Nineteen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, survivor and Horizon West resident Hector De Jesus continues to share his story with others.
Hector De Jesus still has the shirt he wore on Sept. 11, 2001.
And every year, the 9/11 survivor and Horizon West resident wears that same shirt when he and his wife, Elsa, share his story with the fifth-graders at Keene’s Crossing Elementary.
“They all ask good, interesting questions,” Hector De Jesus said of the students’ interest in his story. “The kids are curious. They want to know what happened. We enjoy talking with the kids. It’s a good therapy for me.”
Hector De Jesus was working as a consultant on the 55th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower when the first plane hit.
It was about a quarter to 9 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001. Hector De Jesus was about to sit down at his desk when he and colleagues saw a bunch of debris floating around outside.
They had no clue in that moment what had just happened. They didn’t know a plane had hit the North Tower just moments before — or that another would hit the South Tower soon after. But they knew something had happened.
“We didn’t hear a crash or any announcements,” he said. “At that point, we decided to evacuate the building, and if nothing was wrong, we’d take the elevator back up. Nobody panicked.”
Hector De Jesus remembered from past fire drills that in an emergency, people should use the stairs and not the elevators. So, he and his colleagues began making their way down dozens of flights of stairs.
There was no mention of what had just happened at the North Tower, but Hector De Jesus and others continued heading downstairs. They made it to the concourse when they heard a crash.
“We didn’t know it was an airplane — we just hit the ground,” he said. “We got up and started running out. The lobby was full of smoke. We realized something had happened, but we still didn’t know exactly what. We started running out of the building to get away from the smoke. As we ran across Liberty Street, I saw parts from the first airplane in the street. That’s when I realized what had happened.”
He was among hundreds of others running away from the building toward Bowling Green. He ran into a restaurant and called his wife to let her know he was OK and out of the building.
“We were siting there for maybe half an hour thinking the worst was over, and then we heard another loud crash,” he said. “We all ran outside the restaurant and we looked up, and the (south) building came down. That was the building that I was in. … It’s something that you don’t believe at first — it’s like a nightmare. That building came straight down. Then the smoke from the ground after the building went down was coming from all angles.”
Hector De Jesus ran to 26 Broadway to escape the smoke. There, he and dozens of others were given masks and water and allowed to take refuge in the building. They stayed in there for hours waiting for the smoke to go away. It lingered for days after.
Communication and phone service was down, and there was no traffic coming into Manhattan. To get home to his family in the Bronx, he decided to walk to the train station.
“As we walked out of the building, everything was white from the fire,” he said. “It was like a war zone, actually. … We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge along with thousands of other people … We got to Brooklyn, and at that point the trains were starting to run again.”
Hector De Jesus boarded the train to Long Island, hopped off at the Jamaica Street station and then found a Q44 bus to take him back to the Bronx.
“I looked out the window, and we saw the towers smoking, both of them,” he said. “All you saw was the smoke coming from the towers. Finally, I got home to the Bronx. I was able to take a cab home, and I got home about 8 that night. I was completely covered with that white smoke and soot.”
It was a long day for Elsa De Jesus, too. She was at home doing housework, when her sister stopped by for coffee and asked if she had seen the news. The moment she turned on the TV, the second plane hit the South Tower. She would later learn that her husband was safe. It’s something they don’t take for granted, even 19 years later.
“I feel that we’ve been blessed,” Elsa De Jesus said. “His life was spared, and we got to see our children finish college, get married and have our grandkids.”
Hector De Jesus said 9/11 is an important piece of history that he feels is his duty to share.
“It changed my life,” he said. “It really did. I lost a couple of acquaintances there. I may forget a lot of things, but I’ll never forget that day.”