INTERACTIVE: COLORADO REMEMBERS 9/11
Each anniversary of that terrible day has been tough for Van Remortel because of the memories invoked, but as the 10th anniversary approaches, he decided to share his story because he feels it's important that we all take the time to remember that day.
"It was just a beautiful autumn day. The air was just a little crisp," Van Remortel recalled of that morning on his way to work.
He was working at a small law firm on the 33rd floor of the World Trade Center's north tower when the first plane hit. He heard a loud crash and felt the building sway.
"I ran and looked out the window, and that's when I saw scraps of metal and paper just raining down," Van Remortel said. "A few people decided to go and walk toward the exit. About five of us stayed, and it's crazy looking back because we were thinking, 'We don't want to go all the way down there. We're just going to have to come all the way back up. With this many people it's going to be crazy. We won't be able to get to work until noon.' So we were very nonchalant. "
When they smelled jet fuel, they decided to go ahead and leave the building. In the crowded stairwell, they were still unaware it was a major emergency.
"We were standing three people shoulder to shoulder, three people across. You'd take a step and stand there. Take a step and stop. You were literally waiting three or four seconds on each step, just waiting," Van Remortel said.
After a while people from above started yelling for people to make room for burned victims to be carried down. Then firefighters started yelling from below as they rushed up the stairs to reach victims. Finally, Van Remortel made it to the bottom of the stairwell.
"I stepped into the lobby where I'd been thousands of times and didn't even recognize it. It was just blown apart. The doors all down, the door jams all bent. What we found out later is that when the plane hit it basically turned the elevators in the elevator shafts into missiles, and they just shot down and then exploded up," Van Remortel said. "We went out of the east side of the building and we looked up and just realized for the first time, 'Oh my God!' I had no idea it could have been that bad. I saw the flames coming out and the smoke."
As he moved away from the building he saw people standing out on the windows and jumping to their deaths. It's seemed unreal. He thought to himself, "This can't be happening!" He and a coworker decided to walk to a nearby office building where they could make some calls.
"Right as we got down there we heard this noise. A noise you never heard before but you knew immediately what it was, and that was the south tower coming down," Van Remortel recalled. "We ducked into a lobby of a building and then kind of waited for it to settle down. When we walked out of there, the cars were covered. You couldn't really get your bearings. It was like being on the moon."
They walked a couple of blocks when they heard the sound of the north tower crashing down. They ran to stay ahead of the dust cloud. Van Remortel later made it back to his apartment where he immediately started calling friends who worked in the same building. His roommate Sean Lynch and friend Tommy Bowden both worked in an office on the 104th floor above where the plane struck. He left them messages.
"You're just sitting there looking at your phone going, 'please ring, please ring,'" he said.
The calls never came from Lynch or Bowden. They were among the nearly 3,000 people killed that day. In New York, weeks of mourning turned into somber months. Years passed.
"Ten years. Sometimes it seems like yesterday. Sometimes it seems like hundreds of years ago," Van Remortel said.
On this 10th anniversary of 9/11, Van Remortel will remember the victims, the firefighters who tried to save lives, and the soldiers still fighting terrorists abroad. He will also remember one of the lessons of that day.
"A lot of stuff that doesn't matter, I let it go. I don't get caught in the little minutia of things that just aren't that relevant. There's a bigger picture. There's a lot more to life," he said.
Life was taken too soon from too many on that tragic day. Survivors like Van Remortel no longer take it for granted.
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