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WVU economist saw 9/11 up close

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Retired West Virginia University economics professor Tom Witt had a book come in the mail this week: “Hotel 9-11.”

Witt doesn’t exactly need the book. He lived it. In fact, he’s in the book.

He and his wife, Grethe Myles, were in New York for an economics conference. They were staying at the Marriott Hotel at 3 World Trade Center the morning the towers came down.

Also read: Hoppy Kercheval: Remembering Sept. 11, 2001

Witt had kissed Grethe goodbye that morning as he went downstairs for the Morgan Stanley International breakfast speech. She remained in Room 1040, getting ready for what she thought would be a regular day.

Witt was seated at a ballroom table across from a commodity economist from Memphis. At a time they now know was 8:45, Witt and the Memphis economist looked at each other with alarm as they started hearing one loud noise and then another and then “a third sound like an elephant landing on the roof.”

That third noise was the landing gear from American Airlines Flight 11 crashing atop the hotel.

The Marriott was a 24-story hotel right between the Twin Towers and in the heart of the financial district. It was one of seven buildings constituting the World Trade Center. The eventual collapse of the Twin Towers wound up destroying the hotel.

Witt and the economists rushed to get the hell out of it.

“We got up and exited the ballroom through the elevator lobby. Security kept us inside the hotel until they could figure out what was going on.”

Then, “We evacuated to the south through the Longboat Bar. I ran out across the street with everyone else.”

Major problem: Witt didn’t know where Grethe was. And this was before people routinely carried cell phones.

Up in Room 1040, Grethe also hurried to get out. She is hearing-impaired and her hearing aids were lost in the rush.

“She left her hearing aids behind, ran down 10 flights of stairs and was going out in the courtyard between the Twin Towers when a security guard motioned her inside because debris was falling,” Witt said.

“She exited from that location and went out the east end of the shopping center through Chinatown, across the Manhattan Bridge.”

Grethe wound up walking with other evacuees all the way to Brooklyn, where they found shelter with the friendly owner of a car wash.

At the time, Witt knew none of this. His best hope was to find a phone and call his office in Morgantown.

“I found a telephone and called my office,” he said. “They patched me through to the dean’s office. I told them where I was. I looked up and saw a second plane hit. I immediately hung up. They didn’t know if I was alive at that point or not.”

That was 9:03 a.m. 

Witt and a band of about five economists walked over to the Hudson River and headed north to the Morgan Stanley building in midtown Manhattan. Witt found a phone and tried his best to communicate again.

“I got inside the lobby and made a call to my office. I was trying to find out where my wife was. Pretty soon we were leaving there and went up to Bank One at Midtown. That’s where I called my office again. I finally found that my wife was alive.”

Relief.

By that point, media calls were already coming in for Witt to describe what he’d been seeing. He agreed to take one, an interview with Beth Vorhees of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Witt sounds remarkably calm, until he describes the financial industry employees leaping out the Twin Towers windows. The interview is interrupted somewhat abruptly when Witt gets word that his band of economists is ready to move again.

“We all split up and went our separate ways,” Witt said. “I walked with this fellow to his home in West Greenwich Village. There, I only had the clothes on my back, which was basically a suit.”

Getting around the chaos of New York wasn’t easy, but Witt and Grethe finally reconnected about 4 p.m. that day. They remained two nights in New York and finally were able to catch a train on Thursday from Penn Station to Pittsburgh, where they had left their car at the airport.

Four months following the attacks, Tom Witt got a phone call from a police officer who found his belongings at the World Trade Center site: a crushed Palm Pilot, external hard drive and that hotel bill. (WVU Photo by Greg Ellis.)
Four months following the attacks, Tom Witt got a phone call from a police officer who found his belongings at the World Trade Center site: a crushed Palm Pilot, external hard drive and that hotel bill. (WVU Photo by Greg Ellis.)

A few months passed and Witt had settled back into normal life. He got a call saying his briefcase and some other belongings had been found in the World Trade Center rubble.

“They said, ‘Would you like the contents of your briefcase?’ I have several items from the briefcase, including my Palm Pilot and the bill from the Marriott Hotel.”

Not surprisingly, the Palm Pilot’s screen is shattered.

Fifteen years after their experience, Witt and Grethe realize the ruins of his briefcase are a part of history.

“I have to talk to my wife; I think we have to turn over some of this stuff to the university archives,” Witt said. “I have the return plane ticket and the hotel receipt. I have a bag from the conference that you could carry things in. Plus we have the New York Times from that day. The Palm Pilot is probably the most impressive.”

Some years, Witt and Grethe have returned to New York to participate in Memorial Service. This Sunday, they’ll likely spend the 15th anniversary quietly in Morgantown.

“It’ll be pretty quiet in many respects,” Witt said. “We just count our blessings.”





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