An ex-Wilton resident ‘learned his lesson’ after the 1993 bombing: He evacuated immediately on 9/11

Photo of J.D. Freda
Stephen Joss

Stephen Joss

Contributed Photo

WILTON — Sept. 11, 2001 began like any other typical day for Stephen Joss.

He awoke early in his home in Wilton at the time. He got dressed, hopped into his Mercedes and set off for Downtown Manhattan. He worked at 4 World Trade Center as a commodities trader and parked his car each morning underneath the South Tower at 2 World Trade Center.

“Fifty-six miles door to door,” he recalled. “I drove every day.”

Each trek to New York City came with a stop at a bagel store and a trip down the West Side Highway just after the sun had peeked over the skyline.

It was a beautiful morning, Joss could recall — nothing abnormal.

He parked in his typical spot in the basement of the South Tower. His parking spot happened to be next to a man who lived in New Canaan, whom he knew only from the penultimate step in his morning commute from Connecticut — taking the elevator up from the parking garage.

Joss made his way to the plaza of 4 World Trade Center and took the elevator up. He greeted his colleagues, checked on his clerks and made his way to the cafeteria.

“I went into the cafeteria to have coffee like I did every morning,” Joss said. “I was sitting there with a group of guys I had known for about 15 years. That’s when I noticed the first plane go by.”

His initial thought was how low the plane happened to be. Then, he heard the crash and, peeking out, saw the debris.

Joss had been working in the same location for long enough to remember Feb. 26, 1993, when the Twin Towers were bombed from a basement parking lot. He recalled that he had “learned his lesson the first time” and evacuated immediately.

He said he was just 300 yards from the South Tower when the second plane “banked” into it.

Up until that point, Joss said not many were certain of how intentional the first crash was. After the South Tower was struck, though, there was no uncertainty.

“When we saw the second plane coming in, we knew this was not an accident,” Joss said.

As the second plane hit, Joss temporarily took refuge behind a mobile hot dog cart from the falling debris, looking to make sure that his employees had evacuated safely.

Joss ran from the immediate area and hailed a taxi to Grand Central Terminal, hoping to catch a train home. In the cab, he said, he looked through the rear view mirror and saw the building fall.

While that harrowing sight has stuck with him these two decades later, there is another that still invokes immediate reaction.

“I saw people jumping out of the windows,” Joss stammered, as he fought back against the memory. “That’s the thing that haunts me the most, that that was their best option.”

He recalled hearing and seeing fighter jets deployed above he and the rest of Manhattan as they zipped past overhead.

Joss made it to a friend from Weston’s restaurant in Manhattan after he said he was refused entry at Grand Central Station. There, he called his wife immediately.

“I was worried about the kids,” Joss said of his two children. “My daughter was a senior at Wilton High School and my son was at Gettysburg College.”

Joss returned home by 3 p.m., thanks to a ride from a friend. He recalled that his wife had noticed soot and debris in his hair and on his clothes.

He reflected on the many first responders, including firefighters from FDNY Engine and Ladder Company No. 10, stationed just across from the World Trade Center, who, as he scurried to create as much distance between him and the buildings, were running in the opposite direction to address the disaster. Joss said he was friendly with many of the firefighters in that firehouse. He also said he specifically remembered two NYPD officers pushing individuals as far away from the falling debris as possible, adding that they must have saved “a lot of lives that day.”

Grief, sadness, anxiety and, most of all, anger were the emotions Joss said he felt in the immediate aftermath.

In the weeks ensuing, Joss worked from a remote location in Long Island City. He had lost all of his records in the Sept. 11 attacks.

In April 2002, the Federal Bureau of Investigation contacted Joss. They had located his large Mercedes sedan, which Joss said was “folded like an accordion,” and was at a landfill in Staten Island. They asked if he had wanted to pick up the contents.

Now, 20 years later, the 76-year-old lives in Hilton Head, South Carolina. He has befriended a number of retired firefighters whom he plays golf with and, every Sept. 11, they lay a wreath down in the Port Royal Sound to pay tribute.

Joss simply hopes this anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks “rekindles our remembrance” for all the lives affected on and as a result of that day in lower Manhattan two decades ago.