Srinath Jinadasa: Surviving 9/11

A decade ago to this day, Srinath Jinadasa wasn’t particularly surprised to hear that a plane had crashed into the building he worked in. When the North Tower reeled under the impact of the collision, it seemed to stagger upon its very foundations, swaying up to 20 feet back and forth, groaning and convulsing in pain. Its upper floors were vomiting black smoke, flames and debris.

Picking up his phone, the Port’s Authority engineer called his wife, Ganga. It was she who told him what had happened. It was not, as he had half suspected, another bomb. Smuggled into the basement of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, that one had at least left the building standing. Returning to their offices, after the smoke had dissipated days later, the team had found their potted begonias had succumbed to dehydration and were withered and dead. Now, 8 years later, as the men waited for the stairs to clear, they remembered to water the plants.

Phil Penman’s photograph that so vivdly captured the horror of 9/11. Srinath is in the middle

Mr. Jinadasa would have been astounded to discover that the plane that had been buried nose first in the floors somewhere above him was a Boeing 767-223ER. Far more likely a scenario was an accident involving a light aircraft. Flowing close to the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Hudson River often served as a corridor – but it was typically a route chosen by small planes whose pilots were relying on visual cues to navigate. Speaking from his home in New Jersey, Mr. Jinadasa remembers the panoramic view from his office: “They would be at my eye level because I was on the 74th floor at 1,000 feet elevation and so I would often see planes fly by.” That morning, however, there had been little time for gazing out the window.

Having dropped his daughter Sayuri off at her high school in Rahway, he had arrived at work at 8.30, his usual time. He would have had just about fifteen minutes before the first impact: at 8.46 a.m., five hijackers would fly American Airlines Flight 11 straight into the North Tower. Writing about it later, Mr. Jinadasa said he fielded several concerned calls from friends and relatives, all of whom wanted him to escape from the building as soon as possible. However, he knew that the stairs would be flooded with panicked people trying to do exactly that. Despite the evident seriousness of the situation, Mr. Jinadasa could not imagine the towers would actually fall. He and his friend decided to give the rush some time to subside. However, while the four men were waiting in relative calm, the second plane found its target. Walking to the window, Mr. Jinadasa could see WTC 2 had also been attacked. It was time to get out. It was just past 9 a.m.

Armed with a few flashlights, some wet paper towels and a jacket, they began their descent. They found the floors between the 74th and 35th all but emptied of people; as they got closer to the bottom they began to encounter rescue teams moving in the opposite direction. After what must have seemed like an endless descent, they arrived at the ground floor. The sight that met them was a “horrific scene of death and destruction”. Everywhere, bodies lay mingled with the debris. Moving forward they were directed toward the first basement level: “Almost as soon as we went to the concourse and proceeded towards the exit we heard a thundering rumble and a deafening crash,” remembers Mr. Jinadasa.

Rushing in from behind, a thick cloud of dust and debris enveloped them. He threw himself against the floor by a wall, as the building around shuddered and seemed to crumble. Then silence fell, and Mr. Jinadasa found himself startled to still be alive. Disoriented, he found his flashlights could barely illuminate the thick blanket of darkness that had descended. They could just about make out the ground beneath their feet, but could not agree on which way was out. Then the voice of a policeman penetrated the confusion. They followed it onto the street and into the bright light of day. The tiny group had only made it a few hundred yards from the building when the inevitable happened. With a cataclysmic roar, the whole edifice simply crumpled in on itself. The dust it raised blocked out the sun. “For a few minutes there was darkness much like midnight,” Mr. Jinadasa would recall, explaining that he was pulled into the shelter of a small store by a police officer.

By the time he emerged, he looked a very different man from the one who had so blithely showed up for work in the morning. His hair was nearly white – coated so thoroughly in a fine white powder. Patches of soot and dust covered his exposed skin and stained his clothes. Squinting into the light, propelled by some instinct unthinkingly away from the site, the men simply stumbled past the waiting emergency vehicles, the bystanders and the assembled photographers. Camera in hand, Phil Penman saw them walk by. The image he captured of them leaving the apocalyptic scene would later be hailed as iconic. As for Mr. Jinadasa, he just kept walking. Three miles away on 34th Street, he boarded a train from the Pennsylvania train station headed to New Jersey.

For weeks afterward, the nightmare lingered. Restless and on edge, Mr. Jinadasa found himself pacing about. Nevertheless, despite any personal qualms he might have had, he would be back on Ground Zero within days – as a structural engineer with the Port’s Authority, he and hundreds of others had been recruited in the drive to return essential services to the area. The new structures that have risen up on the site have “more robustness built into them,” he says, speaking of better fortified escape stairwells, specially reinforced foundations and deep concrete basements, all “stronger than what was there before.” (The National September 11 Memorial and Museum is scheduled to open today and the new 541 metre One World Trade Center will be erected by 2013.)

As the 10th anniversary approached, Mr. Jinadasa found himself bombarded by images of the event across all kinds of media. For the man who actually lived through it though, “this isn’t a particularly significant event.” He has never participated in gatherings intended to bring survivors together – having barely escaped, he’s content to leave it all in the past. “I’m so grateful I survived and so very sad that many people did not,” he says. Nevertheless, aware as he is that people all over the world have lived for decades with terrorism, he’s less inclined to make much of it. “People in Sri Lanka experienced many, many acts of terrorism. Some of them even – not in the same spectacular fashion at World Trade Centre perhaps – equal in magnitude and nobody marks the anniversary of any of those,” he pauses, then adds, “there was something about this particular attack that somehow captured the imagination of people…and now it is used to make some kind of political statement, people make political hay out of it.”

Today, at 59, Mr. Jinadasa is still with the Port Authority of NY and NJ. He makes an annual visit to Sri Lanka to visit his mother and says he’s looking forward to “travelling to all the places I can,” in his retirement. (He has a particular hankering to see the ruins of Cambodia.) As he has every year since the tragedy, he intends to let this anniversary too pass by without much ado. However, in his living room is a private tribute to his survival. Every day, Mr. Jinadasa walks past Phil Penman’s picture, hanging on a wall. It’s a reminder he says, that he is lucky to be here, living his “second life”. Though, in its particulars it does not differ much from his first, it is nevertheless a life coloured by a profound gratitude.

Published in The Sunday Times on September 11, 2011, Sri Lanka. Words by Smriti Daniel.

I'd like to hear from you. Do leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s