn’t save. They knew they were marching into the bowels of hell. They knew they were never coming back,” he said choking up. “Could you be that brave?”
At the 18th floor, Dittmar came across a security guard from the building singing “God Bless America” into a megaphone and yelling, “This is a day you will never forget. This is a day that’s going to go down in history.”
His job was to keep people coming and keep them calm.
“I wonder how many lives that guy saved that day by giving up his own,” Dittmar said.
Those coming down the stairwell were not allowed out to the street level, but instead directed underground.
“We saw people in real need. Some were missing limbs, others had open wounds,” Dittmar said. “There were so many police and firemen. I’ve never seen that many in one place. They were there in an outpouring of love.”
He followed a group through the underground stores until they came to a Starbucks that was open with a line of people waiting for coffee.
Dittmar didn’t learn it was a terrorist attack until he heard it on the radio of a car on the street.
Dittmar made it onto a train headed to Philadelphia. It was packed, but nobody said a word.
He arrived at his parents’ home that night to a sobbing mother and a big hug.
“Recounting this story just breaks my heart again and again. I don’t tell it for notoriety. I don’t do it for money,” Dittmar said. “As a person who has been part of a historical event, it’s my duty to tell the story. To speak for the people who lost their lives that day.”
“As I seek no payment, I ask that you remember to never forget,” he said.
Dittmar said he has not seen the other six survivors from his meeting that day on the 105th floor. Most want to avoid talking about what happened. They want to forget, he said.
This Memorial Day, Dittmar and his wife plan to visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum. He is bracing himself for an emotional event but said he cannot forget what happened that day.
“His is one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever heard,” said Oxford resident Charles Hight, who attended Saturday’s talk. Hight has heard Dittmar speak three times and says he gives different and new details of the story each time.