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Corey Daniel reflects on escape from Twin Towers

Lodi resident climbed down 61 flights of stairs in New York on Sept. 11 — and still has the shoes

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Posted: Friday, September 9, 2011 1:49 pm | Updated: 10:10 am, Sat Sep 10, 2011.

Corey Daniel sifts through a cardboard box from the dining room table in his Lodi home. He extracts a pair of brown, size 12 penny loafers.

Daniel examines the shoes through his gold-rimmed glasses. The soles are chewed up, mangled. He has kept the shoes because they are a reminder of that day in Manhattan — that day of such madness, such desperation.

The shoes he wore on 9/11.

‘The brightest, most brilliant day in New York City’

The sun was barely rising as Corey Daniel strolled out of the lobby at the Hotel Surrey in Upper Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 to catch a bus to the World Trade Center.

The bus would take him and other new Morgan Stanley employees to day two of their training session at the financial firm’s offices in the Financial District.

Men in suits and ties and women in pencil skirts stepped onto the bus, still groggy from a short night of rest.

It was an eight-mile drive to the offices, just enough time for Daniel and his co-workers to wake up or to catch a few more minutes of sleep. Training would start at 7:30 a.m. sharp.

Looking out the window, Daniel glanced around at the city as it passed by. He looked upwards and was taken by how blue the sky appeared.

“It was the brightest, most beautiful day in New York City,” he said. “Crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky.”

Pulling up to the South Tower of the World Trade Center, Daniel and his colleagues filed out of the bus and into the building, up 61 floors to the auditorium-sized classrooms where, for the rest of the day and into the early evening, they would be talking of nothing but things like stock options and asset management.

Daniel looked forward to the day.

This was a new job, a fresh start. Daniel and his wife, Kim, were the proud parents of two healthy girls.

They had a third daughter on the way.

While Daniel walked into the classroom, preparing himself for the intense training, Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari, two of the terrorists that crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower, sat and waited in Logan International Airport in Boston, 220 miles away.

And in Lodi, 3,200 miles from New York City, Daniel’s pregnant wife and young daughters slept soundly.

Things were starting to fall into place

Corey and Kim Daniel met the summer before Corey’s senior year in college at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Kim, a Lodi native who had graduated from Lodi High School in 1986, was attending California State University, Sacramento when they began dating.

They spent their senior year together, and two years later, they married in the spring of 1994.

The Daniels settled in the Bay Area, and Corey Daniel began working at a software company in the Silicon Valley as a product and marketing engineer.

Daniel’s line of work was crucial to the success of Silicon Valley businesses at the time, because an Internet company’s survival depended on expanding its customer base as quickly as possible.

While the Silicon Valley thrived, so did Daniel and his growing family. His wife, Kim, gave birth to their first daughter, Nicole, in 1997.

But then in 1999, things began to change. The booming Silicon Valley economy started to cool.

Corey Daniel began hopping from job to job just to keep his family afloat. They had recently welcomed their second daughter, Reagan, in 1999, but the Daniels began to realize that the Bay Area was a place they did not want to raise their growing family.

Corey Daniel began to look for work elsewhere. He started searching for employment options in the Central Valley, and he was seriously considering moving his family as far north as Sacramento.

Then Morgan Stanley came calling with a job offer in Stockton. So the Daniels moved to Lodi, back to Kim’s hometown and close to her brother, Andrew.

Finally, things were starting to fall into place.

‘Keep going down and do not stop whatsoever’

An hour and a half into training, Morgan Stanley supervisors halted their PowerPoint presentations and called for a break.

Daniel and 273 other new Morgan Stanley employees filed out of three classrooms, eager for a few much-needed moments to stretch their legs.

Some left to get coffee, others went to grab some food.

Daniel headed for the restroom, emerging just a few moments later.

And once he stepped into the hallway, he realized something was very wrong.

People were bee-lining for the stairs, their voices an incoherent roar.

Why was everyone in such a hurry? Daniel wondered.

“I literally thought it was just a fire drill,” he said. “We had not heard, seen or felt anything.”

Unbeknownst to Daniel, at 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 had just flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 466 miles per hour.

All 92 passengers on board the craft and hundreds of employees between the 93rd and the 99th floors of the Tower had perished instantly.

Amid the chaos, security guards in the North Tower, just 200 feet away, had radioed over for everyone in the South Tower to evacuate immediately.

They were almost too late.

Daniel had just begun to descend when, at approximately 9:03 a.m., terrorists crashed United Airlines Flight 175 at 590 miles per hour into the South Tower, between the 77th and 85th floors.

The herd of heels and loafers heading down the emergency exits turned into complete panic.

People were shoving, panting and pushing their way forward.

Trampling downward, Daniel began to sweat and his legs began to burn.

“At one point, a voice inside my head just told me to keep moving, to keep going down and to not stop whatsoever,” he said.

Down 61 floors, Daniel had to go down one more and take an escalator up to actually get out of the building.

To get out to see that brilliant blue sky, crystal clear that Tuesday morning.

‘Someone is at the door’

It was just before 7 a.m., three hours behind East Coast time, and Kim Daniel rolled over to look at her daughter, Nicole, who was tapping her awake.

“Someone is at the door,” Nicole said.

But Kim Daniel knew that could not be the case. It was too early for visitors. School had not started yet.

“No, there isn’t anyone there,” Kim Daniel remembers saying.

But Nicole was persistent.

At the time, Kim Daniel was a substitute teacher. She had turned off all the phones the night before so she could get some rest.

She needed it. The baby had started moving and she already spent much of her time keeping up with her two toddler-aged girls, Nicole, 4, and Reagan, barely 2.

Nicole must be mistaken, Kim Daniel thought.

But then she heard the rapping of knuckles against the front door downstairs herself.

Shaking off sleep, she walked down and opened the door.

There was Kim Daniel’s best friend, standing on the stoop, crying.

“A plane just hit the Twin Towers,” she said. “It’s where Corey is working.”

Kim Daniel looked at her friend in bewilderment.

How did her friend know Corey was there? She did not remember telling that to her.

But the look of fear on her friend’s face made Kim Daniel turn around into her family room to turn on the television.

The TV clicked on, and the first image that flashed on screen was the South Tower shudder violently, then cascade towards the ground in a gigantic plume of dust and smoke.

Kim Daniel just stared. Her husband was in there.

“I didn’t have any background and didn’t know how long it had been going on,” she said. “But I didn’t think he made it out. I am kind of realistic and in that moment my only thought was that what I saw was probably not survivable.”

Kim wanted to react. But there was the baby.

And there were Nicole and Reagan. They would not understand. Children take their cues from their parents. She had to keep them calm.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m pregnant, I can’t go crazy,’” she said. “If things got bad, I wanted the girls out of the house.”

‘People were having brunch on patios’

When Daniel finally emerged from the South Tower, the Financial District was in complete chaos.

The South Tower was on fire, smoldering against the Manhattan skyline.

Around the North Tower, bodies, carnage and debris were already piling up. Traffic had come to a standstill, with fire trucks and ambulances swamped in a sea of taxis and cars.

Images from that day show people crying, firemen shouting and even people holding hands as they jump from the Towers, not wanting to be burned alive.

But Daniel does not remember any of that.

Once outside, he said he just turned ran down Canal Street, his tunnel vision allowing him to see only what was in front of him.

Two blocks away, he suddenly stopped to look at Trinity Church.

Dust and debris covered the gravestones and the church like dirty snow. Daniel looked over the tombstones, unsure as to why he stopped.

Then his body snapped back into fight-or-flight mode. He ran again.

About five blocks away from the Towers, Daniel found himself at a five-and-dime tourist store.

He ran in, begging to use the phone.

But the shopkeeper said signals were jammed. Thirty million people were trying to call their mothers, fathers, husbands and wives. There was no way Daniel would be able to get through.

Frustrated, Daniel stumbled outside where he found a cluster of payphones on the street corner with a line of people waiting impatiently to call their loved ones.

Daniel got in line, his back to the still-standing South Tower.

Then, he heard a loud rumble, foreign and horrifying.

He whipped around, just in time to see the South Tower begin to fall. It was right around 10 a.m. The tower had been burning for nearly an hour.

The cloud of dust and smoke began to rise toward him, fast approaching.

He did not wait to watch the building completely fall. He just turned and ran.

Six blocks away, seven blocks away, things started to change.

“People were having brunch on patios, eating and drinking — going about their day,” he said. “I would look at them and they would look at me and they were in no way alarmed. And it struck me that they had no idea what had just happened.”

Caked in dust and sweat, Daniel stopped and asked a strolling passer-by to borrow the man’s BlackBerry, which he used to send an email to Kim.

He then turn and ran again.

Lines at payphones were long. People were crying, frustrated they could not make a call.

Daniel tried three more times to get through to Kim in Lodi.

Finally, on his fifth attempt, a dial tone.

Daniel quickly uttered the word ‘collect’ into the phone and after a minute was connected to his home phone.

But the line was busy.

“There was nothing I could do, so I just left a message, hoping she would get it,” he said.

Daniel then ran along Canal Street, up and over, until he reached the Hudson River.

Collect from Corey

Kim Daniel turned on the home phone and a flurry of voicemails flooded her machine, wanting to know if she had heard from Corey, if he was alive and if he was alright.

One by one, she began calling people back, trying to wrap her head around what she had just seen on the television.

Her body wanted to react, but her head told her to remain cool. She methodically began calling each person that had left her a voicemail, listening to try and get a better grasp on the events that had unfolded that morning in New York.

No, she had no heard from Corey. Yes, she had seen the Twin Towers collapse.

It just so happened that she was in the middle of speaking with Corey’s mother when she heard her phone beep, indicating she had yet another voicemail.

Curious, she told Corey’s mother she would call back. She hung up the phone and pressed play on the answering machine.

At first, silence.

She listened.

Then, she heard Daniel’s voice say “Collect from Corey.”

Her husband, by the grace of God, had survived.

‘Word traveled fast’

Once at the water’s edge of the Hudson River, Daniel had no idea how to get back to his hotel in Upper Manhattan.

This was not the way he had come to work this morning.

Catching his breath, the only thing Daniel thought he could do was to follow the river north, away from the wail of the sirens and the air heavy with dust and smoke.

Along the way, another payphone. Another line of people.

But he had to try again to get ahold of Kim.

Daniel jogged up to it, stood in line, and when it was his turn, frantically dialed his home phone number.

Kim Daniel heard the phone ring. She went over and picked it up.

Daniel asked if she could hear him.

Kim Daniel began to cry.

“It was brief,” Daniel recalls. “Other people needed to call home too. So, I told her what was important, that I loved her. And she was sobbing. All she could say was, ‘OK.’”

Daniel also asked that she call his mother before he hung up.

Then, once again, Daniel took a deep breath and ran north.

He ran past the famous Chelsea Market; he jogged by Hell’s Kitchen. He walked past Central Park.

At 4:30 p.m., Daniel walked into the lobby of the Hotel Surrey.

His legs throbbed. His feet were blistered. His head was ringing.

Mentally, he was numb.

He could walk no more.

So he took the hotel elevator up five floors to his room, where he turned on a bath.

Undressing, he glanced down at a shoe. Soles worn away, holes in the toes and heels, the shoes had seen better days.

Now unusable, he tossed them aside and pushed his body into the tub.

After he tried to calm down, he saw he had messages waiting for him on his hotel voicemail.

Messages from everyone — newspapers, families and friends — were waiting for him.

“Word traveled fast,” he said. “I had no idea so many people knew where I was.”

But getting home was not so easy.

Time stood still for the next day and a half as the nation attempted to grapple with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands of innocent people.

Daniel was more than anxious to get home. However, all flights had been stopped. All cars had been rented, too.

Trying to think of the fastest way out of New York, Daniel decided to go ahead and buy a train ticket that would take him cross-country to Sacramento.

But a freak train derailment in Salt Lake City on Sept. 13 had people crying “terrorist attack.”

Daniel ripped up the ticket, not wanting to take any chances.

The only option left was a Greyhound bus.

Buying another cross-country ticket, Daniel departed New York City late Thursday, finally homebound.

Every other stop along they way, Daniel would step off the bus, find a payphone at the station and call Kim, letting her know he was safe and trying to coordinate a flight back to Sacramento.

Kim and her daughters bought a map and pinpointed with red dots Daniel’s slow journey home.

When Daniel reached Tulsa, Okla. on Saturday, he called home and got some good news.

Kim had found a flight, leaving Tulsa that night. Daniel would be home Sunday morning.

‘It is ... still with me every day’

It was a tender moment as he walked out of the gateway of his Southwest Airline flight at Sacramento International Airport.

Kim Daniel waited alone, looking through the crowd for her husband.

One by one, people emerged from the plane. Still, no Corey.

Then there he was.

Ten years later, Daniel still sounds relieved when he talks about that embrace with his wife at the airport.

“It was a trek getting home,” he said. “I hadn’t slept in days, so seeing her at the airport was pretty emotional.”

Daniel said it took him months to transition back to normal life. He even had to take time off work. He had trouble coping with exactly what happened on Sept. 11.

The only way he knew how to cope was writing.

It started on the bus, a way to keep his hands and his mind busy.

Ten years later, inside another cardboard box by his shoes, sit four notebooks and a legal pad, filled with the memories of what Daniel saw, heard and felt as he ran, as he tried to escape.

And despite all that happened that day, all the life that was lost, the Daniels have been able to move forward.

Just a few months after Daniel’s safe return to Lodi, Kim gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Paige.

Then, a few years later, another beautiful baby girl, Mary, was born.

Daniel now works with Wells Fargo Advisors in Stockton. Kim Daniel is now a full-time teacher at Woodbridge Elementary School.

And while he “does not circle Sept. 11 on his calendar every year” to commemorate the event, Daniel said the experience has made him more patriotic and more thankful.

“This is something we’re never going to forget,” he said as he patted his tie, a collection of American flags, against his white, button-down shirt. “It is something that is still with me every day.”

Daniel smiled when his two oldest daughters, Nicole and Reagan, squealed in amazement as they held his worn-out shoes.

Part of the soles on the right-footed shoe dangle from all the wear and tear from Daniel’s running that day.

After they have inspected his shoes, Daniel takes his penny loafers from his daughters and puts the shoes safely back into the cardboard box on his dining room table.

“I was hoping to get them bronzed one day,” he said. “Like my writing, I want to publish that. Just never got around to doing those things. But ... I still have time.”

Contact reporter Katie Nelson at katien@lodinews.com.

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