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9/11 survivor recounts the horror of that day

Former Aurora resident Joe Dittmar was on 105th floor of Two World Trade Center

Joe Dittmar thought it was odd that the lights started to flicker as he and other insurance executives were sitting in a room on the 105th floor of Two World Trade Center for a business meeting the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Because the room they were in had no windows, they were unaware of what was going on around them.

“We couldn’t see anything,” said the former Aurora resident in telling his story Tuesday at Waubonsee Community College’s Sugar Grove campus. “We didn’t hear anything. We didn’t feel anything.”

Wednesday will mark the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed 2,977 people in New York City, Washington, D.C. and outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Dittmar is one of only seven survivors of the meeting of 54 insurance executives.

A short time later, someone burst into the room and Dittmar and the others were told they needed to evacuate because there had been an explosion in the north tower. At first, they didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation.

“We said, ‘Stuff happens. We’ll be fine,’ “ Dittmar related.

Dittmar and his fellow associates then started the long walk down 105 flights of steps.

They didn’t realize what had happened until they got to the 90th floor.

“The fire stairwell door out to the 90th floor was propped open,” he said. “It shouldn’t have been, but it was propped open. That’s a chance I had for the first time to look out the building and see to the north and see these huge, black holes through the sides of the building. There were gray and black billows of smoke pouring out of those holes and flames licking up the side of that building beyond the roof level.”

He then realized the severity of the situation.

“I just wanted to go home,” Dittmar said, choking back tears. “I didn’t want to be there, I wanted to go home.”

Dittmar was between the 72nd and 74th floors when a second plane crashed into the south tower, the building they were in.

“That plane went through our building between floor 77 and 83,” he said. “I’ve never felt anything like that in my life and hope to never feel anything like that again. The building is shaking in a way that it shouldn’t be shaking and the steps are undulating like waves in the ocean.”

As he was looking to escape, he passed first responders who were working to rescue those still trapped in the building.

“Just the looks in their eyes told the whole story,” Dittmar said. “They knew. They knew they were going up those steps to try to fight a fire that they couldn’t beat. They knew they were going up those steps to try to save lives that they couldn’t save. They knew they were marching in the bowels of hell. And they knew they were never coming back.”

He commended them for their actions.

“Could you be that brave?” Dittmar asked. “Could you be that strong?”

This is the fourth time Dittmar has told his story at Waubonsee Community College. Once again, he came to the college at the request of Joe Heinrich, assistant professor of criminal justice at Waubonsee Community College and a retired detective sergeant with the Geneva Police Department.

Heinrich believes it is important for his students to hear about what happened that day.

“The traditional age of a college freshman is maybe 19 years old, which means they were barely walking and talking on 9/11,” Heinrich said. “All they know of it is what they see on the TV news or what their parents have shared. I don’t think any of them probably have ever had the experience of seeing and hearing from someone who was actually there.”

Dittmar said he feels it’s his obligation to tell his story “and give a voice to 3,000 people who lost their voices that day so they can once more be heard.”

“I can’t bring them back, but I can certainly keep their spirits alive,” Dittmar said, before his presentation.

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