Danville Express

Living - September 7, 2007

Trapped in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11

Danville resident ran down 26 flights of stairs to save his life on that fateful day

by Jordan M. Doronila

A blizzard of glass fell on New York City, and a monstrous, gray cloud of ash enveloped the World Trade Center, covering Danville resident Jim Murphy in soot as he ran for his life Sept. 11, 2001.

"It was like an atomic bomb exploding upside down," said Murphy, who, at the time, worked for Sun Microsystems on the 25th floor of the Twin Towers. "It was completely black."

Murphy, 62, who also served as a naval officer in combat during the Vietnam War and experienced firsthand the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, escaped before the Towers perished and eventually, after several days, made his way back to his wife in California.

As the sixth anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, he expressed sorrow for the harm done to New York.

"I feel sad," he said. "I love New York. To see it damaged that way is very upsetting."

But his life did not change after his escape.

"I believed in God before that happened," he said. "I'm fairly dispassionate about this. It's something that happened. I never think about it. Why should I? This was one day. One day does not change your whole life."

"People (who weren't there) are so hungry," Murphy said, for firsthand knowledge of being in the Towers when they collapsed.

He noted that the only media interview he has given was six years ago in December 2001 to a television news reporter for Eyewitness News Channel 7. Originally, he declined to give the interview because he didn't want the attention, and he wanted the public to focus on the lives that were lost. He also said he didn't want to exploit his situation.

However, the reporter was persistent and called him periodically, he said.

"She wasn't obnoxious," said his wife, Noel, who works as a teacher's aide at Vista Grande Elementary School in Danville. "She was nice."

Jim finally gave the interview and shared his personal story on television. He said he became convinced when the reporter told him his story would be something positive because he was still alive. He also told her he was not going to get emotional in front of the camera.

"I was up front with her that I'm not going to cry," he said.

Additionally, his daughter suggested that he mention to the reporter that he was laid off from Sun Microsystems after the attacks. His story on television included a sound byte regarding his layoff.

A few weeks after the report, Sun Microsystems rehired him, he said. He believes the Eyewitness piece had something to do with him getting his job back, but he can't prove it, he said.

Murphy, a native of Binghamton, N.Y., was a graduate student getting his master's degree in business administration at Cornell University and collected data for Port Authority when the World Trade Center was being built in 1971. The new PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson), which went from New Jersey to New York, and a subway line were being built to the World Trade Center when he was an intern. The two towers were almost complete.

"It was pretty impressive," he said. "It was very revolutionary at the time. It was a confluence of transportation."

"So many people relied on it," he added.

Now, what took years to build has vanished.

Murphy arrived at work around 9 a.m. Sept. 11. He first knew he was in trouble when he saw the fireballs outside the window.

"I had no clue what it was," he said. "I assumed it was a bomb."

He left and told his co-workers to leave, as well.

"I grabbed my stuff and went down on the stairwell," he said, noting he descended 26 floors. "We didn't want to take a chance."

Murphy saw flooding on the plaza after he made it to the ground floor. He held his briefcase over his head and a police officer directed him outside the building's exit on Vesey Street.

When he got out of the tower, he looked up.

"There was so much debris coming down," he said. Thousands of people were running in a panic and struggling to walk through the ash that fell upon them. For a while, he watched chaos that surrounded him and, sadly, watched people jump from the towers. He then left.

Meanwhile, in Danville, his wife heard on television about the attacks and went frenetic. She called his company, but the person who answered didn't know who he was. Noel said she should've called his cell phone first.

"You don't think rationally," she said, adding that their children and other family members called her to see if he was OK.

But she could not get through.

"The phone lines were jammed," she said. The airports were also closed.

Back in New York, Jim made it to a park bench and contemplated what to do. He stood on Wall Street and saw glass exploding from the towers when they crumbled. He went behind a pillar.

"It gradually started to clear," Murphy said.

He spotted a health club nearby and an employee let him inside. He gave Murphy some towels and soda, and he used his calling card to telephone his wife that he was OK. He let others use it, too. Sun Microsystems paid for the card, he noted.

Police came by and told Murphy he could not stay at the club. So he went out and onto Water Street to a Standard and Poor's conference room, where they had cakes and snacks.

Afterward, he called up his first cousin - a pat rack - and told her he was sleeping at her place whether she liked it or not.

"It wasn't a particularly comfortable situation," he said.

After a night of sleeping at the cousin's cramped apartment in Washington Heights uptown, he called his friend Pete to ask to stay at his home in Pennsylvania.

He took a train from New York to Trenton, N.J., and Pete picked him up. Shortly afterward, he flew from Philadelphia to rejoin his family in Danville, where he had been living for more than 20 years.

Noel wonders why her husband lived and others died. John Hart of Alamo died, working on a higher floor in the Twin Towers.

"You can't help but wonder about these things," she said.

"It was unpleasant," Jim said, about the experience. "It was something I'd choose not to repeat."

"I feel for the families who have had tragedies happen to them," he added.

Contact Jordan M. Doronila at jdoronila@DanvilleWeekly.com

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