9/11 survivor Ram Singal recalls lucky escape

Mobin Pandit The Peninsula Qatar

Ram Singal is a 9/11 survivor. He was on the 64th floor of the 110-story North Tower of the World Trade Centre (WTC) in New York City when Al Qaeda-affiliated hijackers flew a Boeing 767 into the high-rise early on September 11, 2001.

Singal, a civil engineer who migrated to the US from India’s Punjab province in 1977, was employed by an agency that worked for the Port Authority of New York.  He was in the Authority’s office on the 64th floor of the North Tower when the plane hit it at 8.46am. He said he had come to office on that fateful morning at 7.30am.

Ram Singal  Picture credit Salim Matramkot

Ram Singal  Picture credit Salim Matramkot

“There was a loud thud and the whole tower began shaking. My chair moved to one side. I thought it was a quake,” Singal said, recalling the worst terrorist attack in human history so far.

“Two to three minutes later the shaking stopped. We, then, realised it might have been a small plane that hit the tower. In the past such an incident had taken place.”

In an interview to The Peninsula, Singal, who was here on a brief private visit, said people began asking me what to do. “And we began moving towards the stairs.”

A few minutes later (actually, 17 minutes later, to be precise) another plane (also a Boeing 767) hit the South Tower of the WTC. “We didn’t know about it but some people talked about it.”

Singal said that was the time he was convinced it was not an accident. “By that time the entire stairs were full with people. They were panicking and screaming.”

Singal was working with the Bridges and Tunnels department of the Port Authority of New York and the department occupied the entire 64th floor.

The Authority had offices on other floors of the tower as well. “In our department there were about 25 people, including women, when the tragedy struck.

“We began going down the stairs. The tower was now shaking badly. Plaster from the walls was falling. Standpipes for fire sprinklers were rattling. As we were going down the stairs, on each floor streams of people, crying in panic, were joining us…Some people were praying.”

The other tower was crumbing. It was collapsing. “We didn’t see that happen but people were talking about it.”

Singal said he was amazed that despite what was happening and death lurking around, he was not scared at all. “I was not in fear. My thought was rather focused on helping people.” Singal said what helped him keep his cool in such a scary situation was that he, being a member of the ‘Brahma Kumaris’, had been practicing meditation since his youth—since 1974.

Brahma Kumaris originated in India as an interfaith movement to foster spiritual knowledge and delineate an enlightened lifestyle through meditation for individual and social good. The movement today has a presence in 130 countries across the world, including USA. But Singal said he wasn’t meditating at the time. “At that time my thought was to help people. I would come in front of people and tell them ‘don’t worry, we are together so will die together’.”

There were women in the crowd and they were crying. “But I was in total control of myself. There was absolutely no fear. I was moving down with the groups of people and talking to them.”

There were firefighters in the tower. “When the other tower caved in, we were asked to change the stairs.” There were three emergency stairs in the tower. The elevators were shut, for in an emergency they are never used as electricity can suddenly go off.

The distance between the two towers may have been 300 to 500 feet [sic -113 feet]. Perhaps the debris from the falling South Tower might have blocked the main stairs.

Singal said he had worked for the Port Authority of New York earlier, too, (in 1989) but had left. He started working for them again in January 2001, some eight months before 9/11.

“We were moved to the second stairs and a little later asked to use the third emergency stairs as we were told that the second stairs were broken from underneath.”

“However, four to five minutes after we began using the third emergency stairs we were out of the building. As we stepped out the tower we saw it shaking very badly and collapsing and the ground beneath us was trembling, so we ran.”

At the time the planes hit both the WTC towers there may have been 20,000 people in the complex.

The peak working time began at around 9am. It was a Tuesday so there were more people. Asked if more Jews worked in the two towers and that’s why they were attacked by terrorists, Singal said he wouldn’t be able to comment on that as he had no idea.

He said from the time the North Tower was hit by the plane it took about one-and-a-half-hours to cave in. “Our descent took that much time.”

“My mind was focused on helping people rather than knowing what happened and who did it. In a crisis, you tend to forget fear when you are in a helping mode.”

More than 2,700 [2,749] people died in the twin tower crashes. Of Singal’s 25 colleagues, he said some 10 died because they chose to stay back, thinking they would be saved.

In 1993, the North Tower was attacked when a truck bomb was detonated by terrorists. Many people stayed back in the tower and were safe. “That’s what our unfortunate collagues thought and stayed back.”

Being spiritual, Singal said he believes in forgiving those who were responsible for the tragedy. Retribution doesn’t help. It only leads to a chain reaction.

“We believe in goodness. Goodness and happiness multiply like the domino effect. If one makes it a point to do just one small act of goodness a day the world would be a better place to live.”

 

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