'The horrors of that day, you don't really overcome it': Local resident recalls 9/11 escape

Joe Dittmar
Joe Dittmar poses with 9/11 pin. Photo courtesy of Joe Dittmar

Sitting in a conference room on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center's South Tower, all Joe Dittmar and his colleagues noticed when a plane hit the North Tower was a flicker of the light. 

An announcement came over the PA system: the incident in the North Tower was contained. South Tower occupants would be safe where they were, but could evacuate if they wanted. 

Dittmar was the last person to leave the room. He chose evacuation, taking the fire stairwell instead of the elevator. He was in the fire stairwell when the call for evacuation came.

When the plane hit the South Tower, he was fewer than ten floors below the impact.

“That fire stairwell that we were inside just started to shake back and forth in ways it shouldn’t shake back and forth," Dittmar said. "You see the concrete start sputtering out, the handrails are breaking away from the wall. The steps were like waves in the ocean, fluctuating underneath our feet, and we felt a huge heat ball blow by us. We smelled jet fuel and rocked for what felt like forever. It was probably seconds or a minute, but it just felt like forever.” 

Dittmar made it out of the South Tower in 50 minutes. At approximately 9:59 am, 56 minutes after impact, the South Tower collapsed. Twenty-nine minutes later, the North Tower collapsed.

Dittmar and his colleagues were only eight blocks away when they heard on a local radio station that the incident was a purposeful terrorist attack.

“I remember thinking to myself, this doesn’t happen in the United States, this doesn’t happen here. How can this be?"

He never forgot the sounds from that day. 

"The unmistakable sound of the twisting steel and the crumbling concrete of what was the South Tower – the building that we had been in just eight minutes prior – coming to the ground," he said. "Even more gruesome was the sound of hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of New York all screaming the same voice-curdling scream, all at the same time."

After the attacks, Dittmar went home to Aurora, Ill. He now lives in Chapel Hill, and gives back by hosting free presentations 50 to 60 times a year to ensure people don't forget about September 11th. 

“That’s how I feel I can pay this back in some way, shape or form, so that’s what I do,” Dittmar said. “I’m okay with that because the catharsis that I need to overcome – the horrors of that day – you don’t really overcome it to be honest with you, you just basically manage it. That’s what I need to do – is manage it.”

@markburnett1234

city@dailytarheel.com

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