Reporting Mike Binkley
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – While many of us watched as the events of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks unfolded, Minnesota native Tom Lingenfelder lived them.
He also survived the day in the World Trade Center and said it’s a day he’ll remember for the rest of his life. He was working with a co-worker on the 52nd floor of the World Trade Center when something rocked Tower One.
“The explosion happened above us,” Lingenfelder said. ”Or the sound happened above us. We had no idea what it was. I assumed it was an earthquake. Peter thought it was a bomb. And we headed towards the stairwell, and tried to make our way out.”
That explosion was the plane crashing into the tower. He said at the time, it felt like a strange fire drill with an unbelievable traffic jam 20 floors below.
“We’d pause up to five minutes, just waiting, because we either had to let somebody go up, an EMT or a fireman to up the stairs, or we would just be standing because there were hundreds of people coming into the stairwell,” he said.
Lingenfelder stopped for a short break when his sister called. It was just after the second plane hit the second tower at the World Trade Center. He said she was frantic on the phone.
“She was screaming and crying into the phone, telling me ‘Tell me you’re out of that building, please tell me you’re out of that building.’ I don’t think she could hear me, but I could hear her. And then my phone went dead. And then panic started to set in,” he said.
The panic increased and the confusion continued when he reached the ground. That’s when he got his first look at the flaming debris from the terror that had taken place.
“Still wasn’t sure what these things were,” he said. “I knew a plane had hit, and our feet were wet because of the sprinklers on the lower floors that had gone off.”
He was walking to an area he felt was safe and he suddenly stopped. The second tower was starting its eventual collapse. He said the tower looked like it was leaning and going to topple over them.
“The way I saw it, it was going to fall on top of us. It was just going to lean over and crush us,” said Lingenfelder.
The only thing he could think to do was run from the scene as fast as possible. Like everybody else, he was convinced that if the big cloud of smoke caught up to him, it would kill him. When he stopped to rest, he looked on in shock at faces that were emerging from that dust.
“I assumed they were dead. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts, but for a split second, I thought they were ghosts,” he said. ”Looking up and seeing their faces, it was confusion and fear, but also relief. But also a nod to me, and I would nod back to them.”
He’d survived the nightmare, but another was still to come. Lingenfelder was consumed by guilt and depression for the next five years, shutting down until friends convinced him to come back home.
Now he’s at the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, helping those less fortunate and healing his own wounds.
“It’s less about me than about being part of the world,” he said. “And trying to make the world a better place, cheesy as that may sound at times.”
He’s finally come to terms with what happened and what didn’t. He’s an avid photographer who took his camera everywhere, but left it at home the day of the attacks.
“I was so angry that I hadn’t taken my camera,” he said. ”And it wasn’t until a couple weeks afterwards that I was still kicking myself that I had no photos that I realized I wouldn’t be here. I would have fallen with the tower, because I would have been taking pictures of everything around me.”