“Just so you understand, everybody left that room. Every one of the 54 people left that room. Only seven of us survived that day. Everyone had different decisions to make at different points in time when leaving the building. If you hesitated at any point in time in that process of evacuating, more than two-and-a-half minutes, you didn’t get past the strike zone where the plane went through our building.”
For most adults, attending a meeting would be part of a standard workday. Walking into the office, prioritizing goals for the day and preparing to give presentations, many would prepare for the same normal routine. But for Joe Dittmar, head of The Always Remember Initiative, this workday would not follow routine.
Dittmar, a current Chapel Hill resident, was attending a business meeting with representatives of various insurance carriers for a Chicago-based corporation in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, the second tower hit during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“We were in an enclosed conference room on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center, and it’s important that I say enclosed. There were four walls, no windows and one set of doors,” Dittmar said. “At 8:48 a.m., the lights flickered, and we couldn’t see anything so that’s all we recognized, just a flicker of lights. A guy came in, told us there had been an explosion in the other tower and we needed to evacuate. No one wanted to do that, we just wanted to continue on with our meeting, but he got everybody out and told us we were going to go to the nearest fire stairwell to exit down the steps.”
While some others chose to stay put, Dittmar chose to evacuate immediately.
“There were some people that decided they wanted to stay put until they could find out what was going on and weren’t going to go down the steps. I didn’t hesitate, and as a result of the lack of hesitation on my part, I was one of the seven to survive. Those decisions were the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.”
Before coming up to New York that morning, Ditmar spent the weekend in Philadelphia visiting family. He feels that anybody could have experienced what he did, because all the people there just made the decision to go to work that morning.
“Unbelievable; to think how you started the morning. Most of the people there started the day in New York or New Jersey and they kiss their husband or their wife goodbye, tell the kids, ‘Love you, see you later,’ and they never come home. That’s just so, so unfair.”
Dittmar is the creator of The Always Remember Initiative, a project that aims to keep the voices and memories of 9/11 victims alive.
“It [the victims of 9/11] could have been anybody. It could have been you, it could have been one of your parents, it could have been me, it could have been anybody,” Dittmar said. “And that’s the part that resonates so strongly with me, for those of us who were able to survive, we have an obligation to those 3,000 that lost their lives that day to be a voice that can continue to be heard. They were taken from us in an unfair way and we have an obligation to keep their voices alive and to keep their spirits alive. That’s why I do what I do.”
Dittmar travels around the country and makes presentations telling the story of that day. He does not charge for the opportunity to hear him speak, saying that goes against what the initiative is about.
“The goal is something simple: I’m not trying to make money, I am not trying to become famous. I’m trying to make sure that in some way, shape or form I give back to those that were lost by making sure that people never forget and that they always remember what happened that day and that’s the simple bottom line for what the initiative is all about.”
Despite not asking for payment, Dittmar asks that if any organization wishes to make a donation, they do so by giving a donation to the Chatham NC 9/11 First Responders’ Memorial being constructed in downtown Pittsboro. The memorial features a steel beam from the World Trade Center. Dittmar says he is “totally thrilled” that the memorial is being built so close to his current home.
“This memorial gives me a place to go where I can retreat to the day and event and do a little soul searching,” Dittmar said. “It also tells you how great the people of Chatham, North Carolina are, to go out of their way to solicit a piece of the Trade Center and develop the memorial from an idea to a project because they care and they don’t want to forget. It makes me love my new-found home here in North Carolina more and more.”
Dittmar hopes that this initiative can help keep history alive, so younger generations never forget the events of 9/11.
“I’m thrilled that this initiative of mine is one that can not only continue on, but grow. The event lasted this number of minutes and hours, but really, the event goes on forever for those of us who survived,” Dittmar said.
“It never goes away. It is as real for me today as it was 13 years ago.”
– By Meredith Norman