Running the Other Direction on 9/11 – Valor Above and Beyond
In December 2001 I heard about Charles Costello Jr but did not discover his name until October 2012. For almost ten years I was involved in an on again, off again search for his identity. I knew I had to tell his story.
This account contains contextual descriptions of violence which may be disturbing.
On Tuesday morning, ThyssenKrupp Elevator Company employee Charles Gregory “Chuck” Costello Jr was in Manhattan working on elevators in the Mercer Hotel in the Soho neighborhood. Just like the rest of the residents in, or commuters to, New York City, Chuck was going about his business. For him this was installing, maintaining and repairing vertical transportation systems – the elevators that moved people up and down through the buildings that comprised that famous skyline. His work was both intricate and enormous but posed no difficulty. Chuck Costello was a good mechanic for customers. He was also a servant to his friends and a friend to strangers. His work day had not progressed far when he heard something extraordinary.
It was not an everyday Tuesday. It was September 11, 2001.
When news that a plane had flown into the north tower at the massive World Trade Center complex reached Chuck, he immediately went about going there. His company did not maintain the elevators in the soaring towers, and had no responsibilities there, but even before the second plane struck the south tower, signaling to a disbelieving nation that this was no accident, he knew skilled help would be needed to rescue people from elevators. What he was doing at the luxury hotel would wait.
He set out on foot and started making his way to the location in Lower Manhattan that, unbeknownst to him, had begun a transformation into Ground Zero. It was over one mile away from the hotel. Chuck moved in and around pedestrians, cars and trucks with the resolve of a first responder. Seen by a coworker and given a ride, upon arrival at the world famous complex Chuck dashed into the burning building after telling his partner, “I’ll be fine.” Fourteen minutes after American Airlines flight 11 flew into floors 93 to 98 at 494 miles per hour, Chuck left the world he knew behind. Three minutes later, United 175 repeated the horror hitting floors 77 through 85 next door.
Glory wasn’t Chuck’s motivation for running against the stream of people leaving the tower. To him, bragging was abhorrent. There were so many, countless (really) instances when he helped others – those he knew, and those he did not. Even his family wouldn’t learn of his kindnesses from him. As explosions, fire and smoke took the lives of people, Chuck Costello went to work freeing persons he did not know from someone else’s elevators.
Since its first tenants moved in 30 years before, the elevator system in the north tower was a marvel in motion. Still among the largest, fastest and highest traveling elevators in the world, the 106 cabs traveled through more than seven miles of shafts to move occupants between the floors below ground and the highest leased floor 1,347 feet above ground. The building core, home to elevator shafts and stairwells, served as more than just the conduit for getting up or down – it was an essential structural component of the tower’s inventive tube-frame structural design. In an instant though, the vertical shafts became pipelines of fuel, fire and debris when the hijacked 767 collided with the terrorist’s target.
The north tower was the first high rise building to use a zoned elevator system. This method made travel through the tower faster than had they ran the entire length of the 110 story skyscraper. Depending on their destination, a rider on the concourse level would select either a local elevator or an express elevator. The local elevators served sections of floors, the express elevators went between concourse and skylobbies where transfer to other local elevators would complete the trip. If Windows on the World was the person’s destination, another express elevator quickly moved them between the ground and the restaurants and conference center on the 106th and 107th floors. In addition, elsewhere in the tower were seven freight elevators. Now common practice in high rise buildings, the WTC project was innovative and saved significant floor space as opposed to running elevators the longer distance to achieve greater heights. At the 2001 downtown NYC rental rate, the floor space reclaimed for occupant use meant an additional several millions of dollars of rental income per year.
To be sure, there was no good place to be in the towers that morning. The elevators introduced a separate awfulness. Passengers were injured or killed by fire, smoke inhalation, explosion or impact. Others were going to lose their lives because of entrapment as the building raced down to earth. One report that came into the lobby fire command center where FDNY personnel were assessing the situation was that people were trapped in 25 elevators and near floors as high as the 71st.
The shafts, smelling strongly of aviation fuel, could not contain the horror. Building occupants, not on elevators but standing in the lobby, were burned as fireballs travelled down shafts and blew out tightly closed doors. Freight elevator #50 fell from the 80th floor down to the lowest basement level 50 feet below ground. People outside the shaft didn’t know what the “hot wind” was until they heard it finish its ferocious plunge. For so many people, one instant they were on the way to work, the next stunned and staggering, covered with very severe burns and much, or all, of their clothing consumed by fire reaching 1,600 degrees ignited by nearly 10,000 gallons of jet fuel.
In a dreadful instant everything changed. For them. For Chuck. For you and me. A security officer sitting at his station at the lobby desk expired from burns he received when one fireball traveled down the shaft, exploded out of the hoist way doors, shot across the lobby and engulfed him where he sat. Some were in elevators, and exited somehow and wandered outside on fire themselves. Others rescued from elevators died of their burns right there. One survivor, in the lobby when she heard the plane strike started running. She looked back over her shoulder and saw a “hurricane of fire” that had swept down an elevator shaft racing toward her. Sprinklers in the ceiling of the six-story lobby, which activated at 165 degrees, were spraying water. Witnesses observed a fireball go across the lobby and blow out the front door. Yes, when Chuck heard about the first plane hitting the north tower his instinct was right. Skilled help was badly needed.
Many elevators, no one will know how many, slammed back down to the lobby level. Others stopped moving completely. A safety feature would halt elevator movement if anomalies such as unusual movement or vibrations were detected. The force with which the plane hit the tower would have affected several elevators and these safety devices halted the elevators quickly. This feature did not automatically return an elevator to a lobby. It just made it stop. The passengers’ chance to escape on their own was virtually nil. In the moments after the plane strike most of the 80 employees of the elevator company that did have the maintenance contract were in the ground floor lobby for a head count. When the second plane hit they left the WTC complex.
Ever the professional and Good Samaritan, Chuck Costello did what he could. Thanks to his expertise and willingness to enter the hell that moments before had been a luminous tribute to the American free market system, what he could do could be a lot. Crossing the plaza and dodging its grimness to enter the lobby with the dazed, dead and dying, he would have realized that to help the victims he could not be daunted by what he was witnessing. Because he purposefully dispatched himself from 20 blocks away to help, (rather than be there as an injured, terrified or bewildered victim of the instant horror) his grasp of the growing devastation about him may have sharpened. Regardless, he worked at the extreme task of extricating people. There are accounts of FDNY and NYPD personnel who witnessed Chuck inside the building calling him “the elevator man” because of his determined focus, and most assuredly, his courage, to save as many lives as he could. They recognized the 47-year old was cut from the same cloth as they.
After contemplating his actions for years as I searched for his name, I suggest this: Because he never sought acclamation, Chuck almost certainly never thought that anyone would know why he died. We do. He loved his fellow man, unhesitatingly charged into a vast unimaginable suffering to do what he did: Work on elevators and help in any way he could. There is no greater love.
Fifty nine minutes after Chuck walked into the lobby of the north tower, the south tower succumbed to the damage brought upon it. In January 2002, his remains were found in debris of the south tower. Chuck had moved from the north tower to the south tower at some point. He wanted to help as many people possible.
The towers fell in summer. It was in winter his remains were found. A Port Authority police lieutenant made the call on his radio for an honor guard. Eight construction workers carried him to a vehicle which would take his body up a giant ramp to street level for transfer to an ambulance. One worker was so moved he didn’t stop when the others did, as they all had when recovering victim’s remains. He ran alongside the vehicle all the way up to the street with tears in his eyes. He had never met Chuck.
Chuck Costello in 1998
Chuck Costello applied the foremost kind of essential thinking when he went to rescue people from the WTC elevators. Had he ever purposed himself before September 11th to do such a thing? What were his thoughts about the unthinkable? I know not, but in Chuck I see a compelling, unhesitant example of doing what it takes in an impossible situation. I am glad I know his story.
Postscript: During the erection of the 1,776 feet tall building that replaced the north tower, a simple outside sign proclaimed: “Freedom Tower. Never Forget Charles Costello. Never Forget 9-11-01.” After the tower was topped out, Brother and Sister ThyssenKrupp Elevator Company mechanics memorialized him with a permanent sign in one of the elevator machinery rooms atop the new structure.
(C) 2012 Timothy C. Cummings