‘I saw the second plane slam into the south tower’

By R Sonny Sampayan-Sampayan

I had just retired after 22 years in the United States Air Force and decided to move to New York City. I was drawn to the city lights, Central Park, Times Square, Wall Street, Brooklyn Bridge, and the many tall buildings like the Empire State building and the Twin Towers.

Ten years ago, on February 2001, Regis at my temp job agency offered me a job on the 85th floor of the north World Trade Center. I gladly accepted and began to collect my personal belongings for the commute from Madison Avenue in midtown to the WTC. I was so excited because I’d have a chance to work in one of the buildings that brought me to New York.

As I was leaving my temp job agency, Regis motioned for me to stay as he answered a phone call. I later learned that a major European bank needed an immediate help a few blocks from Times Square. Regis asked if I wanted to work in midtown instead of the World Trade Center. I simply replied, “I’ll go wherever you need me to go.” I was having second thoughts because I was really looking forward to working at the WTC. I regretted my decision over the next several months. I kept telling myself that I missed a good opportunity to work at the WTC.

I began my new job on the 33rd floor of Seventh Avenue and 51st Street. From time to time, I found myself looking outside my windows and I could see other tall buildings in my immediate surroundings. I looked westward and I could see New Jersey across the Hudson River. A few blocks from me, I could glimpse the New York Cruise Terminal where many of the largest cruise ships dock. I looked south and there would be the Lehman Brothers building next door and Times Square below. I looked further to the south and there stood the two beautiful Twin Towers. Despite my regrets of taking this job, I was still fascinated with the beautiful view from the 33rd floor.

On Tuesday, September 1, 2001, I arrived on the 33rd floor at 8 a.m. I’m normally the first person in my department to arrive and I’ve always had the habit of enjoying the view from up there before I started work. There was nothing special about this day but I found myself staring at the Twins just like any other day. I also bring my camera just in case I see something that I like to shoot at.

Shortly after 8:45 a.m., I heard several people screaming. I ran over to the conference room where about 10 of my colleagues had congregated in disbelief. They told me that a plane had struck one of the Twin Towers. I also looked into the distance and saw the north tower in black smoke. I ran back to my desk to try to make several phone calls, but all the lines were jammed. I quickly got my camera and ran back to the conference room. At 9:38 a.m., I began to click the shutter of my camera precisely as the second plane slammed into the south tower.

The author’s snapshot of the second attack from his 33rd-floor office window.

Everyone in the room nearly collapsed at the sight that we had all just witnessed. I had to pinch myself just to see if this was just a dream. A few minutes later, I heard more screams coming from the conference room. I ran and learned that the first twin tower had collapsed. The panic began and we all scrambled to leave our towering building. I grabbed my bag and ran down the stairs with other evacuees. It felt like eternity but I finally made it to the ground floor after 15 minutes of anxiety.

As I stepped outside our building, I heard the noise of freedom. I looked above me and saw two F-15s circling about 3,000 feet above Manhattan. They were guarding the skies to make sure that New York would not be attacked again. I ran over to Times Square where many people had gathered in disbelief. After a few minutes in Times Square, I realized that this location would be a good target for additional terrorists attack. I soon realized that the subways were suspended and taxis and buses were full. It was 11 a.m. when I finally decided to walk home along with millions of other New Yorkers. I finally reached my home in the Bronx at 6 p.m.

Two days later, I was watching and listening to the news when suddenly someone with a familiar voice was on CNN. I knew I had heard that voice before in the cockpit of our KC-135 airplane. I turned my attention to the TV and I was surprised that Jim Ogonowski, a personal friend and a fellow KC-135 crewmember was being interviewed on CNN. Jim and I had flown on some sorties together while we were at Grissom AFB, Indiana in the ‘80s. I had also tasked Jim’s Air National Guard units while I was working NATO exercises in Europe. Jim was a KC-135 navigator and I was a KC-135 boom operator.

During this CNN broadcast, I learned that Jim’s brother, John A. Ogonowski, a C-141 pilot during the Vietnam War, was the pilot of American Airlines flight 11, the first plane to hit the WTC. It’s believed that before John was killed, he managed to “key-in” the aircraft’s radio that allowed air traffic controllers to listen to the terrorist’s conversation.

Today, I’m still working for the same bank as I did in 2001. From time to time, I still find myself looking westward toward the Hudson River and New Jersey. Towards the south, I see an empty space where the Twin Towers once stood.

R Sonny Sampayan-Sampayan is an executive assistant for a major European bank in Manhattan. He recently graduated from the University of Phoenix with a degree in Public Administration.

One Comment

  1. Alice Adkins wrote:

    8:46-The first plane hit, 9:03-The second plane hit, 9:59-The south tower collapsed, 10:29-The north tower collapsed. God bless America.

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