By John Lentz thepilot.com Moore County, NC
Few speakers have the power and charisma to hold a class of pre-teenagers in rapt attention and hanging onto every word, but a survivor of the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks did just that last week at a Moore County middle school.
Joe Dittmar, an insurance executive from Philadelphia, spoke to three classes at Elise Middle School about his ordeal that day.
A resident of Aurora, Ill. at the time, he had been invited to attend a meeting of 53 other fellow executives on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. The meeting was in progress when the first plane hit the adjoining North Tower.
“Fifty-four of us were in a room not unlike this classroom,” Dittmar told the students. “At 8:48 a.m. [sic - 8:46am], the lights flickered when the plane hit the tower beside us. We were in a closed room without windows, and had no idea what was happening.”
Dittmar said a fire marshal then entered the room and told everyone to evacuate due to “an explosion” in the North Tower.
“I can’t leave until you do,” the marshal told the group. Dittmar was the last person to leave the room. He and the others took the fire stairwell to the 90th floor, where curiosity got the better of him.
“If you are ever in a fire stairwell, don’t leave until you reach the lobby,” he said. “But the doors opened and everyone filed out. I’m in the fire insurance business, and should have known better, but left the stairs anyway.”
Dittmar asked the students what they do when their parents tell them not to do something. “I do it anyway!” the sixth-graders shouted.
Dittmar laughed. “I knew better, but I went to the window, looked out at the North Tower and saw something I hope I never see again. I saw a big black hole where the plane had hit, smoke billowing, flames to the roof, and pieces of the plane still lodged in the concrete and steel of the building. I thought it was an accident, and said, ‘How could he not miss the building? It’s a bright, beautiful day.’ Someone nearby said, ‘He aimed for it.’”
Dittmar said the man’s words made him realize that it was the deliberate act of a terrorist. “I was so afraid,” he told the students, most of whom were leaning forward in their seats, fully engaged in the story. “I thought, ‘This is not a movie, this is reality.’ I had a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that I really wanted to get out of there and go home. I needed to get out of that building.”
Dittmar returned to the stairs and heard an announcement over the speaker system that told everyone to go back to their work stations. “The South Tower is safe,” the voice said. Visitors were asked to remain where they were and await further instructions. While Dittmar watched, some began climbing the stairs to return to their offices. He ignored the advice and kept going downstairs.
He was between the 75th and 72nd floors when the second plane hit the South Tower, obliterating floors 78 through 84. “I never felt anything like it,” he said. “The stairwell felt like a concrete bunker, with handrails being torn from the walls and the steps wavering. We could smell jet fuel, and the shaking seemed to last forever.”
People were in stunned silence, Dittmar said. “We tried using our cellphones, but the transmitter was on the North Tower and out of commission,” he said.
“In retrospect, it was a blessing not to know what television viewers were seeing. What we didn’t know couldn’t hurt us.”
In the midst of the chaos, Dittmar saw people teaming up, helping others to safety who could not help themselves. “We all want to be good,” he said. “I saw people helping others in wheelchairs and helping overweight people down the stairs.
“Some things were kind of funny. There were a lot of barefoot women, and women’s shoes all over the place, where they had discarded them in order to move more quickly.”
Dittmar’s voice shook — 12 years later — when he spoke of an encounter on the 35th floor.
“We began meeting firemen and policemen who were ascending the stairs,” he said. “They had entered the building to fight a fire that couldn’t be put out and to try to save lives that couldn’t be saved. I locked eyes with some of them. They knew they were never coming back down.”
Dittmar asked for a show of hands from the children who have parents who are first responders.
“Tell them how much you love them,” he said.
Dittmar said luck was with him after he emerged onto the street. He found a friend who knew someone who lived in a nearby apartment.
“It looked like a war zone,” he said. “Concrete, steel, bodies. I saw people with terrible wounds, and hundreds of police and firefighters helping them. It was an incredible outpouring of love to those in need.”
Minutes after leaving the World Trade Center, Dittmar said the streets were filled with the sound of “80 freight trains” as the building he’d just come out of fell.
Of the 54 insurance executives in that fateful meeting, just Dittmar and six others survived.
Eventually, Dittmar was able to catch an Amtrak train to his mother’s house in Philadelphia before returning to Illinois. Thirty-six hours passed from the time of the attack to his return home. “I was 45 years old, and when I arrived at my boyhood home my mother ran out to meet me,” he said, his voice shaking again. “She gave me a big bear hug and kept sobbing, ‘My baby, my baby.’
“Guys,” Dittmar said to the class after taking a long breath. “Love your mother. Your parents love you, your friends love you, and I love you.
“Trust your heart, your soul and your mind. It’s not always easy, but if you know your heart, you can make the right decisions.”
Dittmar told the children that the country and their community needed them.
“This will be your world, you’ll be the leaders, and we need to trust that you will do a better job with this world than we have,” he said. “You can’t ever forget that.”
Sixth-grader Amando Jaimes heard Dittmar’s lecture in two separate classes after he and others asked to sit in on a repeat presentation.
“His speech was excellent,” Amando said. “It was so terrifying in there, I don’t see how anyone could have survived. I’m thankful I got to meet him.”
Student Michaela Willard agreed. “It was very inspiring, and it was amazing to hear how he survived,” she said. “I’ll probably remember this forever.”
Dittmar was joined by Frank and Linda Guerra, of Pinehurst, who made a brief presentation on United Flight 93.
Frank’s granddaughter, Deora Bodley, was the youngest passenger on the hijacked flight when it crashed in a Pennsylvania field on September 11. She was 20.
“Deora was active in community service at her high school,” Frank told the students. “We hope that when you get to the 10th or 11th grade, you will want to help as she did.”
Deora attended Santa Clara University in California, Guerra said, where she spent “16 to 20 hours a week” in the library. “They renamed one area ‘Deora’s Reading Room,’” he said.
Dittmar, who makes presentations of this kind “about 55 times per year” and who accepts no compensation for his efforts, said he “never gets tired” of speaking on the 9/11 tragedy.
“It’s my therapy,” he said. “I think talking about it is what keeps me out of the insane asylum.”