Ten years later, Chris Hardej won’t forget his 82nd floor flight to freedom

Chris Hardej in 2011.

Woodstock Times, September 13, 2001:

Chris Hardej, of Bensonhurst, was sitting at his computer with his back to the window on the 82nd floor of Tower No. 1 at the World Trade Center Tuesday morning when he heard a “semi-long swooooosh, like an air rush and it rocked the building, like a thump, but didn’t knock me out of my seat.”

The 41-year-old Hardej, a Senior Transportation Analyst with the State Department of Transportation, and the brother-in-law of Shandaken resident Vinnie Cortina, turned to look out the window, which did not shatter, and saw what he recalls as a lot of paper and metal fragments, shards, floating down.

“I’m also a military person. Instinctively, I recalled that I should hit the deck,” said Hardej on Wednesday,“to protect myself from anything that would come through the window. So I crawled to the middle of the office, to get away from the window.

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One of my co-workers tripped over me and he said, let’s head for the exit. The lights were still on at this time. I suspect the plane entered somewhere in the upper 80s, low 90s. Being a flyer, I did not hear the engine noise. I knew the weather was beautiful, so it wasn’t an accident but I don’t recall actively hearing the engines.

“So we tried to make our way to the exit. One of our employees was by the emergency stairs yelling ‘Come to my voice…’ He kept on yelling that. Even though our office was lit, the hallways were dark and starting to fill with smoke. When we got to his voice, the stairs were lit up. As we started down the stairs, I noticed that there were not many people in the stairway yet. It was relatively calm and easy getting down to about the 60th floor. Then due to all the people leaving the lower floors we came to a standstill. I found out later that the other plane hit the other building. I don’t recall noticing it in the hallway.”

“Somehow I remember Wednesday is your deadline,” laughs Chris Hardej (pronounced Hardy) on the phone five days before the tenth anniversary of the horrendous, history changing event that was the subject of our last conversation. We had spoken, amazingly, the following morning, after the now 51 year old Brooklynite had walked down 82 stories, 82 flights of stairs in 1 World Trade Center, reaching the lobby as building 2 collapsed, forced a tremendous rush of air and debris that blew out store windows and threatened to collapse the ceiling before he escaped, on foot, over the Brooklyn Bridge. 

He’s postponed the conversation with me from earlier in the morning so he could go perform one of his regular activities — giving tours of Ground Zero, even as the redevelopment of the site, which includes the nearly complete Memorial to those who perished at the event, and to the lives of those who were lucky enough to have lived through it. 

“About four times a month, I give a tour,” says Hardej. “It’s part of the healing process, but I do it more to keep the memory of 9/11 alive. Something I probably didn’t tell you last time is that three of my co-workers did not make it out. This is a way for me to share my story with a lot of people. Typically we’ll have 20-25 people on the tour, spend an hour or so on the site, talking about the 9/11 experience.” Tribute is project of the 9/11 Family Association, which sponsors the tours. “People needed direct connections, or had a direct story to share.”

Hardej works for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, a planning organization within the state Department of Transportation, and has relatives in Mount Tremper and a brother in law, Vinnie Cortina in Boiceville, 

He works on the east side of lower Manhattan now, only 22 stories up. “I see the new buildings go up every day, and they’re still putting up a floor per week. I just learned today that they are up to the 82nd floor, coincidentally, the floor that I worked on.” 

As you’d imagine, the experience of that day stays close.

“I think about it every day, especially with giving the tours. And being close to the site, you cannot not think about it every day. Every day I realize how lucky I am to be here.

Has it changed me? I don’t have a good answer to that. I like to think there’s been a change somewhere, but I’m the same basic person I was. Before 9/11, every day I woke up was a good day.

“The one thing is now that we’re coming up on the tenth anniversary, time heals and I guess people move on. It’s not as fresh in people’s minds, they’re more removed from 9/11 ten years later. What I see the tenth anniversary doing is bringing people back to that day so we can remember.

“Next week I’m speaking at a high school, and those kids were five years old. I’d be surprised if they remember what happened. Some of the kids on the tours weren’t even born. The tenth anniversary brings the possibility to refocus on the magnitude of what happened.”

How does he like the 9/11 memorial and redevelopment?

“I think it’s the right balance of a memorial to all those that perished…I mean 1100 people have never been identified. Eight acres is for the memorial, half of it. The other half for the rebuild. You obviously have to consider the families and all the other aspects. It seems a nice balance came out of the rebuild. I think the memorial area is being done very tastefully, two memorial waterfalls with the 9-11 memorial building in between and some of the artifacts.

“I have a vivid recall of all of this. Not only did I give you the details, but I wrote them down within a month, and it helps me with my tours, helps me remember what it was like back then. The smell, I kind of remember, I remember seeing the stairs, I remember walking outside, I remember quite a bit.

“The thing that fascinates me, I’ve learned since, that the impact zone was the 93rd to 96th floor. Nobody on the 92nd floor and above got out. About 1360 people were doomed…and I’ve learned that the building came down in ten to twelve seconds. And after the ten to twelve seconds, what I recall is how quiet it was — the most silent quiet you’ll ever hear, not a peep, not a moan, nothing.”

From 2001:

“The concourses connect, and the building falling was pushing a wall of air and debris through that concourse. As I turned around and saw that wall coming toward me, I had to think quick. I didn’t want the ceiling to cave in and crush me, so I was looking for the closest support beam. As I was running to that marble support beam between two stores, the windows from the stores were bulging and blasting out, from pressure or the rumbling,” said Hardej. “I don’t believe there were any bombs in all of this, it was just from the planes. As I grabbed hold of that wall, it finally sandblasted me with these fiber particles. At that time everything goes black as electricity went. You couldn’t breathe for two or three minutes as that wall was nothing but dust and particles. I had taken my shirt off coming down stairs to put it over my mouth. But that didn’t help. After a while, it did dissipate enough to breathe and my night vision started to let me make out some stuff in the dark. The rumbling was still going on above as Number Two was probably hitting the plaza. I was praying that the marble on the beam above me would not come down and take me out.

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Our talk gets around to the aftermath of the tragedy and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Chris Hardej

Hardej still serves in the Air National Guard on Long Island, specializing in combat search and rescue. “Last year I did 160 days military duty. Typically I’ll do 120 a year,” as he maintains his proficiency as a navigator on HC130 aircraft. 

“I mentioned earlier how people tend to forget the magnitude of what happened. As time goes on people tend to be further removed. In terms of what’s going on, I see that as fighting terrorism overseas — the fighting that is happening over there hopefully will prevent something like this from happening again here. There’s no guarantee, but it hasn’t happened, to date, at least here, knock wood.

“Obviously there was some closure that was needed, one chapter in the long story that could take place. Typically people would ask about Osama Bin Laden, and that’s just one big chapter in a long story. It is one chapter of the closure, as will be the completion of the memorial. But there is never any true closure to an experience like that.”

From 2001:

When we finally got out of the building on the side of the initial impact, I recall seeing at least a foot of debris everywhere. Although I don’t recall stopping, I remember telling my two fellow employees we have to get out of there. We walked north. I knew my wife would be concerned, and based on previous training, I knew if I get on camera, word would filter out to my family that I made it out of there. As we walked north and I got seven blocks away, that’s when the other building came down. I don’t recall watching it, as my concern was getting away from there.”

His family plays an important part. 

“They know it’s important that I give these tours. They support what I do in memory of 9-11 and it’s part of the healing process. And they’re proud of what I do as well.”

Did he meet people he kept in touch with? Hardej laughs again.

“This is New York City. It’s not like a small town where you keep in touch with people you pass. There were supposedly about 17,000 people in the towers. I didn’t meet anyone I stayed in touch with. The two people I walked down with, Jan Khan and Larisa, I still work with them, I saw them this morning.

“The future is to share my experience with those willing to come down here to learn about what happened on 9-11. Most of the people don’t know what they’re in for until they hear about what they’re looking at. The memory of my three co-workers is what gets me going to go down there to give these tours, that and the other 2,746 people that perished with them. The satisfaction of knowing what you’re doing is in seeing the expression on people’s faces when you give them a person to person experience.

“Time definitely goes by quick. It doesn’t seem like ten years.”

We agree to talk again in another ten.