Joe Dittmar, a survivor of the World Trade Center terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, served as the keynote speaker at the 80th annual Henderson-Vance Chamber of Commerce banquet held February 1 in the Civic Center of Vance-Granville Community College.
A married father of four and grandfather of two, Dittmar is a Program Manager with Swyfft Insurance in Chapel Hill, NC and has held senior management positions with other insurance companies over his 40 year career in the industry.
Dittmar’s story of the events of 9/11 touch on the theme of how success in life often comes down to making solid decisions. “Decisions, both big and small, develop our character. The critical decision making process can thrust you into the role of leader. Your decisions can truly be life and death. My decision making was tried, tested and galvanized on September 11, 2001,” said Dittmar.
On that fateful Tuesday morning, Dittmar attended a business meeting with 53 other insurance executives on the 105th floor of the South Tower, Two World Trade Center, in New York City. After the events of that day, Dittmar was one of only seven survivors from his insurance group.
According to Dittmar, when the North Tower was hit, the occupants on the highest floor of the South Tower were in a windowless room and saw the lights flicker, but noticed nothing else out of the ordinary. The insurance executives were then ushered out of the room by a security guard and told they needed to evacuate.
Still confused by what was happening, they attempted to call relatives or others; however, there was no cell phone service due to the main cell tower on top of the North Tower being destroyed when the first plane hit. “The first thing you do when you attack the enemy is to cut the line of communication. Whether intentional or not, that is what they did,” Dittmar said.
The group of insurance executives made it to the 90th floor of the building and filed out into the lobby. Dittmar describes the next few seconds as the worst of his life, “To look out those windows, to see those gapping black holes through the sides of that building, gray and black billows of smoke pouring out of those holes, flames redder than any red I’d seen before in my life. I remember being able to see through that smoke and seeing pieces of the fuselage of a large plane lodged inside the building. My first thought was ‘My God, how did the pilot miss?’ He didn’t miss.”
Dittmar then credits his next decision with being the one that saved his life. Despite the majority of his colleagues waiting to take the elevator down the remaining 90 levels to the ground, he took the fire stairwell. He was between the 74th and 72nd floor in the stairwell when the second plane came through the South Tower at an angle between the 77th and 83rd floor. “We were just a few short stories below the strike zone. I have never felt anything like that before in all of my life. That fire stairwell, that concrete bunker, started to shake so violently from side to side at angles it should not be shaking, the concrete started to spider out, the handrails were breaking away from the wall, the steps like waves in the ocean undulating under our feet. We could feel the heat and we could smell the jet fuel,” said Dittmar.
Although trying to survive a nightmare scenario, Dittmar was struck by the way people came together to help each other in those moments. “It was one of those moments where I got to see human nature at its absolute best. We are incredible in crisis. We come together like nobody that I’ve ever seen. What we saw immediately was human nature at its finest,” Dittmar exclaimed.
After managing to make it to the 35th floor via the stairwell, Dittmar saw his first glimpse of outside help in the way of first responders. “Just the look in their eyes told the whole story. They knew. They knew they were going up those steps to try to fight a fire they couldn’t beat. They knew they were going up those steps to try to save lives they couldn’t save. They knew they were marching in to the bowels of hell. They knew they were going up and they knew that they were never, never coming back,” said Dittmar.
Dittmar and others made it to the bottom lobby, but were unable to be evacuated that way due to the carnage and rubble located just outside. He was then evacuated through an underground passage system where he saw severely injured people receiving assistance from first responders. “I have never seen at one place, in one time, such an outpouring of caring, of concern and love,” Dittmar said.
Dittmar made it safely out of the city that day and eventually home to his wife and children, but lamented, “You look at were once was the greatest skyline in all the world now relegated to a gray and black cloud. How sad.”
“I’m here today, alive and fortunate to share all of this with you because of a series of decisions made in the most critical of circumstances,” said Dittmar. He continued by saying that a person does not have to be in the middle of a terrorist attack to make successful decisions, that good decisions are important in everyday settings.
In conclusion, Dittmar stated that he does not seek compensation for his speeches, “I do this because I believe, as a person who has been a part of a historical event, that it is my obligation to tell the story, and to give a voice to the 3,000 people who lost their voices that day.”
John Barnes, president of the Henderson-Vance Chamber of Commerce thanked Dittmar and presented him with a gift basket donated by The Peanut Roaster. Dittmar thanked the Chamber for making a donation to the Pittsboro 9/11 Memorial located in Chatham County.
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