Exactly 11 years ago this week, retired Fil-Am banker Frank Cruz narrowly escaped death in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Rushing down stairs from the 48th floor amid chaos and confusion, Cruz was less than 10 minutes out of Tower 1 when it collapsed, trapping 2,752 souls to death.
“I am so grateful to be alive,” Cruz told the Filipino Reporter last Tuesday.
“I have moved on with my life and try not to think about the tragedy.”
“But with the anniversary coming...the memories are coming back,” said Cruz, who was vice president of Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank (now Mizuho Corporate Bank), one of the largest banks in the world during the latter half of the 20th century, until he retired in September 2010.
Eighteen Filipinos and Filipino-Americans perished in the WTC destruction, with two more Filipinos killed in the two jetliners used by the hijackers in the attacks.
None of Cruz’s colleagues or friends were among the dead.
“Sometimes, I think about all those firefighters that we met along the way and how they met their fate,” he shared.
“I pray for them whenever I think of them and all those people who didn’t make it.”
Cruz, a resident of West Orange, N.J., vividly remembers the tragic day.
He was at his desk before 9 a.m. reviewing the reports he had prepared the previous night for a 10 a.m. meeting when he was jolted by a loud bang.
He checked out the window behind his desk and saw nothing out of the ordinary.
He then noticed a big crack on the ceiling thinking it was an earthquake.
Moments later, he saw his colleagues and other people on the floor heading toward the exit on the stairway.
He decided to follow the crowd along with one of his firm’s consultants.
“On our way down, we were greeted by firemen going upstairs telling us that everything was fine and for us to just continue to leave the building,” Cruz related.
“We even broke open the vending machines on the way and gave bottled water to the firemen.”
“On the 26th floor, our consultant suggested to me that we rest for about 10 minutes before proceeding down,” Cruz remembered.
“I told him to just continue walking down. On the 13th floor, he asked me again if we could rest but I told him ‘no’ and that we should keep going.”
(That consultant would later call Cruz “my guardian angel.”)
At the time, Cruz tried repeatedly tried to contact his wife on his cell phone only to find out that there was no service.
Meanwhile, his wife, Vivian Talambiras Cruz, who was then a United Nations employee, was starting to worry about her husband.
“When we reached the ground floor, it was already filled with water coming from the sprinklers on the ceiling,” Frank Cruz continued.
“On our way out of the building, we were met by police officers ordering us to just continue walking and not to look up. But out of curiosity, I looked up to see why we were told not to. It was then I saw that the upper portion of the building was on fire. After about eight minutes, I heard a loud rumbling like falling dominoes. When I looked back again, I saw billowing smoke engulfing the whole place. And Tower One was gone.”
Tower One (North Tower) was first hit by a jetliner at 8:46 a.m. but it didn’t collapse until 10:28 a.m. Cruz had no idea at the time of the escape that Tower Two (South Tower) had already collapsed at 9:59 a.m. although it was hit by a jetliner at 9:03 a.m.
Cruz didn’t know how he got out of the war zone-like downtown Manhattan.
He walked his way to the U.N. building on First Avenue and 44th Street and met his wife outside the U.N. where they hugged each other tight.
“It was a very happy reunion for us,” Vivian Cruz recalled.
“Frank was composed and calm.”
The couple took their car out of the U.N. garage not knowing where to go because of the chaos on the streets and blocked roads.
“We decided to go through the George Washington Bridge to get to New Jersey,” Frank said.
“We saw so many people walking without direction, stoned-faced and walking like zombies. It really felt New York City was a war zone.”
When they got home, Vivian Cruz said several neighbors were waiting in front of their house, waiting for Frank.
“They know Frank worked at the World Trade and they were very concerned about him,” she said.
“They hosted a thanksgiving party for Frank the following week...Frank was very touched.”
Though the 9/11 tragedy caused Cruz tremendous sadness and pain — healed over time, he said, by his family’s overwhelming love and support — it made him realize how precious life is.
“Life is too short to waste and I try to live it to the fullest each passing day,” he told the Reporter.
“It (9/11) helped me realize that making a difference in someone else’s life is the real source of happiness.”
Cruz and his wife became deeply involved in humanitarian service both in the U.S. and in the Philippines, and travel to as many places as they can, enjoying each other’s company.
He was president of the Coalition to Help Street Children and served for two terms as president of the La Salle Alumni Association.
Recently, the Cruz couple helped coordinate with local and health officials the donation of thousands of hearing aids from a U.S.-based foundation for various towns in Batangas, and the reconstructive and cleft palate surgery of dozens of Filipino children under the Cranio Facial Foundation.
They have also been shipping medical supplies to charity ward of Batangas Regional Hospital and have secured computers and books for a community center in Lobo, Batangas.
“I believe that God has a plan for me that’s why I’m still here,” Frank Cruz said.