Reflections from a 9-11 survivor

Editor's note: To hear more about the impact of 9/11, click here to listen to our podcast with Joe Dittmar. 

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Joe Dittmar was attending a meeting of insurance executives on the 105th floor in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Dittmar, who had originally planned a golf outing that day, was asked by a colleague to attend the meeting. It would prove to be a day that changed Dittmar and the nation as a whole forever.

The meeting Dittmar attended that morning was scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m., but got underway a little bit late. Then at 8:48 a.m., the lights flickered and a man came in and told them there had been an explosion in the North Tower and that they needed to evacuate the building.

"Fifty-four intelligent people all had the same reaction," said Dittmar, who delivered the keynote presentation at the SecureWorld Expo in Atlanta on Wednesday. "We didn't want to leave; we said 'we will be fine.'"

Eventually, everyone exited the room and made there way to the stairwell. When they reached the 90th floor, Dittmar said they found a door that had been propped open and everyone exited, at which point they saw the gaping hole in the North Tower with flames crawling up the side of the building and thick, black smoke billowing out.

"To see people, furniture, paper being pulled out; it was an unbelievable, gruesome sight," he said. "Who would've thought that within 18 minutes, the exact same thing would happen again?"

Some people were paralyzed by what they saw, but Dittmar said he returned to the stairwell determined to make it out. Shortly thereafter, an announcement came over the tower's public address system saying that the incident had been contained and that it was safe to return. Dittmar said he was somewhere between the 72nd and 75th floor when United Airlines Flight 175 struck the tower.

The crash shook the building violently, making the steps undulate and handrails break away from the walls. Then, after the chaos of the crash, Dittmar said there was nothing but a "stunned silence" in the stairwell. Dittmar and others continued to make their way down the stairs with everyone helping one another.

"You see human beings at their best under duress," he said. "In times of crisis, people are good and want to do good."

Dittmar, fighting back tears, also spoke of his encounter with police and firefighters in the stairwell that day.

"The look in their eyes told the story. They knew they were never going to come back," he said.

Just as the band played when the Titanic sank, Dittmar said there was a security guard on the 18th floor singing "God Bless America" and telling the evacuees that they would never forget where they were on 9/11.

Eight minutes after Dittmar and several of his colleagues made it out, the tower fell.

As a result of what he experienced, Dittmar said he feels compelled to be a voice for the nearly 3,000 people that died on that day to ensure that no one ever forgets. Even this week's news of the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden did not bring complete solace to Dittmar.

"It was an absolute bittersweet feeling," Dittmar said, describing his emotions when he learned of the death of bin Laden. "I do believe that justice, in its own way, has been served."

Dittmar said that Americans have to realize that they're not invulnerable to acts of terrorism, but that they also cannot live in fear of them.

"There are no guarantees," he said. "Don't take anything for granted, ever."