Education

On Sept. 11, an escape from 'pitch black' Manhattan

University of Iowa Hospitals CEO recalls fleeing from 'sound of God'

In this Sept. 11, 2001, file photo, smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked pl
In this Sept. 11, 2001, file photo, smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers. The 19th anniversary of the attacks will be marked Friday. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)
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IOWA CITY — Hunkered beneath a sport utility vehicle just a short walk — or rather sprint — from lower Manhattan’s World Trade Center complex at 10 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, Suresh Gunasekaran could see only darkness.

A suffocating, encompassing “pitch black.”

“I’m having trouble breathing,” he recalled of that day 19 years ago — long before he moved to the Midwest in late 2018 to serve as chief executive officer of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. “I’m not exactly sure why it’s complete darkness during a Manhattan morning.”

Minutes earlier, Gunasekaran — then a San Francisco-based health care technology analyst for Gartner Inc. — had been helping a man with his luggage down flights of stairs in the Marriott World Trade Center, where he had stayed the night before.

They were evacuating. But Gunasekaran had taken his time, unaware of the severity of the situation unfolding above him — and below him.

“There was another gentleman in the stairwell who had to get his luggage down,” he said. “He didn’t have the use of one of his legs. And he was taking forever, so I helped him go down. And between his luggage, my luggage and everything else, it took a long time.”

The Marriott was connected to the north and south towers, which had been struck by planes while Gunasekaran was in his hotel room that morning preparing to give a talk on Wall Street. But the gravity didn’t start to sink in until Gunasekaran emerged from the stairwell — where he had passed firefighter after firefighter running in the opposite direction — to find that throngs of emergency personnel had established a command center in the lobby.

“They looked at me and were like, ‘You’re still here? We evacuated all the guests already. What are you guys still doing here?’” Gunasekaran said. “They were like, ‘You need to get out of here. You’re in danger.”

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Recognizing that the man Gunasekaran was with was struggling to walk, the responders slapped a fire helmet on Gunasekaran and told him to get away — to evacuate uptown.

“That was the last time I saw the guy that I helped down the stairs,” he said.

As Gunasekaran fled, he found himself — eerily — alone. And he didn’t get far before hearing the ominous, accelerating roar of the first tower behind him crumbling.

“It was more like a sound of God. There was no reason to look back,” he said. “I knew something bad was happening. So I just ran.”

As darkness fell in the day, Gunasekaran sought refuge under the SUV until the smoke and soot began to choke him.

“So I got out and I started heading toward buildings, knocking on doors, windows, whatever,” he said. “Because I was really having significant trouble breathing. I definitely was feeling like I was suffocating.”

In a panic, with seemingly no one to help him in the middle of Manhattan, a door finally opened, with a woman on the other side and a voice shouting behind her, “Don’t let him in.”

“But she let me in,” Gunasekaran said.

He sheltered with the husband and wife in their cleaning business as the sky darkened again.

“The second tower had fallen,” he said.

Although none of them knew it at the time.

Only an hour earlier, Gunasekaran had called his family to tell them the hotel was being evacuated and he was going to stay in his room a bit to let others get out first.

That had been the initial advice given to guests over an intercom.

“They said, ‘There’s an emergency at the World Trade Center tower. For all the hotel guests, we’d like you to just stay put for right now so that the Trade Center folks can be evacuated and emergency services can get there,’” he said. “So I wasn’t particularly concerned.”

Then Gunasekaran heard a second plane hit.

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“I looked out the window because I heard the noise of a jet engine, and then I heard the explosion into the building,” he said. “I turned around and looked at it on TV. And, because the TV lags, they had a camera on the World Trade Center and you saw a plane hit.”

That’s when he packed up and called his family to tell them he was fine.

After a terrifying hour of silence, Gunasekaran — while with the couple in their cleaning business — managed to get a cellphone connection and, again, reassured his family members, who had been watching the news and could tell him what had happened.

Up to that point, Gunasekaran hadn’t realized the towers had collapsed. He had guessed a bomb went off. The man he was sheltering with believed some sort of gas had been released.

Eventually, Gunasekaran made his way through the haze and ash to a friend’s house in lower Manhattan, and later to connections in the suburbs. It took him days to get home and years before returning to the Trade Center site.

No one he knew well died that day. But many who he encountered that morning — from first responders to fellow evacuees — did.

His memories from that Sept. 11, while pixilated by waves of darkness, are “covered in white” from the plumes that dusted the city and everything in it. And they’re fortified by the light of humanity.

“I always remember it as the best part of the United States, the best part of people in general,” he said. “That, at that time, everyone in New York just kind of came together to help one another out.”

Fast forward to today.

Gunasekaran finds himself again in the throngs of a national crisis — overseeing a front-line operation in a red-zone state recording among the country’s highest new COVID-19 cases per capita.

And he sees similarities — echoes of anger and frustration, but also of goodness and hope.

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“I think that the long view on this is that these are rough times, and we’ve got to stick together,” he said.

Sept. 11 brought new appreciation for first-responders. It strengthened airline security. On a personal level, it taught Gunasekaran to appreciate the fragility of life.

“That’s probably the thing that I’ve taken the most from it — is to not take things for granted,” he said. “That you try to live your life the right way every day.”

Like today, Gunasekaran remembers “a whole lot of pain and frustration” following Sept. 11.

“And, honestly, a lot of disagreement in the in the public discourse,” he said. “But in the end, we all will come together, and we’ll get through it.”

And, he said, one lasting impact he hopes the current pandemic has on society is the value of community health.

“I think there’s more of a consciousness around the value of health, and that when health is taken away from you, how that’s really a devastating thing,” he said. “And that the health of others can affect your health. And that you really are your sister’s keeper.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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