Local man’s 9-11 experience at Ground Zero

milt thomas

Vero Beach resident and philanthropist, Richard A. “Dick” Stark (1921-2015), recounted his ordeal at Ground Zero in the book, Hotel 9/11: An Oral History from Survivors of 3 World Trade Center, by Joyce Ng (JSW Books). This excerpt from the book details Dick’s experience as it happened that infamous day.

The 24-story Marriott World Trade Center nestled between the twin towers.

September 11, 2001

I had intended to sleep in at the Marriott because of the long day on Monday and awakened about 8:30 am in my 5th floor room.

The North Tower was struck by American Airlines Flight 11 at 8:46 am. I turned on the TV and saw what had happened, but I did not hear anything or become fully aware of a possible problem until 9:02 am when United Airlines Flight 175 struck WTC 2 (the South Tower) which was only 100 feet from my fifth floor Hotel room’s East-facing window, but far above my view. Out of my window I could see business papers scattering in the wind from the North Tower and flaming metal pieces falling to the ground from the South Tower.

I dressed leisurely and packed my bag and called for a bellhop…. When the bellhop came I opened the door and heard for the first time the fire alarm which was a signal for evacuation of the building. I had not heard it because of poor hearing. I learned later that most of the several hundred other hotel guest had already departed.

The bellhop advised that we could not use the elevator and took me and three other guests down the interior fire escape stairs on the East side of the Hotel. We had no sense of urgency and thought we were making an orderly exit. When we got to the fourth floor, we felt a horrendous earth shaking sound and rush of air that pressed our bodies backward from the South Tower 2 falling beside and onto the Marriott Hotel building where we were. It was 9:59 am. The outside wall of our stairwell collapsed, and our stairwell became part of the crushing rubble which buffeted us about in the dark created by the cement and other dust. The five of us were trapped in the dark. I took gulps of the dusty and contaminated air, without thinking of possible lung damage, but having no choice. When the dust gradually cleared we could see that the outside wall was gone and we became aware of the emerging outlines of the ruins of the South Tower and the devastation and rubble as far as the eye could see. While we were virtually unharmed, having suffered only minor cuts and bruises, it appeared that death was inevitable and imminent as our stairwell had shifted and seemed unstable and was filled with rubble and dust. We could not see any possible way to get out of the building before it collapsed. When I realized our plight I thought “This is where I am going to die. I always wondered how it would happen! And I didn’t have a chance to say ‘goodbye.’”

We were covered with cement and plaster dust from head to toe, in our hair and in every crevice of our clothing and opening of our bodies. There was no steady place to step. Surprisingly, all of us were calm. While it was still dark the five of us in the 4th floor stairwell even introduced ourselves to each other while we awaited the inevitable.

After some 10 or 15 minutes, four Firemen came to our aid from inside the Hotel but said we could not get out through the Hotel because of the extensive damage to the East side of the Hotel.

The Firemen examined the area where the outside wall had been which opened onto the unbelievable ruin with rubble piled at least one story high between us and the nearby major pile of what was WTC Tower 2. The floor where we were standing was some 20-30 feet above the level of the rubble. The lead Fireman took charge of me and said “What is your name?” to which I of course replied “Dick.” The lead Fireman at first concluded that he would need a coil of rope to let me down over the side of the building, some 20-30 feet. He sent his sidekick back up the rubble of the stairway to fetch a coil he thought he had seen there. Unhappily the building shifted and the sidekick’s body was not found for some months. I later learned that the lead Fireman, a large strong man, was named Angel Rivera and the sidekick, a younger and smaller man, was named Angel Juarbe — “Big Angel” and “Little Angel.” Big Angel would suffer enduring grief and remorse over his decision to send Little Angel to fetch the rope and to his death.

When Little Angel did not return, Big Angel searched the floor overhanging the rubble and found a metal beam leaning against the remaining structure of the Hotel at a 45-degree angle down into the rubble. Angel said “Dick, we are going to go down that beam!” I protested that I was 80 years old and had a heart condition and could not do it. Big Angel brushed off my reluctance and said “Dick, we are going down that G—D— beam now!” which of course I did with the great assistance of gravity. First he sent a younger Fireman down the beam to see that it was stable. Then he put me on the beam sitting backward, hanging on with my hands. He followed me down the beam.

After we slid down the beam, it was not possible to walk on the rubble consisting of huge chunks of concrete. Big Angel located another horizontal beam about 8 or 10 feet above the rubble and about 20 feet long to a point where we could step onto the rubble and walk or rather climb through it for some 500 yards south to an emergency vehicle.

He then led me walking toward the emergency vehicle. We had to avoid pools of water that might have electric cables that might be live and rubble that was not stable enough to hold our weight. Big Angel seemed to know when to be cautious. Halfway to our goal my legs would not go further, and I could not get enough breath for my ailing heart. Big Angel turned me over to two policemen who took one arm each and walked me out to within a few yards of the emergency vehicle. I looked back and, except for a couple of Firemen and policemen, there was no sign of life.  The Firemen were returning to the center of devastation to seek other survivors.

Dick Stark being led through rubble to safety by New York policeman.

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