This story originally appeared on Sept. 13, 2001
For a guy who walked down 63 flights of stairs shortly after the first tower of the World Trade Center was hit, Mahomet native Kaleb Northrup was pretty calm Wednesday night.
Northrup, 30, who now lives in Woodbury, Minn., was in the Trade Center to give a software presentation when the first airplane hit the building he was in.
Speaking by phone Wednesday from a hotel in New Jersey, Northrup recounted the events of Tuesday morning.
"It's like your favorite action movie if that happened in real life," said Northrup. "Suddenly the fantasy becomes tragic reality."
Northrup got to the Trade Center about 8:30 Tuesday morning, for a presentation to the New York Port Authority.
"About a quarter to 9, we heard an explosion, and the building just lurched. Immediately, it was just obviously wrong. ... It lurched quite violently, but the building didn't move more than a foot or two. The actual impact was not an awful thing in and of itself," he said.
"The first thing that went through my mind was I thought it was either an earthquake or a bomb in the building like they had a few years ago."
After the building stopped moving, "it took about a half-second to realize we needed to get out. I managed to grab my laptop case and suit jacket" and headed for the stairs.
As he and others began walking downstairs, they saw debris falling past a window, and figured that whatever had happened was above them, a reassuring notion.
"Even at that time, we had no idea it was such a large plane. I think most of us just assumed it was a terrible accident. It could have been a Cessna for all we knew."
He said the descent through a stairwell that would fit two people shoulder-to-shoulder was orderly and mostly quiet.
"There was no one who was beside themselves with fear," he said. "We just simply didn't feel we were in any danger any more."
Traffic got backed up about halfway down, he said, and people in offices began handing out wet paper towels to combat the stench.
Northrup, who has raced motorcycles for years, knew what it was.
"I know what fuel smells like, and that's clearly what that was," he said.
At about the 25th floor, Northrup and others met a group of firefighters in full gear and carrying equipment.
"They were just exhausted" from the climb, he said.
"The biggest sorrow I have is for those firefighters and police who rushed into that building," he said, "and probably did not make it back out."
As the group continued down, water from a broken main began falling into the stair well. Shouts from below warned women to put their shoes back on, "because we were encountering areas where there was a lot of broken glass."
At ground level, police guided them through a plaza, to an escalator that took them underground to a mall on the other side of the street.
"That's the first time any of us understood the magnitude, was when you looked outside at street level. We could see all the debris on the ground, and dead people.
"The scene was very disturbing, like the most graphic, violent movie you've ever seen. There were pieces of people that weren't recognizable as people any more."
Finally, they emerged into the open air across the street and looked up.
"Even having seen the atrocity at street level didn't prepare us for the damage at the top of the tower. I swear to God, it looked exactly like a good Steven Spielberg movie would look."
The second plane had hit the second tower while Northrup was descending, but he didn't know that. He assumed one plane had hit the first tower and that part of it had broken off and hit the second one.
"Still, in my mind it was some kind of accident."
Hearing what had happened from onlookers was "the first time we realized it was indeed a terrorist attack.
"After maybe five minutes of looking at the street, our only desire was to get away from the scene of chaos and havoc," he said.
"Every ambulance in the state of New York and New Jersey must have gone down the street," he said.
While others he was with waited for pay phones, Northrup went into a bakery for a bite to eat and something to drink. That's where he heard the Pentagon also was hit.
When his co-workers rejoined him, they decided to walk to an office where they could gather, about 50 blocks away.
"We walked out and turned and looked at the Trade Center," he said. "It was 20 or 30 seconds before I realized one of the towers was gone."
The group turned to resume its walk, but "the people who were facing us, facing the Trade Center, gasped. We turned around" and watched as the second tower collapsed.
"The sense of watching this 110-floor skyscraper collapse ... it was just simply wrong. We were dumbfounded and slack-jawed."
But Wednesday night, he relayed all the happenings with a matter- of-fact air.
"A lot of it has to do with the fact that initially we didn't realize what kind of trouble we were in," he said. "I don't get worked up, especially over things I have no control over."
"He's always been that way," said his father, Kevin Northrup, of Mahomet, a longtime Parkland College official. "He has never panicked and we've had situations, with motorcycles," where he could have.
Kaleb Northrup's mother, Rosemary Northrup, also lives in Mahomet.
Northrup was preparing to catch a train this morning to Chicago, then head to Champaign. A friend is getting married in Springfield on Saturday.
He had some thoughts about what should happen to whoever carried out the attack.
"There needs to be immediate, decisive reaction taken," he said. "This kind of terrorism simply cannot exist in a world where you have modern civilization. Such an act of barbarism and a total lack of value of human life those people shouldn't be allowed to exist."