By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published September 22, 2016
SMYRNA—Joe Dittmar credits split-second decisions and divine providence that he was able to make it out of the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Now he makes presentations to give a voice to those who died and to make sure they and the tragic events of 9/11 are not forgotten.
Catholic Charities Atlanta hosted a talk by Dittmar at the Chancery Sept. 8, just before the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
“He’s one of only seven survivors of a meeting of 54 insurance executives that day,” said Vanessa Russell, CEO of Catholic Charities Atlanta.
“His passion in life, and really his life goal, is the Always Remember Initiative to keep the memory of what happened that day alive in everyone’s minds.”
Now residing in North Carolina, Dittmar was living near Chicago and working for CNA Insurance in 2001. When a hijacked airliner was flown into the north tower of the trade center, Dittmar was in its twin tower on the 105th floor, the highest occupied level.
His decision-making skills were “tried, tested and galvanized” that Tuesday, he said.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Dittmar followed his father into the insurance business. It wasn’t unusual for him to attend meetings at the World Trade Center.
“It was a mecca for the insurance industry,” he said.
Mary Wieman, an executive with Aon Corp., called Dittmar that August and asked him to attend a meeting at the trade center the following month.
He didn’t want to go but remembered his dad’s adage of “plan your work and work your plan.” He thought the work-related trip would also provide a chance to visit his parents in Philadelphia, and his sister, and take in an Eagles football game with his son.
As Dittmar and his son left the stadium Sept. 9, the normally undemonstrative young man gave his father a bear hug and whispered, “I miss you, Dad.”
Looking back, Dittmar believes it was a sign of “what was about to occur and we just didn’t know it.”
Father and son then drove off in different directions.
Those in the building didn’t know scope of disaster
After playing golf Monday in Philly, Dittmar got up at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, to take Amtrak into New York City. His wife called during the train ride, and he told her he would see her in the evening.
He took a series of elevators to the 105th floor of the trade center south tower. When the doors opened, he saw Wieman greeting people. He remembers she was holding a bottle of Murphy’s oil soap and a cloth.
“She wanted everything perfect in the conference room that she was ready to take us to,” he recalled.
The meeting was to begin at 8:30 a.m. but got a late start as executives caught up on family news and sports. The room had no windows.
“At 8:48, the lights flickered. … That’s it,” said Dittmar. “We couldn’t see anything. We couldn’t hear anything. We couldn’t feel anything.”
Almost immediately, the volunteer fire warden for the floor said they needed to evacuate because of an explosion in the north tower of the trade center.
Fifty-four people had the same reaction: “We’re fine. It’s New York. … Stuff happens.”
They didn’t want to leave, but the fire warden persisted. Many pulled out cell phones as they left but had no service.
“Each and every one of you knew more,” Dittmar said, because those outside the building knew a hijacked plane had struck the north tower. “We had no clue.”
The group made their way down to the 90th floor, grumbling along the way.
At the 90th floor, the stairwell door was propped open, and, although he says he should have known better, he followed the group out of the stairwell into the offices on that floor. They saw for the first time what had happened to the north tower.
“I experienced the worst 30 to 40 seconds of my life,” said a somber Dittmar. “To look out those windows to the north and see these gaping black holes through the sides of the north tower. Gray and black billows of smoke pouring out of those holes. Flames redder than any red I’d ever seen before licking up the sides of the building and beyond into the roof level. You see furniture, paper, people being pulled out of the building against their will.”
He called it an incredible, gruesome sight.
“I was so afraid. So afraid,” he said. “I knew this was reality.”
He had a strong feeling. He longed to see his mother again.
“I just wanted to go home,” he said.
First responders’ faces told the story
People were screaming at the sight but were frozen in indecision.
“I got back to the fire stairwell,” he said. “I wasn’t delaying. I wasn’t hesitating and I started to make my way down the steps.”
When they reached the 78th floor, the south tower still had not been struck. Dittmar saw Wieman waving and calling out, “Joey, Joey.” She was taking the elevators rather than trying to walk down all those floors.
“My little brain took over,” he said. “No elevator. Not what I’m supposed to do.”
He waved to her and returned to the stairs. It was the last time he saw Wieman, 43,a wife and mother of three children.
He made it down four more flights when the second hijacked plane hit the south tower between floors 77 and 83 at 9:03 a.m.
The stairwell shook “so violently,” said Dittmar. Evacuees felt a ball of heat and smelled fuel. Handrails broke away from the wall.
“It felt like forever,” he said.
When the chaos settled, all continued down the stairs in stunned silence.
It was a game of conjecture about what had happened.
“What we didn’t know couldn’t hurt us,” said Dittmar. “We only had to concentrate on one thing—getting out.”
Belongings weighed people down, and the stairwell was littered with high-heeled shoes and laptop computers.
At the 35th floor, he started passing firemen and paramedics going up.
“Just the looks in their eyes told the story. They knew,” said Dittmar.
It was a fire that couldn’t be beat, and they were there to try to save lives.
“They knew they were marching into the bowels of hell,” he said. “Could you be that brave? Could you be that strong?”
Reaching home and loved ones
Reaching the lobby with its arched windows, Dittmar could see the vestiges of war—broken concrete, twisted metal and the ground red with blood.
It was the first time he saw people in real need with gaping wounds and limb injuries, and the total outpouring of love from responders.
“Your human nature takes over and you want to help,” he said.
Dittmar encountered friend David Duffy and they walked out of the complex together.
In front of St. Paul’s Chapel, he looked back and saw the two pillars in total devastation.
Eight blocks north, they heard a broadcast reporting the attack was terrorism.
Then came the sound of steel twisting and thousands screaming the same blood-curdling scream in unison as the south tower collapsed.
“It’s what I hear first thing in the morning and last thing at night,” he said.
They went to the Tribeca apartment of a friend of Duffy’s and watched the news for several hours. Later, when subways reopened, the two headed out. At Penn Station, Dittmar learned Amtrak was running.
“The way that I had gotten in was the way I was going to get out,” he said.
That evening, he rented a car to drive to his childhood home in Philly.
“When I got to the house, my mom was there, waiting for me,” he said. “She helped me and she loved me,” he said.
The next morning, Dittmar called the office. “They thought I was dead,” he said.
He had already talked to his wife several times and made his way back to their town of Aurora, Illinois, in record time. They met at their parish, Our Lady of Mercy Church for Mass. His wife ran to the back of the sanctuary to meet him.
“I knew at that minute, I was home,” he said.
During a question and answer session, Bill Clarke, who works in the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship, revealed he was supposed to be at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 for a meeting. The death of a loved one kept Clarke from attending.
“You’re a survivor too, and God has a plan for you,” Dittmar told Clarke.
Sept. 11 only confirmed Dittmar’s belief in divine providence.
“I’m here because the boss wants me to be here,” he said.
He made a simple plea to God that day to get him out of the situation.
“I made that prayer and he answered,” said Dittmar.
In the Book of Sirach, the author says human beings must choose to keep God’s commandments and have free will to choose what is good or what is evil.
“Our life is full of decisions, some big, some small, some well-thought out, most instant,” he said.
Decisions involve what you know, confidence in sources, background, and when you don’t have resources or information, they can be based on “gut feel.”
He urged people to use resources, and their hearts, souls and minds to make positive, lasting decisions.
He believes it an obligation to speak for those who did not survive, and he said the willingness of people to listen helps him heal.
Dittmar never accepts payment or honorariums for his presentations.
“I do ask for compensation from each and every one of you in one way only—to always remember and to never, never forget,” he said.