Almost 3,000 people lost their lives during the 9/11 attacks, but thanks to a split-second decision, analyst-turned-teacher Andrew Cullen managed to survive.
Cullen moved from Scotland to the US when he was 10 years old before later going on to get a job as an analyst at investment firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods (KBR), the office of which was based on the 89th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Like so many others, Cullen arrived at work on the morning of September 11, 2001 ready for the day ahead when all of a sudden he ‘felt and heard an enormous explosion from the North Tower’.
Recalling the situation on BBC Radio’s Drivetime programme, Cullen said he and his colleagues had ‘no idea’ what caused the explosion, but from where he was located he could see debris coming out of the side of the building.
Along with three of his colleagues, Cullen made the decision to evacuate the building and made it to the 44th floor only to be told to return to his office. The workers were ‘shuffled’ into one of the building’s freight elevators, where Cullen found himself making the decision that ultimately saved his life.
Per BBC News, he explained:
At that point the button for 78 was lit but we decided we wanted to go down so I was the one who pounded the lobby button just a few moments before the second plane hit the tower above us.
At that point it was chaos. I got expelled from the elevator with some colleagues. I crawled around the corner to the stairwell and maybe 30 seconds later one of my colleagues came down to the 43rd floor and we made the decision we needed to get out of the building as quickly as possible.
The group managed to find a stairwell and escaped the building before heading to a nearby health club to get away from the scene. About 10 minutes later, however, the South Tower collapsed and the resulting debris blew in the health club’s windows.
Cullen recalled, ‘We were fairly fortunate that we didn’t get hit with shrapnel and other debris that was flying around. We got knocked down to the floor and we were behind a desk when it blew in over the top of us. Once the dust had settled we made our way into one of the bathrooms and grabbed wet towels and wrapped them around our faces to avoid inhaling smoke.’
The scene around Ground Zero was described as a ‘blackout’ due to the thickness of the dust and debris, but Cullen and his colleagues ultimately managed to make their way to the East River, where they encountered ‘about a million other people’.
Reflecting on the enormity of his decision to press the elevator button, Cullen said:
When you have a threat that faces you and you don’t know what it is, you have a choice. You either face it or you get the hell out of the situation.
All I knew was that the explosion I felt from the first tower being hit was extremely powerful, and I didn’t need to be a third of a mile up in the air. I am deathly terrified of heights so that ironically might have saved my life.
The firm which Cullen worked for lost 67 employees on the day of the attacks, and 20 years on Cullen has stressed the event is not something you ‘get over’.
He added, ‘It’s a process. It is always there and it might change your life but it shouldn’t stop you living it. It forced me to think about how I was living my life and change my path a bit, rather than following what I thought was a prescriptive path, doing things I was a bit more interested in, maybe being a bit more impetuous than I would have been.’
Now 51 years old, Cullen works as a history and economics teacher in South Carolina.
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Topics: Life, 9/11, September 11 attacks