Huskies Gymnast Amanda Cline Thrives After Escaping World Trade Center Hotel on 9-11
Sept. 9, 2011
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Amanda Cline lived the horrors the rest of us saw on television 10 years ago Sunday.
The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks is also the 10th anniversary of Cline, a senior vaulter on the Huskies' gymnastics team, and her family escaping the World Trade Center before both towers collapsed.
"As time has gone on, it's gotten easier to deal with," she said Friday morning. "But it still feels like it was yesterday."
Cline sat down inside Alaska Airlines Arena after her rising team's latest voluntary, preseason workout to share her story with GoHuskies.com. It's one she has not told in its entirety before, not publicly anyway. Not even to her Huskies teammates, though they know she was there.
If she and her family hadn't slept in on Sept. 11, 2001, she may not be alive.
She was 11 years old, just starting sixth grade in the Denver suburb of Aurora, Colo. Her family was on a fall vacation to New York City. They were all there: Her father Ed, who works in the computer industry; mother Deb, who works in retail sales; Ashlen, her older sister who was 13 then; brother Evan, who was six at the time; plus a family friend.
On 9-11-01, the Clines were staying in a hotel room about halfway up the 22-story Marriott World Trade Center hotel that connected the north and south towers.
"We had tickets that morning to go the top of the World Trade Center. Being my family, we all slept in," Cline said Friday, with a fateful chuckle.
"Thank goodness. Because we were sleeping and woke up to the first plane actually hitting."
Terrorists had highjacked American Airlines Flight 11, steered it down the Hudson River and slammed it into the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center, to which the Marriott was connected. The impact and explosion occurred at about 8:45 a.m.
The Clines' entire room shook, jolting them out of bed.
"It just felt like a big earthquake," she said. "We were all just waking up going, `What's going on? We looked outside the window and saw debris falling and people looking like they'd been hit by things, lying around.
"So we turned on the TV and, I mean, it was instantly on TV. We had just gotten hit."
The family was instantly in panic mode, trying to simultaneously comprehend what was happening and plot how to stay safe.
Then ... "my mom made me brush my teeth -- random things," Cline said, laughing.
They were scrambling to dress in random clothes and get out when they felt another violent jolt and heard a second, terrorizing explosion. A second highjacked jet, United Flight 175, had exploded upon high-speed impact with the trade center's south tower at 9:03 a.m.
"When the second one hit, after that we were like, `OK, we need to get out of here,'" Cline said.
She and her family raced from their room with nothing more than what they were wearing, her parents' cameras and her mom's purse. All of their other possessions stayed behind in a room that minutes later would, like the rest of hotel and entire World Trade Center, disintegrate.
The hotel's elevators were already not an option. The first stairwell the Clines found was already blocked. They eventually found another, cleared stairwell. It led out a side access door on the west side of the World Trade Center complex, facing the nearby Hudson River.
"I still remember, distinctly, going down the stairs and there was a guy who was walking up who said, `I am going back to my hotel room.' I can remember his face exactly," Cline said, still looking puzzled. "I was like, `Dude?'"
She has no idea what happened to that middle-aged man.
The Clines' descent on stairs led them to the side of the lobby, where firefighters from the FDNY were already helping guests get out - and into a unfathomable street scene beneath the towers.
"Outside there were burning cars, limbs - I mean, it was really grotesque," Cline said.
The firefighters helped Cline and her family out of the hotel lobby and into the outside smoke billowing from the burning planes, jet fuel and building above. The towers were burning near the top -- below where the Clines would have been had they honored their tickets that morning -- but the structures were still standing at that point.
"Once we got out, we actually stuck around that area, hanging out in the street still not sure what was going on. But you could look up and see the one tower was leaning," Cline said. "It's crazy, but my dad got it all on film. The first building collapsed (the south tower, at 10:05 a.m.) -- and he filmed it all."
The 21-year-old with red hair, soft features and a diamond stud in right nostril then paused briefly and looked away.
"Yeah," she said, softly.
"There were definitely people jumping. We have it on film. You can't always tell, because the figures are so small. And then you realize, that's a person, you know?
"(There were) people on fire. I remember a guy had this huge piece of glass sticking out of him. People missing limbs. Not knowing whether people were just laying there ... or were dead, that kind of thing.
"I distinctly remember, yeah, people jumping off, not just the people who were laying there. So ..."
Her dad instructed his children and their friend to run behind a structure off a street adjacent to the World Trade Center, which by now was the focus of the world's attention. As the kids found cover, "all of a sudden there was just this gush. You couldn't see. Debris. You can't breathe. Everyone is telling you to put your shirt over your mouth," Cline said.
She demonstrated with her black Huskies Big W T-shirt she was wearing Friday how she breathed on the street that morning.
"Then my dad starting screaming, `Run! Run!' We started running as fast as we could, through bushes, to get to the end of (Manhattan) island," Cline said.
"For me, I don't do well in panic situations. My thinking was, `Oh, my gosh, I'm going to die!'"
The smoke and searing, burning jet fuel were getting thicker now, and panicked people were running every which way through the haze. Some were on fire. Some were running over dead bodies. Thousands were helping thousands.
When another wave of planes began showing up, the Clines and the crowd below braced for yet another explosion and more terror.
"Then we realized, `Hey, that's our military. They're here to help!'" Cline said.
Amid all this catastrophe, Cline and her sister couldn't find her mother and brother. And then the melted, second tower collapsed. It was 10:28 a.m.
"We made it down by the water (the Hudson River across the street). You can't see anything. It's very hard to breathe. And we can't find my mom, my brother and his friend Brett. We have no idea where they are," Cline said.
All of a sudden Evan and Brett appeared.
"Where's mom?" Amanda asked her little brother, smoke engulfing both of them.
"She went back to find you," Evan told her.
"Oh, my gosh! Why would she do that?"
Minutes later, out of the choking cloud on a Manhattan street, a few hundred yards from the two collapsed towers and amid debris and tragedy through which no American had lived before, Deb Cline from Aurora, Colo., found her children, next to the destroyed World Trade Center.
"Randomly," her middle child says now. "Just blind luck."
Cline now says of the most terrorizing two hours she ever hopes to survive: "It all seemed like it happened in 10 minutes."
There are the moments from that day that make her smile, 10 years later. She still remembers the generosity of New Yorkers - of everyone - she and her family encountered.
The vendors throughout lower Manhattan that gave out free food and drinks and masks to her family and the thousands of others also dazed in the streets.
The ferry operators that let the Clines, who eventually made it across the street from the trade center to the banks of the Hudson River, up to the front of the evacuation line for a expedited evacuation because they had children with them. The Clines and thousands of others were taken from lower Manhattan's destroyed Financial District to a temporary shelter area at Ellis Island, home of the Statue of Liberty, that afternoon.
There were the van operators who ensured their safe passage later that day into New Jersey, where the Clines briefly stayed in an impromptu shelter set up in a suburban warehouse. There was the hotel operator in eastern Pennsylvania who, upon seeing their key card from the World Trade Center Marriott after the Clines had taken a train there to get further away that night, gave them "a nice, big suite," Cline said.
Her family spent one night there, then rented a minivan and drove to Indiana to stay a few days with relatives. With the nation's air travel still shut down later that week, the Clines drove on in the rented van, all the way back home to Colorado.
That wasn't the end of Amanda's 9-11 experience, though. A few weeks later, with planes now flying again in the U.S., the 11-year-old girl was home in her kitchen. Her parents were out back. A jet flew over her suburban Denver house.
"It was really low. I was convinced it was coming toward our house. I started screaming and crying and ran and hid," she said.
"Out of my family, I am definitely the emotional one," she said. "I was the one freaking out that day, `We need to jump in the water!'
"When we came back home we went to a counselor as a family, at first. Everyone talked as a family. I ended up staying with a counselor, just her and me, for a few weeks. It definitely helped me to even talk about it, process it, realize that I was going to be OK, that everything will be fine."
She says each Sept. 11 gets easier, at least has been so since the one in her first weeks as a UW freshman in 2009.
"For a while, we would always eat together as a family on September 11th. Then my freshman year of college, that was the first time I wasn't able to eat with my family," she said. "That hit me really hard.
"At first it was really emotional, I mean, right after. As time goes on, it gets easier, obviously, to talk about it, to share my story," she said.
"It's still hard though. It's never going to get easy. It's something that is always there."
There have been other, physical effects.
"It's kind of weird, before 9-11 my brother and I were never diagnosed with asthma. Within a year, we were both diagnosed with (sports-induced) asthma," she said -- though no one has conclusively drawn a connection between breathing condition and the jet fuel, asbestos, dust, and debris to which the Cline children were exposed at the World Trade Center area that day.
Cline expects to graduate in June with a double major in sociology and communications. She spent this summer interning in marketing and event management for a non-profit organization that delivered food to people with life-threatening illnesses in downtown Denver.
She's never been back to New York, but wants to soon.
"I really do," she said, cheerfully. "Because now I think I am ready.
"My teammate Ruby (Engreitz) just went back to New York and I was really jealous. She was telling me about all the memorials set up. That's something I definitely want to visit in the future.
"I just want to see what it looks like. I mean, the last time I saw it, you know ..."