SILVER LAKE, Ohio — As the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 approaches, George Hessler experiences a range of emotions. He feels sadness over the nearly 3,000 lives lost, but also gratitude for his survival, which at several points, didn't seem likely that day.
"It's a real mix of emotions. I guess on the whole, I tend to feel luckier than I feel guilty," Hessler said during an interview with News 5. "I certainly didn't kill them. People were trying to kill us all."
Hessler, 62, grew up in Silver Lake and graduated from Western Reserve Academy in Hudson. He went to Harvard and eventually landed a job at Lava Trading, an electronic company that helped banks trade stock.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Hessler was working on the 83rd floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower. He was reading the newspaper and checking emails when hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the skyscraper, ten floors above Hessler's office.
Books dropped from a shelf. The building shook tremendously and began to sway.
"We were rocking back and forth. It looked like we were going to fall into the river and then after a few seconds, it swung back the other way and it looked like we were going to fall into the city," he recalled.
Hessler realized he and 16 other Lava office employees needed to get out. They headed towards a stairwell, but dripping jet fuel caused a terrifying flashover.
"Just like in the movies, it turned yellow and black and started moving towards us very quickly. I quickly ducked down behind the corner and it flashed down the hallway," Hessler said.
Hessler and the others worked their way to a different exit and began the long process of walking down 83 flights of stairs in three different stairwells. Just as the group was about to emerge outside, there was a huge rumbling noise, and the South Tower—which had been struck by United Airlines Flight 175—collapsed.
"We just thought that was the end. I looked up at the ceiling thinking I'm dead," Hessler said.
The workers were pushed back into the North Tower and headed up six floors before making it to what eventually would be called "the survivor's stairs." They escaped the burning and weakening building with only minutes to spare.
"When I walked away just a few blocks, that's when our building came down," Hessler said.
Hessler, who has three daughters, was able to call his wife once he got outside, but the connection was lost, so the family didn't know if he was alive until he arrived home nearly three hours later.
Once back in Purchase, New York, Hessler took a picture of his shoes, which were covered in gray and brown ash from stepping through the debris of the collapsed South Tower.
Hessler said one of the lasting images in his mind is witnessing firefighters carrying up to 50 pounds of gear up the tower as everyone else was going down. A total of 343 firefighters were killed in the terrorist attacks.
"It's amazing the bravery that they have. They probably thought, just as I did, that buildings don't just disappear."
Two decades after the tragic series of events, Hessler, who still lives in New York, stresses that Americans should never forget, be vigilant and count their blessings.
"Every day is a gift," he said. "Make sure that you really take advantage of every moment in life."