How one Chinese escaped death on 11 September

By Ting Shi

For those Chinese who were chortling at the Sept 11 terror attacks on the United States Sun Lingling has one word: evil.

In the following week after the World Trade Center twin towers collapsed in Lower Manhattan, chat rooms and news forums back in China were filled with gloating at the US Comeuppance.

"That is the opposite of the Chinese morality," said Sun, the manager of China Daily Distribution Corp. who had to move down step by step from her 33rd-floor office before evacuating from Tower One of the World Trade Center on that Tuesday.

"Our ancestors didn't teach us to jump and cheer at the door of those who had their family member just killed," said the Chinese woman. "I could't laugh. Those who could were shallow, and just evil."

The 46-year-old woman who looks after the business of China Daily--China's official English-language newspaper--in North America had a first-person story to tell. But she would not say her own newspaper's piece really got her.

It took an international call from the Carribean island country Jamaica for Sun to discover what happened to her office on Sept 11, 2001.

She had thought it might be an earthquake until her husband, who works for the International Sea-bed Authorities in Jamaica, told her on her cell phone that a plane had just hit her building.

"Calm down, and get out immediately," said the husband, who was watching the CNN Breaking News.

At that moment Sun was already down on the 30th floor, among a crowd not yet aware that their lives were in danger during the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

"A second plane is coming. " Before the husband had time to explain  the cell phone service was cut off.  Sun thought this "second plane" might be coming to rescue them from the building.

The mission of that plane, as well as the first one, was to kill.Yet it was just another normal day, as Sun would say--she came to office at 8am as usual; she was thinking of how to promote her newspaper's circulation in North America, as usual; and her central concern was her 17-year-old daughter who was away at an American boarding school and was about to go to college that fall.

At around 8:50am, Sun had felt something strange. Her office seemed to be swaying. She shouted "earthquake" and ran out to the hallway. There was a dead silence. She headed back to the office, took her gym bag, and locked the door. I would come back later, and maybe everything in the office would be still there, she thought to herself. Then people began to scramble out of their offices.

There were pale faces and nervous voices. People who usually looked arrogant were now intense, she said. Everyone moved in an orderly fashion towards the stairwells.

"I was rather calm, which actually surprised me a little bit," Sun said. She even came back to check whether anyone on the 33rd floor got out. "I don't know why I did this," Sun said. "I just got back to see whether anyone was still in the hallway or in the office."

There wasn't much talk. People were heading downstairs quietly. At the 30th floor, where Sun called her husband and knew a plane had hit, smoke began to grow as well as fires and the smell of gas. Those who had been through the 1993 World Trade Center Attack, which killed seven and injured 1,000, were better prepared.

A man beside Sun who looked like "a banker in his fifties" took off his Hermes silk tie, wetted it, and gave it to Sun. "I can'T take your tie; it's too expensive," she said. "It would cost around 400 dollars," Sun later told her daughter, "I just knew it; your father has a silk tie of the same brand."

"Life is more valuable. You lose your tie, you can get another one; you lose your life, you don't get another one," the man said.

She used "comradeship" to describe the teamwork she witnessed during the evacuation.

A young man broke into a vending machine on their way down and got everybody a bottle of water. "My first reaction was to ask," said Sun."Is this proper? It felt like vandalism. But he was very firm, saying 'you need it'."

On this hot New York autumn day, everyone needed water including the firefighters who were going up past them at the 20th floor. "We poured water down ON their heads," Sun said. "Nobody was selfish and saved the bottled water for himself."

She said of the firemen, "They're heroes."

As she was approaching the lower floors, water began to pour into the stairwell. Smoke and dust grew thicker. When she reached the lobby of the trade center, Sun was soaking, "Like someone who just took a mud shower."

In a few minutes, Sun watched what she would call the most stupendous thing in her life. At 9:50am, Tower Two fell to ground. The whole process was really slow, Sun said, it's so slow that she could almost see the steel buckle.

She forgot to run away; she could not move; they were all watching, dumbfounded. "It was like a huge chunk of chocolate melting slowly," she said.

Tower One, the building where she had been working for the last eight years, crashed down thirty minutes later. She was then walking among the crowd across the Brooklyn Bridge. "I'd really wanted to get back my favorite picture of my daughter," she said.

The only thing with her was her gym bag. In it, there were a pair of running shoes, a WTC tenant ID card, a business card of a midtown Manhattan gift shop and one quarter. Outside a phone booth in Brooklyn was a long line. People limited their calls to ten seconds. Nearly an hour passed and then all Sun could do was to call the gift shop. She asked them to make an international call to Jamaica to her husband.

"Could you tell him I'm alive," she asked.

They agreed.

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