Memories of an alumnus burn on

Esteban Silva, a UC Berkeley graduate, reflects on 9/11 and how he escaped the burning towers 10 years ago

This audio podcast is the first of two parts. Find Part two here.

As the nation moved on, the 9/11 attacks may have faded from the foreground, but for Esteban Silva, fiery images are still burning in his mind.

His initial memories from that day are as vivid as the sky that morning — the sky that so many have said was eerily clear.

Outside his office, he noticed papers falling from the sky.

Seconds later, more rushed past the window, but now the debris — flying through the cloudless blue — was on fire.

These are memories from the moment Silva, standing on the 61st floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower, realized something was amiss. They are memories of a country’s loss, memories of a day burdened with tragedy, memories he cannot escape.

For Silva, a California native, playing any part in what happened that day was mere coincidence. He grew up in La Puente, a small city east of downtown Los Angeles, graduated from UC Berkeley in 1999 and started working at Morgan Stanley’s San Francisco branch in 2001. It was only for a three-week training program that he flew across the country, to the company’s headquarters in the World Trade Center, and that his story became America’s.

Despite however much he became a New Yorker that day, Silva saw what happened through the eyes of a tourist. Ten years later, he remembers how the shocking events crushed a city, but even more so, how they altered our nation’s history, and he does so with a remarkable level of detail, forever etched in his mind.

“It was just timing,” he says plainly. “That’s where I was at.”

September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday, and it was Silva’s second day at the World Trade Center offices.

Esteban Silva

He talks casually about his first day in the city, listing inconsequential tidbits — taking pictures for identification cards, getting caught in a thunderstorm and staying up late watching “Band of Brothers” and then “American Beauty” on his hotel television — that have grown in importance because of what they preceded.  And then he describes the towers, the first time he saw them, the last time they stood for an entire day.

“We were just amazed at how huge those buildings were — they were humongous,” he says. “We couldn’t even see the top; they just kept going straight up.”

The next day, Silva was groggy from jet lag and a lack of sleep. He made his way to work, glanced at the New York Times’ sports section and bought a poppy seed bagel from a street vendor. It seemed like September 11 would be business as usual.

And around 8:50 a.m., he and his colleagues had no idea that it was anything but. Drinking coffee and orange juice after a meeting on the 61st floor of the South Tower, they had no idea that a plane had already crashed into the adjacent North Tower.

The towers were airtight, and Silva couldn’t see nor smell the dust and smoke already clouding the unbelievably clear sky.

It’s here — just before panic ensued — that he needs to pause and take a breath, before he can continue his story.

After seeing the debris in the sky, the people in his office thought that perhaps a bomb had gone off in their building, so a group began walking down the stairs.

“At that point, it was pretty calm,” he says. “There was spilled coffee on the floor and people were like, “Hey, be careful, spilled coffee.”

Then, a man’s voice on the intercom told everyone to go back to their offices.

“Somehow I was the dividing point — the people in front of me kept going down and the people behind me went back up,” he says.  “And me, I couldn’t figure out what to do, ‘Should I stay, should I go?’

He did neither. He walked to the 44th floor, a transfer floor for the elevators, and stood in a large lobby, where TVs played the news. He learned that a plane had hit the North Tower, and he admits now that he felt relief. It wasn’t a bomb, he thought, no terrorism. It was just a plane crash, an accident. The nation exhaled.

Esteban Silva

The respite was short-lived. Less than a minute later, an explosion ripped through the building, as the second plane struck the South Tower. Everything reeled.

“The building jumped, and that split second my first thought was ‘Oh, fuck, they got me,” he says.

Around him was a scene of destruction. The walls began to crack — ominous, vertical fractures that warned of the impending disaster. Objects shot across the room, people toppled over, tiles dropped noisily and lights flashed.

“All I could think was ‘OK, that’s it,’” he remembers. “My life didn’t flash before my eyes. All I thought was, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m done.” And I literally just waited for it to come down on me at that point. And then when the building didn’t collapse, I thought, ‘OK, I better get out of here now.’

So he raced down flights and flights of stairs, ending up underground and eventually emerging into the daylight on the ground floor.

When he looked up, the twin towers — stretching a quarter of a mile into the firmament — were burning.

Silva snapped a photograph.

On the concrete at his feet, he saw a puddle of blood. No body, no belongings. Just a red puddle. Maybe it was someone who jumped out of the building to avoid being burned alive, Silva says. He did not take a picture.

The images of September 11’s aftermath, captured in both America’s photographs and memories, reveal a tattered country, crippled by fear, indefinitely scarred.

Silva is easygoing and quick to laugh. But while he mostly speaks openly and coolly about that day, his voice, heavy at times, betrays the mark 9/11 left on him.

He was affected immediately. That afternoon, Silva, shaken, picked up some Jack Daniel’s from a liquor store on his way to his hotel, and drank it out of the bottle. But so much adrenaline pulsed through him, that his body continued to tremble uncontrollably.

For the days that followed, he can barely remember anything. People walked around like zombies, eyes glued to the horizon, shocked that the skyline could be so markedly changed. He recalls the sound of crying, a faint, yet constant, smell of smoke and posters with strangers’ faces on them. He was dazed yet tense. A thunderstorm that erupted later in the week startled him because he thought it was another terrorist attack.

Even when he returned to the West Coast, he says, he still felt surrounded by the aftermath of September 11. It was always on the news, being analyzed or investigated. The planes that crashed were headed towards Los Angeles, and many of their passengers’ grieving families lived on this side of the country. He refers to Mark Bingham, a UC Berkeley graduate who helped bring down a hijacked flight that was headed towards the U.S. Capitol building that day. The damage wasn’t limited to New York, he says.

Esteban Silva

For more than three years after 9/11, Silva was haunted by what he had seen. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder — laden with sleepless nights, suicidal feelings, survivor’s guilt and lethargy.

“You go over the scenario hundreds and hundreds of times, like, ‘What if I did this, what if I did that?’ he explains.

He starts to talk faster. Although Silva says he is almost fully recovered now, the speed with which he poses these questions reveals a troubled, turbulent past.

“Then you feel bad, like, ‘Why did I survive?’ Why did I survive, why did this guy die? Why did I make a left turn instead of a right turn? Why did I go down instead of up?’” he spews.

Unhappy, he eventually quit his job in San Francisco and moved back to La Puente. He works as a financial advisor at a bank now, and he says that he proudly keeps his UC Berkeley diploma on his desk. But when people ask him why he left the Bay Area, he can’t explain it without bringing up 9/11. Silva, like the country itself, was troubled, restless.

“It just kind of baffles me,” he reflects. “I’m not even from there, I don’t even really work there. I just happened to be there when it happened.”

Although he still talks poignantly about that day, Silva has gone through years of therapy, and he’s learned not to dwell on the sadness.

Instead, he mentions his poppy seed bagel with cream cheese, the one he picked up on the way to work, and forgot about in the commotion. He had wanted to try something authentic and was looking forward to it, he says.

“I’d never had a New York bagel, like, from New York, and, now that I think about it, I never did, because I never ate it,” he says with a chuckle.

Since 2001, Silva has never been back to New York. Tall buildings scared him for years; he hyperventilated at the sight of skyscrapers while driving through Los Angeles. He’s better now, but 9/11 — like for so many Americans — is a part of his life he can’t forget.

“Somehow everything that I’d done put me there that day,” he says thoughtfully. “Some people think it’s fate; that’s how it’s written. You know, I don’t know. I just, for one, I think I’m very, very damn lucky to have survived and gotten out.”

Soumya Karlamangla is the assistant city news editor.