the September 24, 2001 issue of THE NEW YORKER, the issue with the
Katherine Ilachinski is a seventy-year-old architect. As a girl, she
survived the German bombing of Belgrade. On Tuesday morning, she was in
her office on the ninety-first floor of Two World Trade Center, working
on a sketch for changes to an electrical substation at the Hoboken
terminal of New Jersey Transit. The first jet hit One World Trade just
above the level of her office window
"There was an explosion, and a fireball went along the side of my
building where I was sitting," she recalled. "It was so hot. It was like
being in a boiler. I had to get out of my office. I went into an
interior passage, then into the main corridor, to the elevators. You
know, I was in the building in 1993, when we were bombed, and that time
my instincts were completely different. Then, I closed my office. This
time, I just wanted to get out of the building. Some people were taking
the stairs. But I thought, I'm too old to walk so far down. Our
elevators go to the lobby on seventy-eight. So I took the elevator to
"The lobby there was mobbed, everybody trying to get in the elevators to
the ground. I saw a guy who worked for me, Anthony—Anthony Portillo,"
Mrs. Ilachinski said. Her voice trembled. "He's a CAD operator—that's
computer-aided design. I told Anthony, 'Let's take the elevator to
forty-four.' It was still too high for me to walk, but the elevators to
the ground were so crowded. There was no air. And I know what happens if
the elevator gets stuck. You are doomed. But Anthony said, 'No, Katy.'
He wanted to take the elevator all the way down. I didn't trust it. So I
took the elevator to the forty-fourth floor. That elevator was
"But the scene in the lobby on forty-four was a repetition of
seventy-eight. It was just mobbed. People all the way from east to west.
Most of them waiting for the elevator to the ground. That was when I
decided to try to walk, and something just propelled me to the north
stairs. I don't know by what force I was propelled. But now, two days
later, I can look at the pictures and see: that was the side least
affected by the second jet.
"In the stairwell, it was quiet. There were announcements on the
loudspeakers, saying, 'It's safe. The building is safe. Don't panic.' I
think they even told us we could go back to our offices, but I'm not
sure. I was just going down, down, down, like an automaton. After the
plane hit our building, and the building started shaking, there were no
"Through almost everything, I felt amazingly calm, except for that one
moment in the stairwell, when the building started shaking and I
thought, I'm a goner. I wished I was back on the ninety-first floor, and
I could jump. Because I could jump from the window—reluctantly, but I
could do it—because then it is over. But to be trapped under rubble,
that is worse. I remember, from the war, from Belgrade, what it is to be
trapped under rubble.
"I don't really know where I was when the plane hit. I had with me some
water, but when the stairs started shaking I dropped it. There was
smoke, but not too thick. A colleague was with me when we reached the
ground, and we came out of the building together.
"We started toward the Manhattan Bridge. I didn't even turn to look
back. I was just walking. We had gone three blocks when the ground
shook, and it suddenly got very dark, and everybody started running. I'm
not too good at running, so I was just walking briskly. The smoke came
from behind us, and everything became covered with a fine white powder. I
actually thought it was an atom bomb, because that is what it's
supposed to be like.
"When I heard that the Pentagon was also attacked, I became very worried
about my son, because he often goes there for his work. I tried to
phone him, but I couldn't get through. I walked and walked. Finally, at
Penn Station, I managed to get through to his home, and my
daughter-in-law answered. She gave the phone to my son, and he told me
he was packing to go to New York to my funeral. They had been watching
TV all morning, and they saw the buildings fall, and they had already
buried me. It was a conclusion that I am dead that would be easily
understood. But my son told me that a very strange thing happened. He
reached up to take my picture from the shelf to take with him to New
York, and a book fell from the shelf, and he saw a word on the cover,
'Miracles.' And three minutes later I called. I think it's a miracle. Do
you believe in God?"
Mrs. Ilachinski had worked in the World Trade Center since 1980. She
still talks about the buildings as if they exist. Only two weeks before
the attack, she went on a tour to inspect the provisions in the
structural design of the south tower. The design, she said, was far
ahead of its time. "The building was designed to move three feet from
the center, which was remarkable," she said. "When we first moved in,
some people got seasick. And when there was a lot of wind there was
screeching in the inner core. You know, the buildings were designed for a
jet hit as well. But that was thirty years ago, and jets are different
now. And nobody thought about the fuel."
At points, without warning, her architect's curiosity and practicality
falter. "Guilt feeling you wouldn't believe," she said, with a voice
full of pain. "At this time of life. And all those young people went.
Strange. Very strange. And I am only asking why. All those poor people.
Thousands and thousands."
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