It’s been 20 years now, but for Pete Welle, the passage of two decades has done nothing to diminish his memories of Sept. 11, 2001.
The turmoil and tragedy of that morning remains etched into his brain.
“I had just gotten to my desk,” said the 1984 Saint John’s University graduate who at the time was working for Salomon Smith Barney, the investment banking operation at Citigroup, on the 39 th floor at 7 World Trade Center – a 47-story building located on the World Trade Center site near the complex’s Twin Towers.
“I had an inner office that looked uptown. I had stopped and picked up a bagel, a coffee and a bottle of water on my way into work. All of a sudden, I heard what sounded like the motor of a plane, then a bang and an explosion. There were a bunch of people on our floor and no one knew what was going on.”
What was happening, of course, was that a plane flown by hijackers had intentionally struck the North Tower. Another hijacked plane was rapidly nearing the South Tower with the same deadly aim.
“We decided we should get out of there,” said Welle, who was born in St. Cloud, but moved to Bemidji when he was nine and went on to major in business at SJU.
“We started walking down the stairwell. By that time, the second plane had struck the other tower and people in the crowd were telling us to go back up because it was a bomb. We finally got down to the lobby, but they wouldn’t let us out right away. There was a whole process we had to go through.
“It wasn’t until I actually got out onto Barclay Street that I was able to look up and see the big hole and flames coming out of the North Tower. But even then, we still didn’t know it had been planes until someone told us.”
Welle said the scene he encountered when he got outside was both surreal and horrifying.
“We could see what looked like confetti and paper coming down, then you saw the people falling,” he recalls, still shaken all these years later.
“I lived on Mulberry Street in Chinatown and I was on my way back home. I was at Spring Street and West Broadway when the first tower collapsed.”
That was the South Tower, which fell at 9:59 a.m. (EDT). Less than an hour later, at 10:28 a.m., the North Tower followed. Its collapse showered debris down upon Welle’s own building, compromising the structure’s integrity.
And 7 World Trade Center itself collapsed late that afternoon.
“I spent the rest of my day watching coverage on TV and hearing everything that was going on,” he said. “It was just an unreal thing to be that close to.
“It was awful.”
Welle later moved to Washington D.C., and these days splits his time between there and Bemidji.
Every year, on the anniversary of the attacks, he reflects on how lucky he was to get out OK, and on all those who tragically lost their lives.
“I have my own ritual,” he said. “I lay low and count my blessings. I think about how lucky I was. Then I try to pay my respects to those who were lost. I watch footage of that day. People say I shouldn’t, and it does bring back horrible memories. But I feel like doing it is a way to remember.
“It feels like something I need to do.”