September 19, 2001 — It was two minutes after the first hijacked jetliner crashed into the World Trade Center that operators of the PATH trains across the Hudson River in Jersey City knew something was wrong — but they had no idea what.
Yet in those early moments of confusion on Sept. 11, decisive actions taken by Port Authority staffers kept as many 5,000 commuters from walking up the stairs of the PATH station at the World Trade Center, which would soon become a deadly nightmare of collapsing debris.
What follows is an account of the critical moments, and the snap decisions that were made, right after the first jetliner crashed into the North Tower at 8:45 AM
Richie Moran, trainmaster for the PATH system, was at his post at the Journal Square Transportation Center in Jersey City. Moran, a Toms River resident, said he was monitoring the police scanner when he heard a report of an explosion, adding, “We didn’t know which building.”
Immediately after, Frank Martinetti, a Port Authority sanitation supervisor, called from the World Trade Center to report he had seen a plane hit the tower. Donna Martinez, the PATH terminal supervisor at the World Trade Center, called to say she smelled smoke “and the strong odor what she thought was kerosene,” said assistant trainmaster Anthony Savino, who lives in Landing in Morris County.
Moran pushed the button that activates the PATH’s “incident clock” and the digital numerals lit up at 8:47 AM Like others who got early reports of the crash, he was not thinking it was the start of a terrorist attack on America.
“We thought it was a small plane,” Moran said.
The PATH’s deputy director, Victoria Cross Kelly of West Caldwell, was at a breakfast meeting in the underground concourse of the World Trade Center when she heard a commotion and saw people running. She went to street level to investigate “and saw paper raining down,” Kelly said. She immediately called Moran and told him not to discharge any more passengers at the World Trade Center PATH station.
It was 8:52 AM — 11 minutes before the second tower was struck. Twenty-five more minutes would pass before the Federal Aviation Administration closed all New York City-area airports.
“It was Vicki Kelly’s phone call at 8:52 that stopped the service,” Moran said, adding that she “really helped a lot of people.”
One train from Newark was already approaching the World Trade Center station and arrived about 8:55 AM Its doors opened — to evacuate passengers on the platform — and an announcement was made for all passengers to remain on the train, according to Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman.
“Whether some people didn’t hear the announcement, we’ll never know,” he said.
One woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she got off that 8:55 train from Newark and was instructed to run out of the station. Although she got to safety, she said, she believes other passengers ran into the path of flaming debris.
Coleman said Port Authority police and staffers escorted all of those passengers to safety.
A second train, from Hoboken, arrived at the World Trade Center station about 9 AM and continued through without stopping.
“I told them not to stop and do not open the doors,” Moran said. “They didn’t discharge any passengers.” It returned to Exchange Place in Jersey City before continuing to 33rd Street in Manhattan, he added.
A rescue train with just an engineer and conductor reached the World Trade Center at 9:10 AM, Moran said. There, it picked up about a dozen PATH employees, as well as a homeless person who had to be coaxed on the train, Moran said. That train returned to Newark.
“When that train left, there was nobody left in the station,” Moran said. It was 9:12 AM Three trains were still waiting at Exchange Place to enter the tunnel under the Hudson River and were diverted to other locations, he added.
At that hour of the morning, PATH trains arrive at the World Trade Center about every two to four minutes, Moran said. He estimated that between 8:52 AM and 9:03 AM, when the second hijacked plane struck Two World Trade Center, three to five trains, each carrying 800 to 1,000 passengers, would normally arrive at the PATH station there.
“It could have amounted to anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 people,” Moran said.
Moran matter-of-factly recounted this story yesterday with no trace of braggadocio. This is an agency that has 74 staffers missing, six of them confirmed dead.
Port Authority Chairman Lewis Eisenberg, learning yesterday for the first time how his staffers diverted thousands of commuters from danger, remarked, “I’m sort of a spectator among heroes.”
“There are so many acts of heroism, both individual and collective, that it probably represents the spirit of America,” he said.