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On September 11, 2001, Joseph Dittmar’s decision making and risk management background literally saved his life. While making the right decisions was not easy, several decisions became key to his survival, including not entering an elevator during the evacuation and exiting underground in the location farthest away from the World Trade Center.

Dittmar, a World Trade Center survivor, spoke to attendees at the Risk Management Services Annual Members meeting about his harrowing experience during the September 11 attacks.

Dittmar worked in insurance in Chicago and was asked to attend a meeting at the World Trade Center on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. He said he was not thrilled about attending the meeting and would have much rather have stayed home. However, the weekend before, he traveled to Philadelphia and visited with family and friends, before traveling to New York City on an Amtrak train that morning.

The former World Trade Center was a vast complex, with the primary two towers each occupied by more than 25,000 people during the day. Each building had its own ZIP code.

Dittmar was meeting with 54 people at 8:30 a.m. in the South Tower on floor 105 — the highest occupied level in the building. The conference room had four walls, no windows and one door. At 8:46 a.m., the lights flickered in the conference room — a plane had struck the North Tower — and the attendees received instructions to evacuate. Unaware of what was happening, they began to walk down 105 flights of stairs. Cell phones had no service, as the cell tower had been on the North Tower.

On the 90th floor, the evacuees gained access to a lobby from the stairwell. From the lobby, they could see fire and smoke, and a large plane lodged in the North Tower. They received an announcement that they could return to their offices or conference rooms, given that the crash appeared to be contained to the North Tower.

Relying on his background in fire insurance, Dittmar made his first fateful decision of that day. He decided not to enter an elevator to evacuate, but rather to continue evacuating down the stairwell. Eighteen minutes later, the next plane crashed into the South Tower. The plane crashed between floors 77 and 83 at a moment when Dittmar was between floors 72 and 74. The stairwell shook violently, with concrete crumbling around him.

At that moment, he said his thoughts were that “I just want to go home.”

Around the 35th floor, he encountered New York police and firefighters heading up the stairwells. They were going to fight a fire that they would not be able to put out, and attempt to save lives that they would not be able to save.

Dittmar made it to the lobby level and described it as “a scene from a war zone.”

He saw crumbled concrete and twisted steel. He had to travel to the concourse underground level to exit. In the concourse, first responders were attending to the injured. He reached the northeast end of the concourse, which was the furthest away from the towers. He was told to run, and to not stop when he was able to get out of the complex. Dittmar said that about the time he made it eight blocks away, he saw a television screen in a building with news stating that the event was a terrorist attack — his first knowledge that the crashes had been intentional. At the same time, he heard one of the towers collapse and people screaming.

This sound, he said, is one he has “heard every day for the past 20 years.”

Dittmar was able to board an Amtrak train at Penn Station and return to his parents’ house in Philadelphia. He said he had never been so thankful to see his mother waiting for him to arrive home. The next day he drove back home to Aurora, Illinois, and met his wife at church.

Dittmar’s story of decision making, survival and remembrance of those who died that day resonated with the attendees of the Risk Management Services Annual Members Meeting.

He said that it is his “duty to tell the story and provide a voice for those who lost their lives,” and that “they did not lose their lives in vain.”

He ended the presentation asking his audience to never forget the tragic date of September 11, 2001.