The Statue of Liberty and One World Trade Center are seen as the Tribute in Light shines in downtown Manhattan to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., September 11, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Herman Amos Jr. is undoubtedly a creature of good habits. Arriving to work early to get a jump start on the day is an inherent part of his nature.

That personal trait saved his life.

The Milwaukee-native, working as a federal government employee in New York, spent a few precious minutes to browse the aisles of a Borders bookstore in the concourse beneath the World Trade Center (WTC) complex the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Had the voracious reader stood in line to make a purchase, the magnitude of destruction that followed in the skies above him, may have marked the end of his story.

Amos was among an estimated 40,000 commuters that passed daily through the seven-building complex in lower Manhattan. Fortunately, he had already made his way to his office, two blocks away, on the 19th floor of the 100 Church Street Building. When the first plane hit the WTC at 8:46 a.m., sending rolling balls of flame, Amos and his colleagues thought they were witnessing a freak accident.

“If I had stayed in the bookstore, I might have been trapped or killed,” Amos reflected. “Not long after I got to my desk, the first plane hit and exploded. Boom!,” Amos explained. “It went through the World Trade Center and exploded two or three seconds after it hit.”

The Milwaukee Washington High School graduate vividly recounted how he witnessed firsthand the worst act of terrorism on American soil to date. As he gives his step-by-step account, one could almost hear his heart racing.

Is This Real?

New York is famous for its skyscrapers ꟷ one of mankind’s most prolific triumphs to society. The view from Amos’ office gives way to the city’s iconic skyline. When 9/11 terrorists plowed a hijacked plane through the top floors of the World Trade Center, Amos froze. It was as if his brain could not compute what was before his very eyes. Others in the office flew to the windows for a closer look.

“We didn’t believe that it was real,” he said. “It was like seeing something in a movie.”

Minutes later the employees were ordered to immediately evacuate the Manhattans financial district building.

“At that point, we knew something was wrong,” Amos recalled.

Courage and Compassion

Located just two blocks from ground zero, Amos stepped outside to horrific chaos. A mad rush of New Yorkers were running for their lives amid a hail of shard glass and singed paper.

“There were people everywhere with cuts from the flying glass,” Amos recalls. “I ran back into the building an grabbed a first aid kit and started bandaging people. As I finished tending to them, I ran towards the World Trade Center to see if there was anyone else needing first aid. That’s when the second plane hit.”

Authorities reported that air traffic controllers looked out their window and witnessed a plane go into rapid descent and then hit the south tower of the World Trade Center at 9:02 a.m. It was United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane to hit the towers.

The gravity of what was happening began to unfold.

“When the second plane hit, there was a shockwave that threw me against the plate-glass window of a Hallmark store,” said Amos. “I was slightly stunned because I hit the back of my head. Large chunks of concrete were passing me as people were running and screaming. It looked like something straight out of a Godzilla movie, but then I realized this was real. So, then I turned around to my coworkers and screamed, RUN!”

Four of his colleagues looked to Amos and said, “We don’t know which way to go.”

In that moment, something deep inside brought the best out of him. Courageously, Amos led the frightened group safely to the SoHo neighborhood, before heading home.

“All of a sudden I got very calm,” he recalled. “I got very, very calm. Then I said, I know my way around because I come here on the weekends. Follow me. … We got about a half a mile away, I think we were on Prince Street, when we turned back and saw the towers collapsed. I’ll never forget it.”

Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms

Manhattan was paralyzed. The collapse of the twin towers led to the entire subway system, all 722 miles, to shut down. Planes were grounded. Cellphone services buckled and power outages were widespread.

A typical 30-minute subway ride home to Upper Manhattan turned into an eight-hour trek home on foot. For nearly a week, Amos said he was unable to reach loved ones to assure them he survived.

“For days people thought I was dead because no one could contact me,” said Amos. “They said, ‘You know how Herman is. He would stay behind to help people, and I don’t think he made it.’ Well, I did stay behind to help bandage people. But when that second plane hit and I was thrown against that window, I said to myself, time to go.”

The terrorist attacks were unprecedented in terms of their magnitude and impact on the American psyche. Nearly 3,000 people perished, and 6,000 others were injured. It took more than eight months to clean up ground zero. It left many, like Amos, psychologically distressed.

 “When I went back to move equipment from the office, I got sick to my stomach walking around,” Amos recalled. “I went and walked around the ruins and took pictures from the office window. I said to myself, what is wrong with me? A friend told me I was having a post-traumatic stress reaction.”

New York City health officials found symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were the most common health issues following the 9/11 attacks. Up to 20% of adults directly exposed to the disaster or injured in the attack had PTSD symptoms five to six years after the attack.

As the nation marks the passage of two decades since the day that changed lives forever, Amos said he will pause to take a moment of silence.

“After the Freedom Tower was built, they tried to bring things back to normal as possible,” said Amos, referring to New York City’s new One World Trade Center, nicknamed the “Freedom Tower. “But those of us who’ve been through it, we will never forget.”