From the Penn State laureate: Remembering the Restaurant at the End of the World

In April 2009, Congress designated Sept. 11 as Patriot Day and as a National Day of Service and Remembrance. And while most Americans have little difficulty recalling precisely where they were and what they were doing on that terrible morning in 2001, the fate of the restaurateurs in the Windows on the World complex atop the North Tower is often lost amongst the multitudinous, overwhelming narratives of 9/11.

Traveling at nearly 470 miles per hour, American Airlines Flight 11 was carrying some 10,000 gallons of jet fuel when it crashed into the northern façade between the 93rd and 99th floors of 1 World Trade Center. For the staff and guests in Windows on the World, it would prove to be a death blow. The damage rendered all of the stairwells and elevators, which were clustered around the building’s core, impassable above the 91st floor. Some 1,300 people were trapped within or above the impact zone, including the 171 doomed souls on the 106th and 107th floors that comprised Windows on the World, the highest-grossing restaurant in the United States, having generated some $37 million during its final year of existence.
          
For some 102 minutes, the restaurant’s employees and their guests would languish atop one of the world’s tallest buildings, struggling to find fresh air amidst the inhuman temperatures arising from the conflagration only seven floors below. And then they began to do the unthinkable. As eyewitness Bill Belina reported, “People were starting to jump out of the building. They looked like gingerbread men, falling like five-pointed stars wearing suits, plummeting to Earth. It seemed impossible; who would choose to jump out of a 100-story building? I dismissed the first jumper as having panicked, then another man jumped. Then another, and then a woman. What an awful decision to have to make, to burn alive or fall to certain death.” As many as 200 people would jump from 1 World Trade Center alone.

Like so many tragedies of an epochal nature, 9/11 resulted in an unfathomable loss of life that, by virtue of its scale, seems to obliterate, even obscure the experiences of the individual. And not surprisingly, the fate of the restaurateurs is largely shrouded in mystery. We know that Christine Olender, the restaurant’s Assistant General Manager, distinguished herself during the final hour of Windows’ existence, repeatedly summoning emergency personnel on her cell phone and leading her stricken coworkers to congregate around the office complex on the western side of the 106th floor, where the smoke was less concentrated.

The destruction of the restaurant would also produce the so-called Falling Man, the mysterious jumper tumbling through the sky in Richard Drew’s Associated Press photograph. Was it Pastry Sous Chef Norberto Hernandez — or, more likely, Audio-Visual Technician Jonathan Briley — who would emerge as the iconic symbol for the Sept. 11 attacks? As with so many of the tragic narratives emanating from that particular day, we may never truly know. But even still, the most mind-numbing aspect of that terrible day squarely belongs to the survivors, who lost their loved ones, in far too many cases, for the simple fact that they woke up that morning, rolled out of bed and trundled off to work.


Kenneth Womack is the author of three novels, including "John Doe No. 2 and the Dreamland Motel" (2010), "The Restaurant at the End of the World" (2012) and "Playing the Angel" (2013). A professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona, Womack was selected in April 2013 to serve as the University’s sixth Penn State Laureate.

 

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Last Updated September 11, 2013