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‘It was like hell was opening up’ – how I escaped from the 84th floor of the south tower

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On September 11th 2001, nearly 3,000 people died when hijacked planes were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in a terrorist atrocity orchestrated by al Qaeda.

Janice Brooks, 61, from east London in the UK, was among the thousands of survivors caught up in what remains the deadliest terror attack on US soil.

As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, Ms Brooks has relived the day she escaped from close to the top of the south tower in New York, and has revealed how she is one of the hundreds survivors still haunted by what they witnessed.

Janice Brooks was on the 84th floor of the South Tower when planes hit the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001
Image: Janice Brooks was on the 84th floor of the south tower when the World Trade Center was attacked

When I arrived in New York in August 2001 I honestly couldn’t believe that, not only was I now living in the city, I was working from the 84th floor of one of the World Trade Center buildings.

Just weeks earlier I had been working for the same insurance brokers in their London office. My job at Eurobrokers involved answering the telephone, doing invoices, and working with the managing director.

The morning of September 11th was absolutely glorious weather-wise. I left my flat in Battery Park at 7.20am and enjoyed the 10-minute walk to the south tower.

A fireball erupted from the South Tower after a second plane hit the World Trade Center
Image: Both the north and south towers were hit by planes during the attack

When I got to the office one of the first things I did was pick up the phone to call the chief executive, and as soon as I did I heard a loud bang and my PC screen flickered.

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Then I could hear this man shouting: “Everybody out!”

I picked up my bag to leave and thought I would call London. I was put through to Robin, the head of the London office, and told him “something’s happening next door, I’m getting ready to leave”.

Robin screamed: “Something happening next door? F****** hell Janice, a plane has hit the building. Get the f*** out of there.”

Janice Brooks has shared her story in full in the latest episode of StoryCast ’21, a Sky News podcast series telling 21 stories from the year 2000 to 2021.

Subscribe to Storycast 21 now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Spreaker

I headed out to the corridor and joined a throng of people going down the stairs – it was a Tuesday and everyone was just chatting away, it wasn’t an anxious situation.

Minutes later, when I must have been at the back of a group of about 10 people, there was this loud crashing sound. Lights fell down and dust and chunks of ceiling were all over the place.

I didn’t fall down but I was knocked to the side.

After a couple of minutes some people who had been knocked to the ground were now on their feet and dusting themselves off. The group I was with had to work hard to open a door, and all we could see was that the staircase had gone.

The South Tower, where Ms Brooks works, is seen crumbling into a cloud of dust after the attack
Image: Ms Brooks worked for Eurobrokers in the south tower. Sixty-one staff at the company died that day

There was just dust, darkness and some flickering of flames. Then there was this almighty screaming sound, a woman screaming the scream of nightmares, a scream that I can still hear in my head.

Then a door was opened and a lady came through. She had glass all over her hair and it looked to me like the majority of her toes on one foot were missing. Another guy came out with a shard of glass in his chest.

And then finally came the screaming lady, she hadn’t stopped screaming all this time. “I can’t see, I can’t see, I can’t see.”

Both of her eyes were full of blood. Someone had a bottle of water and they washed out her eyes. She shook her hair and glass just went everywhere.

Hundreds of firefighters were among those who died in the 9/11 attacks
Image: Hundreds of firefighters were among those who died in the 9/11 attacks

We actually assumed that the building next door was collapsing into us. We couldn’t go down the staircase we had just came from because it wasn’t there anymore, and then, as if by magic, there was another door. One by one we all squeezed through and began walking down the stairs.

After walking for about 20 minutes some firemen came up the stairs and made sure no one needed help. I looked down at my shirt and there was blood all over my shirt, I could feel this scream building inside of me but I gathered myself together.

A lady in front of me had a bad leg and was shaking and a lady behind me had asthma – we were the slow end of the group of people.

A fireman calls for more rescue workers to make their way to the rubble of the World Trade Center
Image: A fireman calls for more rescue workers to make their way to the rubble of the World Trade Center

We finally made it out onto the street and it was a scene of absolute chaos, emergency services were working frantically and there were huge bits of building just laying everywhere.

You could also hear these awful thwacking sounds but I had no idea what they were.

I looked up at the World Trade Center, and where our floor should have been there was a gaping hole. I just stood there and cried.

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Shortly after that I walked back to the company’s apartment block where I lived and took a call from the wife of one of the company’s directors – a man named Kevin. She hadn’t heard from him and told me to let her know if he turned up at the apartment block.

I received a call from Eileen, who works in the HR department, and a plan was hatched that I would make my way to her in the Queens part of the city.

When I got up to her apartment we watched the aftermath unfold on television, you could see the smoke from the towers from her balcony.

The next day Eurobrokers had set up a help desk and drawn up a list of all the the employees who were still missing.

Firefighters rest near the wreckage of the World Trade Center after planes hit each of the two towers
Image: Firefighters rest near the wreckage of the World Trade Center after planes hit each of the two towers

I looked down and saw Kevin was one of them. He was one of the 61 Eurobrokers staff who died that day.

Even after all these years, I can close my eyes and go back to September 11th 2001 in an instant. I later learned the awful thwacking sounds I had heard were the sounds of people jumping from the building and hitting the ground.

What I hope most of all is that sometime today or tomorrow you give some thought, not only to all my friends, but to everyone who died on September 11th, and all the survivors, because we’re still struggling.

Listen to Janice Brooks’ story in full in the latest episode of StoryCast ’21 – a Sky News podcast series telling 21 stories from the year 2000 to 2021.