Samantha Horwitz told Royse City Rotarians last week of a September day that she expected to be like any other day.
She learned early that morning, however, that the cliche would not hold true.
The date was Sept. 11, 2001.
Horwitz, a retired United States Secret Service agent who now lives in Rockwall, was on an elevator in the World Trade Center North Tower when terrorist-piloted American Airlines Flight 11 hit the building.
She told Rotarians her first-hand account of “exactly how things went down” the day two jetliners crashed into two World Trade Center towers.
But her account did not cover just the events of that day— how she survived and how she helped others survive.
She also talked about how she has survived post traumatic stress disorder, which took her from being a “highly functioning” federal agent to a person who was afraid to be behind a closed door.
Her drive to work was the first sign that Sept. 11, 2001, would not be a typical day.
“Our motto is, ‘If you’re on time, you’re late,’” she said. “But gosh darn, I got stuck in a traffic jam because of an accident. That never happened before. I was always early on time to work.”
After finally arriving at the World Trade Center complex, Horwitz said it appeared many others were also running late that day. The elevator was packed.
Buttons on the elevator were pushed and the occupants appeared to be headed to another normal day at the office.
“All of a sudden, the elevator shook, which was kind of odd, then lights started flickering,” she said. “And then came this sound that to this day I can only describe as a freight train that’s coming at you. It was all of a sudden so very, very loud.
“The elevator car started moving at a very rapid pace and then it stopped and the doors blew open. We were all met with a huge, huge plume of hot air and dust that overwhelmed you.”
The blast blew them to the back of the elevator. The elevator then was sucked up to the plaza level.
“Not to get religious on you guys, things happen for a reason,” she told the Rotary Club audience of about 20 men and women. “I don’t know why we stopped right there because the other elevator car, which was next to us, came plummeting down. Actually, when it stopped, it blew the doors off.”
She said the doors actually severed the legs of one of her Secret Service partners.
At this instant, Horwitz knew only that something bad had happened. Her first thought was that they had felt the impact of a bomb.
What she didn’t know at the time was what caused that freight train sound. She learned later that the noise was actually the sound caused by jet fuel that was pouring down the elevator shaft.
Horwitz asked Rotarians to think about being in a movie where there’s massive noise, chaos and explosions “and you’re in it.
“But you cannot identify a single enemy,” she said. “You don’t know what’s going on. You don’t know who is doing this. You just know there is utter chaos. That’s what was going on.”
Horwitz said she grabbed the people she could and headed for an exit.
“Again, things work in divine ways,” she said. “I went out an exit door I had never gone out before since I started working in New York. Going out that door saved my life as well as the people I had pulled out with me because there was an overhang on the building.”
Horwitz provided a graphic description of what she saw.
She said “parts of things and people who had been blown out of the building were falling around us.”
They headed toward Building 7, where the Secret Service’s New York City field office was located. To reach their destination, they had to cross a bridge that was covered with glass.
“Do I stay? Do I go? Do I stay? Do I go, because things are falling?” Horwitz said.
“So I grabbed the lady who stayed with me and we went,” she said. “And my squad. I could see my supervisor on the other side of the doors and they had the doors open. They were telling me to ‘come, come, come.’ They could see what was going on behind me. I couldn’t.”
Now that they were safe inside Building 7, she said, the next step was to determine how they would respond.
“We figured, we’re good. We’re inside,” she said. “We’ll figure this out like we always do. There’s now a new mission. We’ve got to figure out what just happened.”
Then, she said, the second airplane hit.
“From our vantage point, we had no idea it was a plane,” she said. “We couldn’t see anything. The buildings are so high that your visual field is cut off.”
Another bomb, she thought.
They evacuated Building 7 and ended up on Westside Highway about two blocks away. Still, they had no idea that two jetliners had hit the World Trade Center towers.
Another agent told them that there were no bombs. Jetliners had crashed into the buildings. Then, she said, they learned that a jetliner had crashed into the Pentagon.
“At that point, we knew we’re absolutely under attack,” she said. “Again, what do we do? When you evacuate, you leave everything behind. I have my sidearm. I have my badge. No enemy. What do we do?”
Then they heard what they thought was another airplane. They found out though that the sound was Tower 2 collapsing.
“We just took off running, just like the footage, the giant plume of smoke, ash, dust, etc.,” she said. “It’s like it was chasing you and you just run as fast as you can to get out of there.”
After Tower 2 came down, the team of agents knew they had a mission. Their plan was to go get people.
“Nobody to get,” she said. “If you were caught there, you were permanently entombed as part of the building.”
They sought refuge temporarily inside a school. They had planned to use the school’s gymnasium for bodies and survivors. But they became concerned. If Tower 2 had come down, Tower 1 could be next. Administrators had told school officials to evacuate.
“Shortly after the decision to start evacuating the building, we started hearing this familiar sound again, bending metal,” she said. “We knew something was giving way. These were not normal sounds.”
The sounds were caused by the collapsing Tower 1. Again, they ran to escape the smoke that was chasing them.
“By this time, we’re just thankful we were able to get all the kids out of the school,” she said. “So, no casualties at the school and that school was the closest school to Ground Zero.”
She finally arrived back at her New Jersey home about 5 p.m. that day. It was the end of a horrific day, but it wasn’t the end of her story.
“I wish that was the end of the story because what was happening to me this whole time was my brain was on complete, utter overload,” she said. “I found myself all of a sudden not being able to be behind a closed door. It was kind of weird.”
She didn’t know what was going on, so she just shrugged it off.
“I realized many years later that was the beginning of what we call post traumatic stress disorder,” she said. “I had heard about it, but never experienced it. It’s an incremental change because of what we had all been through. And it turned into not being able to get the mail without being armed, not being able to open the door without being armed. They call it hyper vigilance.”
Horwitz said “you feel like nobody gets you. Nobody can understand how a high functioning human being can no longer go out of their home and act quote unquote normal when they hear a loud bang, a loud sound. If there was a dumpster truck, I would try to dive under something.”
She later left the Secret Service because of the effects of PTSD. Then after struggling with the disorder for more than a year, she got the help she needed and got well.
She returned to law enforcement briefly, but she retired in 2012 after spending 13 years in law enforcement.
She’s in the process of launching Heroes For Healing, an outreach program in Mesquite to help first responders and military veterans who suffer from PTSD.