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120-block trek follows trade center trip



Published: Fri, September 14, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The woman said she could see debris raining down outside the building.

VINDICATOR STAFF REPORT

Despite walking an estimated 120 New York City blocks in high heels, lugging a laptop computer, Esther Washburn considers herself to be very lucky despite her blisters and bruises.

Washburn, 27, a niece of Janet and Tom Williams of Canfield, is a sales engineer for KANA Software and was in the lobby of World Trade Center Building Two (South Tower) when the North Tower was struck by a hijacked jet Tuesday morning.

The University of Indiana graduate, whose parents, the Rev. Philip and Nancy Washburn, live in Scarsdale, N.Y. (about 15 miles north of Manhattan), was making a sales call at the Trade Center.

"I was scheduled to meet with a prospective client at 10 a.m. on the 32nd floor," said Washburn, whose office is in the midtown section of Manhattan. "It's unusual for me to be in the financial district" in lower Manhattan.

Begins her day: Washburn took the subway from her apartment on West 76th Street to the World Trade Center, arriving about 10 minutes before the attack.

After buying coffee in the mall area under the lobby of the 110-story building, she walked up to the lobby and was waiting for a colleague next to the security booth.

Plastic photo ID cards are required for all visiting sales representatives. "There's a lot of [red tape] involved in getting into that building," she said.

When the building began to shake, "We thought it was a bomb," Washburn said. "It wasn't until we got outside that we heard about a plane."

Washburn said that as she glanced out the nearest exit, she could see "raining debris outside," so security personnel started herding people to another exit across the building.

"The immediate assumption was that it was a bombing," said Washburn, noting a chaotic scene in which some people were walking and others running.

While walking, Washburn used her cell phone to call the sales representative she was to meet and left "a panicked voice mail."

"It was very scary," she said, so she called her father, who was unaware of the attack. "I had a frazzled moment, so he told me to stay calm, to walk, not run, and to keep my head. It was nice to feel that I was with someone, but it probably wasn't as good of an experience for those on the other end of the cell phone."

Exit closed: The first exit she was sent to was closed off, creating more chaos among those looking for a way out.

Washburn returned to the lower mall area and found an open exit. She went to an adjacent building and watched television news reports with others.

She noticed a varied reaction among those outside. "Some were taking photos, some were running, some were crying."

Washburn decided to walk east toward the East River away from the congestion of the trade center. "You really can't get too far walking west. Walking toward the water just made sense."

She had gone about two blocks when the tower she had vacated was struck by a second hijacked jet.

"My first thought was 'Oh God, it's like a war. It's a nightmare.'

"I don't know exactly what a bomb sounds like, but it was one loud boom," Washburn said of the second impact. "With the second one, you knew it was an attack.

Heard about plane: "People who lived in the nearby buildings were coming outside and said they heard from newscasts that it was a plane," Washburn said. "We figured it must have been a small craft [off course]. No one imagined it was anything the size of a jet."

Although her father had suggested that she "could stick around" to help, Washburn chose to follow the stream of people heading east, then north.

An avid runner since high school, she walked passed Chinatown and the East Village in her exodus to midtown.

"I was dialing constantly." But she couldn't get phone service, she said. She eventually tried calling her parents from a pay phone but couldn't get through because of the overload of calls.

She said the panic was probably worse for those trying to call people in the city. She considered ditching her laptop during the long trek, but she didn't.

Once in midtown, she learned from someone carrying a Walkman television that the towers had collapsed.

She returned to her apartment on West 76th Street around 2 p.m., and she called her parents, then watched the news.

"I'm sure they spent the rest of the day worried, wondering whether I stuck around [to help]," Washburn said.

Got out: In the evening, she and her sister, Susan, went to Grand Central Station and took a commuter train to Scarsdale.

"It was like walking through a ghost town," she said of their trek from West 57th to 42nd. "But fortunately, there were a lot of police around. The trains were limited and very crowded."

Washburn said she's not sure when she will return to Manhattan. "Everything is shut down."

The Washburns don't know yet if anyone they know was killed in the attack, but they won't be surprised to find out if someone from Scarsdale, an affluent community that is home to many business people who work in Manhattan, are victims.




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