Last Train to the Twin Towers
Howard Turoff walked off the PATH train into the worst terror attack in U.S. history.
Editor's note: Many New Jersey residents saw firsthand the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Now, 10 years later, we've asked some of them how the event changed their lives. We'll be sharing their stories all this week.
Hoboken resident Howard Turoff remembers thinking it was a clear and beautiful day as he walked to the local PATH station on his way to work on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. He had no idea he was about to step onto the last train into lower Manhattan, to the biggest terrorist attack ever in the United States.
The cars of the train were full. People were standing shoulder to shoulder, Turoff said, like any other morning. After about 15 minutes, the train pulled into the underground station at the World Trade Center. Turoff got off and heard some commotion over a fire on the tracks. A seasoned New Yorker, he thought nothing of it and continued up the escalator. He didn’t know yet that the fire was from flaming jet fuel that had forced its way down the elevator shaft or even that a plane had hit the building.
When Turoff reached ground level, he noticed that all the stores were closed and even the stand where he bought his newspaper everyday was locked up. As he walked out of the building, he saw shoes scattered on the street and thought how odd it was that someone would lose a shoe and not pick it up. His eyes fell on a women’s red high heel. “It was the last thing I saw before I became aware,” Turoff said.
He looked up and saw more people than usual standing outside and raised his eyes a little more to examine what they were staring at: fire and smoke billowing from the building he had just exited. Turoff had come out just in time to hear the second plane hit and watch the south tower explode into fragments of shattered glass.
“It looked like a special effect in a movie,” he said.
And everyone started running.
"We didn’t know what it was, and we weren’t stopping to analyze what it was,” Turoff said.
People around him, he said, pulled their shirts up over their noses. And he heard screams and cries as he, with his hands over his head, sought refuge from the cloud of debris rolling through the Canyon of Heroes.
“It was just mass confusion,” he said.
He didn’t stop running until he reached Wall Street.
At the time, Turoff was the head of executive services at Prudential, located at One New York Plaza, not far from the World Trade Center. Though he made it to the building, Turoff couldn’t get inside. Everyone had already been evacuated. He saw a few familiar faces in the mass of people standing outside, but none of his staff. That worried him, he said, but he had to keep moving. His next concern was calling his family to let them know he was okay. Cell phone service was down, so his phone was useless, and the lines for pay phones were at least a block long. But he thought of a phone in the men’s locker room at the New York Health and Racquet Club across the street. When he got there, it was as he thought it might be, unused.
He called his younger brother Nathan, who lived on 20th Street, and told him to call their mother, but Turoff couldn’t reach his wife Lori, who was leading a bike tour in Italy. She was in a bike shop in Florence province when she saw two older men huddled around the radio.
“I could just tell from their demeanor that something was wrong,” she said.
The men told her what had happened, and she immediately wanted to go home. But the bike tour had just begun and she couldn’t leave.
“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do on a trip,” she said. “I had to put on my happy face and be a leader.”
Lori Turoff couldn’t get a call through to her husband until Thursday.
In New York, Howard Turoff left the gym and got back on the street. He found himself in a mass of people heading north. Together, they pushed down a fence near the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial and climbed onto the FDR Drive. The dust started to close in on them as they walked the six-lane highway. Turoff said he could hardly see three feet in front of him.
“It reminded me of images I remembered from junior high of when people escaped the bombing in Phnom Penh or Ho Chi Minh City,” he said.
Turoff made it to his brother’s loft, where he spent the rest of the day waiting for the line for the ferry to shorten. He had heard it would be a four- to six-hour wait at 4 p.m., so he waited to take the ferry at 10 p.m.
“I just wanted to get home to my dog,” said Turoff.
But as he crossed the Hudson River, there was an announcement made that everyone would have to be hosed down once the ferry was docked. Turoff said he tried to convince someone that he didn’t need a rinse, but his attempt was unsuccessful.
“I walked home from the station with my clothes dripping wet … and my shoes squishing with every step,” Turoff wrote in an email to family and friends who had called to ask how he was faring in the aftermath.
On Wednesday, Prudential, like most other companies and businesses in the area, was closed. Work didn’t resume until the next week, and downtown Manhattan didn’t look much better than right after the attacks, Turoff said.
“There was dust on every ledge and every window sill and every tree stump and every fire hydrant,” he said. “It was like a holocaust.”
There were also fliers with the faces of missing people stapled and taped to trees, lamp posts, bulletin boards, and anywhere else people found open space, and it was those fliers, he said, that really got to him.
“It was just so sad, all those people who lost people,” he said. “You know that they’re dead, but the lack of closure … it’s so sad.”
Turoff said 9/11 could never alter his love for New York City, where he grew up and spent most of his adult years. And, he added, the terrible day hasn’t changed him either.
“I don’t think it’s changed many people at all,” Turoff said. “We proclaim to be profoundly changed, but nothing really changes. We move on and we’re just as foolish and frivolous and immature as ever.”
Turoff retired from his position on Wall Street in 2004, but not long after, he was offered what he said had been his dream job. However, on his way to the final interview, he had a minor panic attack as the PATH train pulled into the new station at the World Trade Center.
“I felt like I was on a PATH train into a cemetery,” Turoff said.
He turned down the job.