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Thursday, 13 September, 2001, 17:52 GMT 18:52 UK
Survivor who ignored advice
Richard Wadja
Richard Wadja: 'It was a beautiful, calm morning'
By BBC News Online's Chris Horrie

A New York survivor has told BBC News Online how he was advised to get off the street and go to his desk in South Tower of the World Trade Centre minutes before it burst into flames.

His decision to ignore the advice and run saved his life.

American Express worker Richard Wadja's decision to enjoy a leisurely walk on a "beautiful, calm" late summer morning made him a fateful few minutes late for work at his desk in the Center's South Tower.

"For me it was a normal day. Everything was calm. Then I was walking right outside the building about to enter when I heard an explosion - I had no idea it was a plane - it was a huge explosion, a strange sound.

'Nothing but flames'

"I looked up and saw nothing but flames and fire in the first tower, right above me - and things are falling down from the building.

"People were just standing around and looking up - I got hit on the head and I started to run across the street. People were running and screaming as though it was an earthquake."

"When I got across the street I looked back and five or six storeys were in flames."

Mr Wadja immediately phoned his office in the still unaffected North Tower and was told by a receptionist: "It was a plane... they just made an announcement on the loudspeaker."

Canary Wharf

"She told me 'get over here - we are OK'."

Mr Wadja does not know if the "stay put" announcement was made throughout the building, or just in his own office.

This is the worst fire I've ever seen - I'm going home - and you'd better out of there

Richard Wadja
After the first plane hit the World Trade Center it is likely that many others in the South Tower were likewise told to stay put - making them sitting ducks for the second plane, already making its turn to attack.

The advice to stay inside - to avoid the deadly rain of debris already falling from the North Tower - was not necessarily unusual.

This was, for example, exactly what people were told to do in London's Canary Wharf tower when it was hit by an IRA bomb attack in 1996. It was seen as much safer for people to stay inside than expose themselves to the danger of flying or falling glass in the streets.

Canary Wharf
Canary Wharf: people told to stay put


Ignoring the pleas of his office Mr Wadja said he was not going to come into the building - mainly because the streets surrounding the base of the Center were already full of burning debris following the first plane attack.

"Standing there, I then saw a body fall from one of the windows up way high on the North Tower and of course it didn't look like one at first because you are in shock - but it was a body."

He told the receptionist: "this is the worst fire I've ever seen - I'm going home - and you'd better out of there".

Second Crash

Instead of heading for the "safety" of his own office, Mr Wadja - now in a state of deep shock - phoned his mother who advised him to "just run, run, run - get out of there".

"I'm glad I listened to her because otherwise I might have just stood their watching, stunned and not knowing that it was going to get worse."

Mr Wadja had started to run away from the scene when the second plane crashed into the South Tower, housing the office to which he had been directed only minutes before.

I said to everyone - we can't stay in this park. We are too close to the United Nations. If they hit the Pentagon they are definitely going to hit that

Richard Wadja
"People started running in every direction as though it was from a horror film.

"They ran so fast that I got knocked over - somebody actually stepped on me. And then somebody else helped me get up. I kept running and I kept thinking to myself 'why did I stop to look - I wasted minutes'."


But many others, Mr Wadja remembers, stood stunned and staring with amazement. They are likely to have been among the victims crushed when the towers collapsed half an hour later.

Just before that time Mr Wadja and other survivors had made it to the relative safety of a park several blocks away.

By now, news of the attacks on the Pentagon and attempted attacks on other buildings had convinced many in the traumatised crowd that other suicide planes were on the way.

"I said to everyone - we can't stay in this park. We are too close to the United Nations. If they hit the Pentagon they are definitely going to hit that."

As Mr Wadja was saying this the South Tower began to collapse.

"Don't walk - run!"

"The sound was one I can't even describe. We couldn't believe it. We were in denial."

Victims then began heading towards the 59th Street bridge convinced that they must get off Manhattan island and out of the centre of the city.

When Mr Wadja reached the bridge hysteria was such that people were shouting "don't walk - run. Who knows - the bridge might be a target too."


It took him six hours to reach the home of his babysitter on the outskirts of the city, driven on by the idea he had to get his baby child out of a city which, he believed, was being subject to an all-out military attack.

"The next day I was in agony but at the time I didn't feel the pain - I was just numb".

At the time Mr Wadja spoke to us, many of his colleagues at American Express were still unaccounted for.

"The ones that thought nothing was going to happen were the ones that perished," he says.

"That's the way it is."