One Man’s Escape From the Destruction of the World Trade Center

December 17, 2001

A. Quentin “Skip” Orza II, vice president, RLI EPG, gives his first-hand account of the events of Sept. 11

Although RLI lost its branch office in the World Trade Center as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the company was fortunate to have all its New York branch employees escape safely. And while the Executive Products Group (EPG) and surety division staffers were soon back at work in new, interim offices, their lives will never be the same.

A. Quentin “Skip” Orza II, vice president, RLI EPG, was one of three N.Y. branch employees in the building when the horrific events occurred. Here’s his personal account of what happened:

I got into the office at about 8:15 that morning. I hadn’t been in the office for 11 or 12 days—traveling on business, taking some vacation time. I’d taken the early train in because Jon Michael and Mike Stone were in town and I wanted to take care of a few things before meeting them for lunch.

I was in my office going through two weeks’ worth of mail and e-mails, when BOOM! The building jumped and swayed about 20 or 25 feet. I thought we were going to tip over. It was terrifying; the building shook back and forth like a tuning fork. Looking out the window I could see shattering glass and tons of stuff falling.

I thought at first it was a bomb, but whatever it was, I just knew something was wrong. I went out to John Ventura and Rick Albrecht of Surety and said, “Let’s get out of here!”

Before leaving, I went back into my office and got my briefcase—I figured I could jettison it if necessary—and we headed out the door into the hallway. Our normal fire drill procedure is to turn left to the staircase there, but the hallway drop ceiling had collapsed and was on fire.

We had no choice but to turn right. Luckily, there was another exit sign, a stairwell just 20 feet away. Once in the stairwell, we found it already filled with WTC workers making their escape. It was all very cordial—no shoving, no pushing, everyone waiting their turn as others entered the stairwell on each floor. The lights were still working—nothing flickered or went out. But all our hearts were pounding.

One of the first things I noticed was a man in front of me who was badly burned. He was wearing a golf shirt, and both of his arms were burned from the shoulders all the way down to his hands, which were so badly burned that they were bleeding. It looked like he had a burn on his head, and all his hair, including his eyebrows, had been singed off. He was also covered with grayish brown soot, like he’d had something collapse on him. I don’t know if he was black or white, if he spoke English or not, because he was so covered with burns and soot and never said a word the entire time.

He was not doing well, so I did what I could to assist him down the stairs. I tried to keep him moving fast, telling others, “Excuse me, I have a burn victim here,” and he and I made it down the stairs fairly quickly.

Mind you, this was like an athletic event, going down 80 flights in a hurry. Some of the folks weren’t in the best of shape and they had to get out of the stairwell, lie down and catch their breath. And because of all the bodies in there, it was very, very hot. I’d taken off my suit coat and loosened my tie, and it still didn’t take long until my shirt was stuck to my body with sweat. Also, a lot of the women were taking off their high-heeled shoes, hurrying down the stairs in stocking feet.

The stairway ended at the 44th floor, known as the Sky Lobby, and I escorted the burned man to the emergency medical personnel tending to victims there. Then I crossed to the staircase to the mezzanine level.

On about the 25th floor, those of us in the stairwell stood to the side as firefighters ascended the stairs. Now, remember, it was hot for all of us going down the stairs. These guys had their heavy hoses, air tanks, jackets, all that equipment, and they were heading up. Amazing! One firefighter told us, “Both towers have been hit by jetliners and we’re going up to fight the fires!” He also advised the women, “Keep your shoes! You’ll need them when you get down there!”

I kept going. I have no idea how long it took to get all the way down. It didn’t seem that long, but everyone was just so focused on getting down those stairs. Nobody was saying a word to each other—the firefighter was the only one who talked to us the entire time.

Floors nine through five flew by pretty quickly. The fire sprinklers were going on those floors, so it was cooler, but it was a bit slippery. You just had to hang onto the handrail and be careful. We really flew down from the fifth floor, because you could feel the outside air from below.

The staircase ended at the mezzanine level, which offered a view of the plaza. There was lots of debris and fire. The globe in the middle of the fountain was half gone. And those of us there still needed to get down to the mall, because police, firefighters and other emergency personnel were yelling, “Hurry! Hurry! Please move!”

Everyone was sent down another staircase to the mall below the trade center. There was about two inches of glass and five inches of water everywhere. And there were more uniformed personnel yelling, “Move! Fast! Fast!”

I went up the escalator to the outside, taking about five steps at a time. We were told to head north up Broadway, and that’s what we did.

I stopped at City Hall, realizing I no longer had John and Rick with me. In fact, I hadn’t recalled seeing them since we first began the descent. I later learned they barely got out of the building.

I also realized I should call my wife to tell her that I was okay. There was a bunch of phone booths nearby, but they all had about 50 people waiting for them, so I just kept walking, talking to other people along the way. And as we were walking and talking, we turned around to see one of the buildings collapse. The woman I was talking to said we’d better stand aside, because there would be a rush of people running. So we ducked away and let the wave rush by.

The guy we were walking with asked if I’d called my wife yet, and I figured I’d better do it soon. We went into a Levi’s store there on Broadway and asked the manager if I could use their phone to call my wife. I did, and she screamed “Skiiiip!” And right after calling her, she called RLI and let them know that I was OK. Not 25 minutes later, Mike Stone called me and told me where he and Jon were.

We figured we’d better just reschedule that lunch date.

Was I eager to get back to work after such a traumatic experience? Actually, it was the best thing to do. I wasn’t going to be sleeping that well for a while. So I was in front of a computer in my home, answering business e-mail the next day.

Are things getting close to normal business-wise? Absolutely. We lost five days’ worth of work, but I’d say EPG is at least 95 percent functional right now. You’ve got to give the RLI IT folks a lot of credit for getting us operational so quickly. We were supposed to get a new server installed in October, but they were simply able to set it up and get us running from right there in Peoria—using the same server.

Now we’re working out of an office space in Summit, N.J. It’s less than 40 minutes by train to Penn Station. It’s working out well for us.

RLI’s Business Continuity Plan served the company well during the traumatic events of Sept. 11. According to RLI executives, the plan “worked like clockwork” to cover the duties of the Executive Products Group and surety branches lost in the World Trade Center collapse. Even as the events were unfolding, home office surety and branch support services staff were contacting vendors and getting New York office phone and fax lines redirected. According to branch support services manager Teri Fabry, the process was executed “with great concern but without panic.”

“Everyone, including all vendors from brokers to paper suppliers to plant maintenance, were notified within 48 hours, tops,” Fabry said. The RLI home office training center, with its multiple desktops and phone lines, became the interim reception center for New York EPG and surety.

“We were very fortunate that Skip Orza and Peter Trunfio of EPG and John Ventura and Rick Albrecht of surety made it out unharmed and were ready to resume work,” Fabry said. “And we got them up and running so quickly that the training center wasn’t necessary for long—we got maybe five or six calls, total.”