By Lorando D. Lockhart
Calvin Drayton is convinced he made two crucial decisions Sept. 11 as the stricken World Trade Center showered glass and debris all around him.
"One, (was) to get out of the World Trade Center and re-establish the command post," said Drayton, a deputy director with the New York Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. "And two, I ran to the left and a lot of my friends ran to the right. I think I am a very lucky man."
Drayton survived the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, much to the relief of his family in Mauldin and Greenville. Many of his friends did not.
The day started as if were any normal day in New York City, he said during a telephone interview with the Tribune-Times.
From his office window on the 23rd floor of World Trade Seven, Drayton, 45, had a perfect view of both 110-story towers.
"I went down for a cup of coffee," he said. "In the elevator, we heard what (we thought) was a transformer explosion. It rocked the building and temporarily stopped the elevator and then it resumed to the first floor. I came off the elevator and ran into one of my guys who said, 'Calvin, we've got a problem. We've got an explosion in World Trade One.'"
A passenger jet, hijacked by criminals whom officials believe were linked to international terrorist Osama bin Laden, had rammed into the tower.
He called City Hall to alert officials of the danger and called his office for help.
From the street, Drayton could see flames "pushing out of all sides of World Trade Center Number One."
Glass fell, people screamed and sirens sounded from all directions.
Rescuers from fire, police, Port Authority police and Emergency Medical Services already were on the scene, Drayton said.
He went to the World Trade Center's basement to contact the ranking Fire Department officer and set up a command post to help coordinate rescue efforts and cleanup work.
Drayton saw people scurrying in panic as he went through the lower levels of the World Trade Center, where the subway and train station is located
"I told a cop to calm everybody down. We don't want to have people stampeding. Calm everybody down and direct them to the exit and out into the street, because at this point, we still didn't know what we had," Drayton said.
Drayton saw two badly burned bodies in the lobby of World Trade Center One and called for help.
"I'll never forget the statement that the firefighter said to me on his way in. 'There's nothing we can do for them ... we need to be worried about the people on the upper floors,'" he said.
About that time, a second hijacked commercial slammed into the second World Trade Center tower.
Drayton's concerns turned to the many people trapped in the World Trade Center elevators.
"We were trying to figure out how to get the Fire Department up. When you have a high-rise fire, the first objective is to get all the elevators down to the first floor, so we don't have any stuck people in the elevator. It just complicates the problem," he said.
All around him, Drayton's friends in the Fire and Police departments struggled to restore order.
Then Drayton began to hear loud thumping noises.
"It continued every four or five minutes. I continued hearing the thumping noise. I have no idea where it's coming from. I can't figure out what the thumping noise is," Drayton said.
When he learned a third hijacked passenger jet had smashed into the Pentagon, he feared the city was under attack. He decided to set up a command post across the street.
But he didn't think he could cross the street without injury or death because glass and debris were falling everywhere. Meanwhile, the thumping noises continued.
"I hugged the wall of World Trade One, so I could eliminate possibly getting decapitated or cut from the debris and glass falling out of the windows. Then I hear another thumping noise," Drayton said.
By then, he knew the source of the sound. People were jumping out of windows from as high as the 90th floor.
He managed to cross the street but the first tower began to fall.
"It's surreal. It's sort of like something in slow motion in a movie set out of Hollywood," he said.
As the 110-story tower crumbled, Drayton and at least nine nearby rescue workers ran. Drayton and two others ran to the left; the others ran to the right. They did not survive.
Drayton made it into the rear of the World Trade Center parking garage where he passed out amid the choking smoke, dust and rubble. He regained consciousness but could hear nothing.
Drayton found himself in a lonely corner and tried to decide his next move. His radio and phone were inoperable. He began to make peace with himself.
"This is it," he told himself. "You're not going to be able to call your wife and say goodbye to her. Stay here. At least you're going to be intact."
It's true, Drayton said, that life flashes before one's eyes as death approaches.
But he didn't die.
He survived because he crawled toward a tiny ray of light.
He found a bottle and beat it on the ground until a firefighter found him and dragged him outside for a breath of fresh air.
His men dragged him to safety as the second tower fell.
He was treated at St. Vincent's Hospital, but returned to Ground Zero where he worked six days with only three hours sleep.
Since then he's taken a few, scattered days off but continues to return to the terrible scene
Drayton has cried and felt guilt because he survived when many good friends perished. And the awful sounds remains with him.
"I've been in this business to make sure the city of New York is prepared for any emergency, but for 15 minutes, I heard the thumping noises while I was in the building," Drayton said. "I literally watched 17 people jump from the 80th floor to their deaths."