One local man’s 9/11 story of survival from the 46th floor of the World Trade Center | VailDaily.com

One local man’s 9/11 story of survival from the 46th floor of the World Trade Center

Lee Korins was working on the 45th floor of the World Trade Center's north town with terrorists crashed an airliner into it. Korins recounted his survivor's story for the Eagle County Public Safety Appreciation Awards last week / . These days Korins lives in Edwards and Weld County.

VAIL — It was stunning September morning when Lee Korins' world shook, and everyone else's, when terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center where he was working.

"One of the questions that's always asked of me, how was I so 'lucky' to be on the 45th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11?" Korins said.

Korins was the keynote speaker at the Eagle County Public Safety Awards on Thursday.

These days the Edwards resident splits his time between the Vail Valley and Weld County. He has told that day's story often, including testifying before Congress.

Just another day, until …

On Sept. 11, 2001, he was running the Security Traders Association. It was just another workday, until it wasn't.

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At about 8:45 a.m. he finished a conference call, and heard the "most violent explosion I had heard since my days in the service," Korins said.

For seven or eight seconds, the building shook worse than any building he had ever been in. This from a man whose had lived in California with his family for years.

"We had been through a few shakes," Korins said.

He first thought it was an explosion on the roof, where all the electronic equipment for most of the television networks was located.

He heard some screaming, looked out the window and saw debris falling, mixed with a couple of bodies.

The people operating the World Trade Center said they were investigating and told everyone to stay in their offices.

"That never seemed like a good option. I told the people in my office to pickup their stuff and let's get out of here," Korins said.

Eyes of life and death

They headed to the emergency staircase. It's wide enough for two people, and progress was tortuously slow. As they were working their way down, fire fighters and rescue workers were working their way up, carrying about 125 pounds worth of equipment.

"I looked into the eyes of the people climbing with all this gear, and realized later that most of them probably did not get out of the tower," Korins said.

The staircase became even more crowded as people from other floors careened onto their only path to survival.

When a disabled person tried to get onto those stairs, the only way down was for a rescue worker or someone else to hoist them over their shoulders and carry them down, Korins said.

The cruel irony was not lost on Korins. After 9/11, he remodeled a landmark building in San Francisco, and was an expert in the American With Disabilities Act.

"You have law this thick with rules and regulations about how to get disabled people into buildings, but there's not a paragraph in there about how to get them out," Korins said.

Cellar staircase

When they reached the bottom of the staircase, they were in for another unwanted surprise.

"You would think that an emergency staircase in a high rise building would take you outside. Wrong!" Korins said.

They were in the cellar, up to their ankles in water from broken pipes, no lights and wires hanging down, some of which were coursing electricity. They had to find a staircase to work their way back up, or that cellar would become their mausoleum.

They finally got outside to find their fellow New Yorkers relatively calm, until the flames of the south tower began to envelope the building, and people started jumping to their deaths.

"We began to see people jumping from 100 stories in the air," Korins said. "If you were above the 56th floor, there was no way for you to get out of that building. Some people chose to go out that way."

Fifteen minutes later when the south tower imploded, panic hit the streets. A tsunami wave of dust, dirt and asbestos enveloped Manhattan. A few minutes after that, the north tower imploded, Korins said.

"Then the panic became unbearable as people were climbing over everything they could to get away from downtown Manhattan," Korins said.

Alive or dead?

The attack had knocked out all communications.

With nowhere to turn, Korins started walking uptown. He stopped at Eighth Street where he and his wife had once had an apartment, and they still had friends. One was home, so he gave her all the phone numbers where his wife might be.

At 3:45 p.m., his wife finally learned he was still alive.

Boats — all kinds of boats — carried more than 500,000 people from Manhattan to New Jersey and safety.

When he finally got close, Korins learned it was a five-hour wait to get on a boat.

He jumped on a train that would take him to Penn Station in Newark. On the way to the station he finally reached his wife on a borrowed cell phone.

"The people coming from Manhattan were covered with white dust. We looked like ghosts," Korins said.

When he reached that New Jersey street he saw his wife. She pulled her car onto the sidewalk and parked on the grass, and they ran toward each other.

It was like something out of a grade B Western movie, Korins said, where the hero and heroine ran toward each other, embraced and kissed in the middle of a dirt street as the sun went down behind them.

"People drove by honking their horns and giving us thumbs up," Korins said.

They were in love and they were alive. It was time to celebrate both.

They found a place and enjoyed a couple adult beverages, and then headed to their farm in northern New Jersey.

The Colorado Kid

During the day Korins' wife had received a call from the dean of the University of Northern Colorado's business school, where he had been a frequent guest lecturer. They asked where and how he was. She had nothing to tell him.

When Korins called back the next day, the dean explained that UNC had just received "a lot of money" from the Monfort Foundation. They wanted to endow an executive chair of finance, and would he be interested in being that chair.

Why yes, he said, he would.

"I said to the dean, 'It's the best offer I've had in 24 hours,'" Korins said.

Forty-four members of Korins's Securities Traders Association were among the 3,000 who died that day, mostly young folks on the cusp of doing great things in the securities industry, most with young families, Korins said.

For the next month and a half he and his wife spent much of their time attending memorial services all around the New York area.

Memorial services … not funerals, Korins said.

"There were no funerals because there were no bodies," he said.

When you look back, you realize you've learned a few things. First and foremost, have an escape plan, Korins said.

"For most people, the morning of 9/11 was too late to form an evacuation plan," Korins said.

Lucky, sort of

The plane hit his tower at 8:45 a.m. Still, Korins said they were lucky.

Most of major tenants in the two towers were big New York City law firms. They're not fully staffed at 8:45 in the morning, but they might have been at 8:45 at night.

Also, the top of the south tower was a popular restaurant with private dining rooms.

"If the plane had hit that tower at a quarter of 12 and not a quarter of 9, that restaurant would have been full. There would have been another 800 to 1,000 people in that restaurant, another 800 to 1,000 dead," Korins said.

On Sept. 11, 2001, more people died than at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

"The difference is that we went to war with a zeal to win. The response to the World Trade Center, we didn't really go to war, and we never had a zeal to win," Korins said.

Korins thanked the local emergency and public safety workers for taking the time to honor the memory of 3,000 people who died on 9/11.

"Most were people like ourselves, who got up, went to work and never came home," Korins said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.