Survivor wishes he could forget

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 September, 2006, 12:00am

Hong Kong-born engineer Louie Kam-ming was in the World Trade Centre on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001 when two passenger jets slammed into the twin towers in downtown New York. Against the odds, he survived when 2,749 others did not.

For that, the former Raytheon Corp employee - who was working on the 91st floor of the South Tower at the time - knows deep down that he is blessed.

Since then, life and death for the 67- year-old have become an open book. He knew five years ago while fleeing down the stairs of the burning South Tower that he might die - and he was ready for that. Now he no longer fears death.

Since that morning, every breath of air has smelled sweeter and each morning he wakes up is an extra day gained. It feels like borrowed time, he says.

His colleagues who perished in 2001 will be remembered with a minute of silence tomorrow. At the same time, Mr Louie, who emigrated to the US from Hong Kong 35 years ago - when he adopted his current surname, a more popular US translation of the Chinese family name 'Lui' used in Hong Kong - wants nothing more than to move on.

'People still remember what happened. My friends know that I was in the building when the planes hit but survived. It happened again just a couple of days ago when I was in Boston. They always try to approach me to ask me my feelings about what happened.

'It seems to never go away. I don't like it when people ask me this kind of thing, because it means I have to keep repeating myself.

'I feel tired. It's better for me to put it aside and forget about it, and for my life to go back to normal,' he said.

At 8.46am, when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the 92nd to 98th floors of the North Tower, Mr Louie was in the company bathroom on the 91st floor of the South Tower. There was an audible bang, but it was not very loud. At the time he remembers thinking it was very strange, but did not give the matter much more thought.

As he emerged from the bathroom he could feel the uncertainty hanging in the air - nobody in his office could see what happened, even though it was on the same level as the plane's point of impact. Mr Louie's section of the office faced south rather than north, and all that could be seen was a lot of black smoke.

He initially thought the North Tower had been hit by a missile - recalling the 1993 truck bomb that failed to take down the twin towers. His company was not based in the World Trade Centre during that attack, having moved in only in 1994.

Common sense told him to run for it. He grabbed his briefcase, and made for the nearest fire escape. His colleagues joined him in the stairwell, and Mr Louie recalls the peculiar silence during that initial stage of his escape. 'Everybody was very quiet because they were all so scared.'

When he neared the sky lobby on the 78th floor, there was a public announcement telling people to return to work. Some of his colleagues took the elevator back up and that was the last time they were seen alive.

Pausing briefly to ponder whether he should use the elevator, he made another critical decision that probably saved his life, choosing to continue descending on foot. A few minutes later, at 9.03am, the second plane struck the South Tower, 13 floors below his office.

There was a boom. He felt the building shake back and forth several times. The force of the explosion caught fire doors in the stairwell and many flapped open and shut. People started screaming and those in front of him in the stairwell, who until that time had been descending at a steady pace, started to run down in a panic.

Since he was ten or so floors below the point of impact of United Airlines Flight 175, there was no smoke or rubble, but the normal lights failed and emergency lighting kicked in. He cannot remember whether alarms were ringing.

Going down the next 2,000 or so steps he recalls vividly the people who were too frightened to move.

At first he tried to help them, but he gave up after figuring he could not carry them all the way down. Some people cried.

After 45 minutes on the stairs, he reached the World Trade Centre's shopping centre basement and climbed out onto the street, where people stood transfixed at the site of the burning twin towers, trying to figure out how or why it could have happened.

The engineer did not look back or stop to see how things unfolded. He kept going, choosing consciously to flee along narrow streets in case the building fell down. By the time he reached Chinatown both twin towers had collapsed. But he did not see them fall - he did not dare turn around.

In the five years since that day, life has not changed dramatically for Mr Louie. He still lives in New York and works for the same company - sort of. His civil engineering section has been sold to another company and he now works out of Penn Station, which is another major potential terrorist target.

Every day he wakes up, goes to work and returns home to his wife - just as he did before September 11.

Despite living through an event where airliners were used by terrorists as missiles to bring down buildings, he travels more extensively than before the attacks.

But many of those who made it out of the World Trade Centre alive are still living in fear, Mr Louie says.

'We are always worried things could happen again. But what can we do? We become afraid so easily now. Small things happen and we get scared,' he said, recalling an incident recently when a number of police cars were park outside his office building.

Some of his colleagues were so afraid they packed their bags and left.

'[But] I am a pretty happy guy,' he says.'I didn't have that much difficulty putting my life together after 9/11.'

The joyful arrival of two grandchildren - his first - in the intervening years has helped, and for them he keeps an envelope of clippings about the attack, cut from magazines such as Time and Newsweek.

'I don't want to read them. I don't want to open the envelope. I hide it in a place out of the way so I don't have to be reminded of it. But it's for the little ones, if they ever want to know what went on that day.'