MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Minnesota man was in the North Tower 20 years ago when two planes slammed into the World Trade Center, shattering our sense of security.
“Nobody’s a hero, we were just survivors,” Scott Wallace said. “We were just trying to get out and stay alive, and by the luck of the plane hitting 12 floors above us.”
Wallace, from Woodbury, is grateful for his good fortune. His colleague thought they were going near the top of the North Tower where finance was, but for some reason, on Sept. 11, 2001, they met on a different floor.
“We went up to the 63. Thank goodness not 90, because none of us would be here today,” Wallace said.
He and eight others were together that day. Wallace remembers every moment. Following his son’s advice, he wrote it all down in a journal almost immediately.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh my God the building is going to fall over,’” Wallace said. “And at that point it was probably five to 10 seconds, I could see out the, you know, see down the hall out the east windows and it wasn’t nothing but a shower of debris from above, and then someone shouted, ‘Get out!’”
The tower swayed. Wallace ran to get his jacket and cellphone, but smoke clouded his vision, so he turned around to go downstairs.
“When I got in I looked at the marker on the wall and it said 63, and I remembered thinking, ‘Oh, that’s a long way we got to go down,’” he said. “We got down three or four floors and you couldn’t breathe very well. For a long time I thought it was, I called white smoke because it wasn’t black smoke, but you couldn’t breathe, and it turned out to be the jet fuel fumes that were being pumped in the stairwell because it was a vent about four floors down,” he said.
On the way down, they ran into man in a wheelchair who refused their offers to help.
“He said, ‘No don’t worry about it. Firemen and I, we practice this all the time. And so we said, ‘OK,’ and we kept moving, and we found out later he never did get out of tower,” Wallace said.
One of the scariest moments was when the stairwell itself began to rock. The concussion from the plane that slammed into the South Tower made the stairs shake.
“Everybody stopped, and we all knew, we said, ‘This isn’t good,’ and we didn’t know what had happened yet,” he said. “We finally, somebody had at the time [a] Blackberry, but he got his Blackberry going and found a plane had hit the building.”
Wallace’s group felt some hope when they saw 11 firemen coming up the stairs with equipment.
“We started to move again and patting them all on the back and just saying, you know, ‘Good luck,’” Wallace said. “They made it, they think, to about the 73rd floor when it collapsed. And so all 11 people from Rescue One were lost in the tower.”
Even though they made progress, he and the others were never certain they would make it out.
“I was never sure that we would until … when I read 10 on the wall, I said, ‘Ok, we have a probability, a better probability of getting out of here,” he said. “I kept praying all the way down.”
Finally, the frightening descent ended on the Plaza Level.
“There was a firewoman directing us to keep going, don’t turn around, and we found out later she was the last one, they removed her body from the site, she was the last one,” Wallace said.
They kept walking, searching for a phone booth.
“The tower fell, and we could hear it, we could feel it, and I still hadn’t called home. So we finally found a phone booth and talked to my wife. And you know, she at the time was at home thinking, ‘He’s gone. What do I do?’” he said. “The worst part for me was what my family went through.”
Wallace says the experience stripped away the sense of security for himself and his family.
“You have to be vigilant, you have to be aware,” he said.
Wallace made eight forever friends, in a fraternity of which no one wants to belong.
“We’re bonded for life because nobody else understands the experience. It changed all of us and everybody in different ways,” he said. “We talked about that and how it impacted our careers, personal lives our families. None of us got away unscathed by it.”
The life-altering experience has made him a piece of living history with a message to share.
“I feel very honored to be able to talk about it, and I take that very seriously because not that many people survived, and I can bring to life what other people are not here to do,” he said.
Wallace is in New York City with his family for the 20th anniversary. He plans to take his grandkids to Rescue One Fire Company and have dinner with his group of friends.
Don’t miss the CBS News two-hour documentary “Race Against Time: The CIA and 9/11.” It’s the haunting story of the agency’s desperate effort to stop Osama bin Laden. Catch it Friday at 7 p.m. on WCCO-TV, or on Paramount+ this weekend.
There’s also “26th Street Garage: The FBI’s Untold Story of 9/11” on Paramount+.