The Story of a Survivor: Karl Kaess’ 9/11 Experience


Canon Drummond

September 11th, 2001: The day the Twin Towers went down, a day that evokes mourning, sadness, and remembrance annually as we recall the 2,996 people who died that day. But what about those who lived? Meet Karl Kaess: a family man and a people person, he loved sports such as tennis and skiing. He was also an institutional broker in the northern tower of the World Trade Center. On that day in 2001, he reported to work as normal, but the way his workday came to a close would be something no one could have ever predicted. 

“I got on the train to New York City. [I entered] the World Trade Center and noticed it was a very beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky.” Just another normal day in the Big Apple. As Karl began his trading day around 9 a.m., he noticed some commotion across the office at the window. He hurried over to discover that there were “papers flying everywhere, office furniture flying everywhere, and unfortunately, human beings flying everywhere” in a whirl of confusion, Karl wondered what was causing the insanity outside of the 84th floor window. That’s when he received intel on his Blackberry that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. In that instance, he knew he had to leave the tower. He began heading back to his desk to grab his things including his ID and briefcase, although security stopped him, and forced him down the stairs, not allowing him to retrieve his belongings. 

The workers’ descent began in an orderly fashion until those on top were crushing those below, causing the evacuators to get hurt as they were headed out. That’s when they made the announcement to return to their offices prior to them knowing that there was a second plane headed toward the tower. His friends were about two staircases above him and urged him to take the elevator instead. “So, I turned and marched back up the stairs, the doors closed before I could get on the elevator, but then the second plane hit.” Turning around it was no longer an orderly exit, but a catastrophic rush of people down the stairway. But then the rush suddenly cleared up for a few floors and there was no one to be seen, that was until reaching the 30th floorhe saw firemen running up the stairs into the commotion.  

Finally reaching outside, another fireman grabbed him and told him not to look, but it can be difficult to fight one’s instincts. “[There was] just debris and bodies falling all over the place.” A “warzone” of anarchy and commotion. “I could see both buildings were on fire.” He and his co-workers could see the extent of the damage. He noticed some people from his office after getting across the street where the men took a seat, “because 84 flights of stairs, I wasn’t exactly in training at the time.” After a little bit of sitting had passed, something that no one could have predicted occurredthe first building begato collapse, leaving them no option but to flee from the corner they sat on. Crowds surrounded taxi cabs to get information as there was no cell service. Karl and his co-workers decided it would be safer if they went to a restaurant or bar in a brownstone about 3 miles from where they were. After a long day, he eventually made it back home to Connecticut where he found his family and a bunch of neighbors. He felt so overwhelmed by the driveway full of cars, all waiting to check on him.  

A piece of the World Trade Center.                        It was retrieved from the wreckage and gifted to Mr. Kaess as he grieved.

Having just experienced a real-life nightmare, Karl says he was in “some sort of shock or PTSD” for about two years after. He says they do a charity event every year. They have two guests who are severely wounded from war in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I guess the main thing is I kind of felt like I had something in common with them in a way, because I almost felt like I was at war myself for a little while.” That really shows the severity of PTSD and what he and those soldiers have experienced. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only effect he would experience. 

Karl unfortunately developed alcoholism. He says he began to drink “too much, way too much.” That’s not just having drinks every night but, “waking up and having a drink, and drinking all day until you go to bed.” He knew he had developed this problem, and knew he needed help. He also knew it was directly correlated to the trauma he had experienced and the guilt he had as a survivor, knowing there were so many that didn’t make it out. He sought out professional help and had taken time off work to deal with the mental issues he had developed. 

Our HHS journalists want to thank Karl for his time and sensitivity in sharing this difficult experience with us.  We wish him well.

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