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9/11 Survivor: ‘I Thought I Was Going To Die’

The twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 (FEMA)
DELRAY BEACH, Florida – Thomas Panevino was in his seventh grade Spanish class in Manhattan the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when he heard the booming sound of an approaching airplane.
Despite their teacher’s instruction to remain seated, Panevino and his peers crowded by the window in time to watch a large airplane speed up before their eyes and pierce through one of the buildings of the World Trade Center.
“It sounded like a bomb had been set off,” said Panevino.
Immediately after, the voice of their principal interrupted the class in a feeble attempt to restore peace at Intermediate School 89 on Warren Street.
The World Trade Center, she announced, had simply suffered an “electrical accident.”
Panevino’s father was the first at the school to pick up his child. They both tried to call his mother, who usually got coffee at the World Trade Center, but they didn’t receive any service.
The father and son decided to walk half a block away to their home and see if she was there.
All the while, burning paper cluttered the road and fell down on them like confetti at a party.
While they were making their way, a frenzied woman ran up to them, wildly shouting, “They’re jumping! They’re jumping!”
At first, Panevino thought the woman was merely crazy, but when he looked up, he saw the faces of people gasping for air by the window or sitting on top of ledges.
A few seconds later, his eyes met the body of man jumping off of the 80th floor.
Not knowing exactly what to do, the father and son sat and watched the building continue to burn, witnessing the deaths of many people escaping a fiery end by instead jumping to their fate.

“It was like every minute people were jumping, one after another,” Panevino recalled.

Dust and ash began to envelope Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 as the World Trade Center collapsed. (New York City Police Authority photo)

After moments passed, the two decided they could no longer watch and continued to make their way home past the World Trade Center to continue in their search for his mother.
After some time, they found that she wasn’t home. Panevino’s father left a note for her saying he had their son and Eddie, the family’s one-year-old chocolate brown poodle, tucked in a carrier.
When they emerged from their house, it was evident that now both towers had been hit.
The second building was ablaze and the police had begun to take action, pushing people away from the scene, urging them to sit by the park.
It was there that Panevino remembered the scorching heat from the flames.
“I could only imagine what it must be like for the people inside,” he said.
Panevino asked his father, “When do you think the fire’s going to burn out?” Just as the words escaped his lips, one of the towers collapsed.

Thomas Panevino (Photo provided)

In a matter of seconds, the resulting cloud of black smoke began to engulf everything surrounding it.

Panevino and his dad realized the encroaching cloud would soon overtake them, too, and ran to find shelter behind a nearby wall of a building.
“The sunniest day in New York became like night,” Panevino said. “I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face and I thought I was going to die – this was it.”
They spent the next 30 to 40 minutes breathing in air that Panevino said felt “like breathing in sand.”
When the boy could no longer stand it, the two tried to escape to a nearby bathroom. Their journey, however, was hindered by the mountains of ashes, dust, dirt, and ruin that came up to his knees and cluttered the road.
What was once a five-minute walk became 20 in the wreckage.
Upon entering the bathroom, they saw the soot-covered faces of many other survivors. Without water due to the exploded pipes, they all washed away the debris with toilet water and waited.
Two officers knocked and emerged from outside, coughing. They told the crowd that they would all have to evacuate due to the fear that more planes may be coming to blow up Manhattan, and that there were boats waiting to take them to Hoboken, New Jersey.
The next memory Panevino has is the damage he saw when he emerged from the bathroom door.
“Whatever worst thing you could imagine,” he said, “was there.”
Overturned bikes and cars of all shapes and sizes were scattered along the defiled street. The air still cloudy with smoke, he could only see the outline of the sun.
When the group reached the river, they were met not with boats, but with mere 10-person rafts.
Panevino, his father and the other 30 people climbed aboard a single raft and grabbed onto each other.
Halfway to New Jersey, someone screamed, “The boat’s sinking!”

Thomas looked back to see that not only was the raft indeed sinking, but that New York was still on fire and hazy with smoke.

Smoke from the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan billows out across the Hudson River into New Jersey. (NASA)

Panevino, still clutching Eddie in his carrier, jumped off the raft with the others into the Hudson River and swam to the other side.
People on the opposite bank in New Jersey threw down their coats and jackets and hauled the swimmers onto land.
Though they all survived – the next day, Panevino and his father reunited with his mom, who was also safe – the days and months following the attacks were arduous.
They stayed at various hotels, moving every couple of weeks for eight months.
Like many residents of Manhattan, the Panevinos lived in constant fear of possible upcoming attacks.
By the end of 2004, the family decided to move.
To them, Manhattan had become not only a city of fear, but a place for tourist attractions.
What to him was once a charming city had become a mere fascination to tourists around the world.
The family moved in with Panevino’s grandparents in sunny Boca Raton, Fla.
Ten years after that awful day and the difficult months that followed, Panevino is a senior at the University of Florida.
After graduation in the spring, he plans to go to graduate school and then work in international communications, connecting people from around the world.
Surviving the terrorist attacks on New York changed his life.
“I feel so lucky and blessed,” he said. “I realized how short life can be. 9/11 put a lot of things in perspective for me.”
As for marking today’s anniversary, Panevino said he’s going chill at home and do something he couldn’t on Sept. 11, 2001 – call his mom.
Cresonia Hsieh is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.

To read a first person account by Youth Journalism International Reporter Cresonia Hsieh about what writing this story meant to her, please follow this link.

1 Comment

  • It's difficult for me to even imagine how someone could go through that; it is unbelievable. But it's good to read accounts of 9/11 like this in order to understand. I'm glad you were able to learn his story and share it with everyone. Thanks Cresonia!