'How vulnerable we all were'

Medford resident Erik Peterson was a half-mile from New York's ground zero, and his life hasn't been the same since
Smoke billows from the North Tower of the World Trade Center as flames and debris explode from the South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001.AP

The roar of a commercial jetliner partially awakened Erik Peterson at 8:46 that morning.

Living on the eighth floor of an apartment building at 75 West St. in lower Manhattan, he was not used to jets flying so close overhead.

But it was the deafening sound of a booming blast seconds later, one that rattled the apartment building, that sent him sitting bolt upright.

"I immediately looked out the window at our terrace and you could see debris already falling down — mostly small pieces of metal, binders, notebooks, pieces of paper," he recalled.

"It almost looked like a ticker-tape parade with paper floating down to the street," he added. "Alarms were going off all over."

American Airlines Flight 11 had just slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at more than 440 mph.

It was Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001.

Peterson, although living within a half-mile of the epicenter of what would become known as ground zero, would not know until that night the scope of the terrorist attack that killed some 3,000 people.

Nor did he know he was about to begin the most harrowing day of his life, one that would forever change him. His building would soon be engulfed by thick, choking dust from which there seemed no escape.

"Any time you experience something like that it gives you a tremendous sense of appreciation for each day you have," he said. "That gets magnified more when you have a family. I never realized everything then. I was 24 at the time.

"I still think about it a lot, how vulnerable we all were," he added. "I just don't talk about it a lot."

Peterson, 34, is now a financial adviser for PremierWest Investment Services in Medford, where he has worked for four years.

He and his wife, Kristin Lair Peterson, a 1994 graduate of South Medford High School, have two children, Bennett, who turned 2 on Friday, and his older brother, Lucas, age 4.

Hailing from Albany, where he graduated from South Albany High School in 1995, Peterson is a 1999 graduate of Rutgers University, majoring in political science and journalism. His first job out of college was with Miramax Films in the Big Apple, where he worked for two years while living in Hoboken, N.J.

He hails from a blue-collar family in Oregon. His father is a millwright, his mother a teacher's aide. He and his brother, Kris, who was living in nearby Queens in 2001, are the first in their family to graduate from college.

By July 2001, Erik Peterson wanted to try his hand at freelance filmmaking. He already had decided to head back to Oregon, and had temporarily moved into the New York City apartment with friends in lower Manhattan.

"I was working with a friend to produce a travel show she was trying to pitch to Travel Network and a few others," he said. "On September 11th, we were two days away from going to the Outer Banks in North Carolina to shoot that pilot."

The attack blew their Outer Banks plans out of the water.

Back in the apartment about two-and-a-half blocks from the World Trade Center plaza, Peterson and the three others in the apartment had no idea what had happened. They could not see the tower because a hotel blocked their view, he explained.

"But we could see people gathering down on the street," he said. "And we could see smoke, lots of smoke.

"I remember we were saying there must have been a gas explosion or something," he added. "It never crossed our minds there might have been 'intent.' We just thought there must have been a freak accident."

They talked for a few more minutes. Peterson then went to his room to get something out of his suitcase.

"That's when we heard the other plane going over," he said. "When it hit, it was incredibly loud. And very scary."

Flying more than 540 mph, United Airlines Flight 175 had just crashed into the South Tower. It was 9:03 a.m.

Again they looked down on the street below.

"The scary part was looking at the ambulance crews and police obviously covering up bodies," he said. "You could see what they were doing, although you couldn't make out the bodies. It was really getting chaotic at that point. A lot of people were gathering below us."

Someone turned on the television in the apartment. There were reports of an aircraft striking the second tower.

"I was still thinking they must be small airplanes," he said. "It never crossed my mind they were commercial airliners. I thought that somehow it had to have been pilot error."

Still uncertain what they should do, the roommates went out into the hallway where they met other residents of the building.

"One of the guys in the hallway, his partner was in the North Tower," Peterson said. "He was trying to reach him and could not get him on the phone. Turns out he was killed."

Peterson stepped out onto the terrace once again to see what was happening below.

"That's when everything started shaking," he said.

Although the South Tower was the second one to be hit, it was the first to fall. It began collapsing at 9:59 a.m.

"We started running down the fire escape to try to get out of the building," he said. "The noise was so loud. The whole building was shaking, really vibrating. The elevator emergency flashers were going off."

They got down to the fourth floor when those leading the charge yelled for them to turn back.

"What happened was the debris and dust was being forced into the building and shot up through the fire escape," he said. "There was this wall of dust coming up. You couldn't see anything."

They ran back up to the sixth floor and out into the hallway.

"Everybody was covered with this black dust," he said. "It filled the air. It was real hard to breathe."

He was among eight people gathered in the sixth-floor hallway. He was able to reach his parents back in Oregon to let them know he was OK. He also called his brother, who was being evacuated from his building.

They were all sitting in the hallway when the building began shaking again. It was 10:28 a.m. The North Tower was collapsing.

"Then it got quiet and we all laid on the floor," he said. "I remember thinking that might be the end. That was very scary."

Their cellphones no longer worked. The electricity was out. Someone had a portable radio, which reported a plane had also struck the Pentagon.

In the darkness of the hallway, they got up and started feeling and stumbling their way down the stairwell.

"We pushed open the fire escape and there was a police officer standing about 15 yards from the building," he said. "It was incredibly surreal. There was this beautiful sky but everything was so dark from the dust."

Surprised that anyone was still in the building, the officer gave them face masks and told them to make their way to the nearest port to get on a ferry.

"We were walking through six inches of dust," said Peterson, who was wearing shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops.

It was on the ferry ride to Brooklyn that they could see through the smoke and dust that the two towers were gone. In Brooklyn, they were received with open arms by local residents and emergency workers offering food and clothes, he said.

A friend in their group had an acquaintance in Brooklyn, where they spent the night.

"That night we saw the news on television," he said. "I really had no clue until about 8 o'clock that night what had truly happened."

The next day in the early afternoon he made it to Queens, where he was reunited with his brother.


"I gave him a big hug — we were very emotional," he recalled.

Two weeks later, he and his roommates were permitted with a police escort to return to their apartment to retrieve their belongings. They were allowed 15 minutes.

"I got some clothes," he said. "Everything was caked with dust."

He left the Big Apple for Oregon at the end of October that year.

"I remember feeling guilty for leaving," he said. "Of course, what I went through was nothing compared to what many others suffered that day."

Back in Oregon, he earned a master's in business administration from Portland State University, married and started a family. They flew back to New York in July to visit his brother and friends in the city.

"I don't want to ever forget what happened," he said. "It's part of who I am. It was a long time ago for some people, but it still seems fresh to me, that day."

The experience taught him to appreciate each day with his family, he said.

"I learned that day in 2001 that everything can disappear so fast," he said. "I think I'm a lot more patient now, with myself and with other people."

He paused for a moment as he thought about the World Trade Center and those who worked there. On the evening of Sept. 10, he had gone to the J.Crew store at the WTC plaza to buy a pair of chinos.

"I had that receipt for a long time," he said. "It gave me a sense of how lucky I was."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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