By Josh Bootsma
LANSING, Ill. (September 17, 2021) – Lansing residents had the chance to hear a first-hand experience of 9/11 on Tuesday, as Joe Dittmar joined the Lansing Library via Zoom to tell his story of being in the south tower on that tragic day.
Dittmar spoke to 10 residents gathered in the Community Room of the Library, and 11 more on Zoom.
Dittmar’s 9/11 story
On September 11, 2001, Dittmar was scheduled to have a meeting on the 105th floor of the south tower. When the first plane hit the north tower, Dittmar said the lights only flickered in their south tower conference room. Soon after, though, they were asked by security to start descending the 105 floors via the stairs. Dittmar said despite groanings from the corporate workers, they started to descend, still unaware of what had happened.
At the 90th floor, Dittmar experienced the “worst 30-40 seconds of [his] life,” when he saw “black holes in the sides of the [north tower], gray and black billows of smoke pouring out of those holes, flames redder than any flames I’d ever seen in my life.”
He said he remembered thinking at the time, “My God, how did this pilot not see the building? How did he miss?” He paused. “He didn’t miss.”
After that, Dittmar said he was “so afraid,” and continued to climb down flight after flight of stairs. He soon heard a broadcasted message saying, “The event has been contained to the north tower. We believe that the south tower should be considered safe. If you work in the south tower, please return to your work station.”
Unwilling to return anywhere after what he’d seen, Dittmar continued descending. At the 78th floor, he had a chance to wait for an elevator to take him to the bottom faster. As a fire insurance specialist, Dittmar knew he wasn’t supposed to use the elevator during such an event and continued to use the stairs. He described that choice as “arguably the best decision I’ve made in what is still my life.”
When Joe was somewhere in the range of floor 72-74, the second plane hit the south tower between the 77th and 83rd floors.
“I’ve never felt anything like that before and never want to feel anything like that again. The fire stairwell that we were inside — this concrete bunker — starts to shake so violently … the handrails breaking away from the wall, the concrete spidering out, the steps like waves in the ocean undulating underneath our feet. … It felt like forever,” he said.
“We responded all in the same way with this total, stunned silence.”
Dittmar said he was struck during his continued descent by “human nature at its finest and its best,” as people helped others down the steps, and gave priority to the elderly, the disabled, and others.
Dittmar eventually made it out of the area before the towers collapsed and blanketed the area with dust, ash, and smoke.
After detailing his reunion with his family, Dittmar said, “I tell this story not to feel better about what only breaks my heart. … I do this because I believe as someone who’s been part of a historic event, it’s my duty to tell this story and to give a voice to the 3,000 people who lost their voices that day so that they can once more be heard.”
“While they may have lost their lives, they didn’t lose their lives in vain. And while I seek no compensation, I do ask for payment from each and every one of you in one way, and in one way only: to always remember, and to never, never forget.”
Dittmar took questions after telling his story and explained how he had made his presentation 37 times already in the week leading up to Tuesday’s Zoom call. Despite the grueling schedule, he said he feels it’s his responsibility to share his experiences with as many people as he can, especially younger generations.
More information about upcoming Lansing Library programming can be found at www.lansingpl.org. The Lansing Public Library is located at 2750 Indiana Avenue.
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- Remembering 9/11: An open letter to the students of TF South (September 10, 2021)
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- Video: Two generations (Josh and Melanie) remember 9/11 (September 10, 2021)