In the first confusing minutes after an airliner struck the World Trade Center, a different drama began to unfold underground.
PATH commuter trains from New Jersey were arriving every three minutes at the station below, their dispatchers, crews and passengers blind to the destruction above.
But before the second plane hit on Sept. 11, 2001 — just 17 minutes after the first — all train service was suspended into and out of the trade center. One train would pull into the station and turn around without unloading passengers; another would re-board after having just dropped passengers off. A third would arrive empty to pick up stragglers.
A series of critical decisions made with scant information likely saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. On a day of tragedy when nearly 3,000 people did lose their lives, it was a shining hour for PATH employees, tempered by the deaths of 85 of their colleagues at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
"I don't look at it from the viewpoint that I saved those people," said retired trainmaster Richie Moran, who gave the order to stop the trains. "You know how I look at it? That I didn't kill those people. I think I just did my job very well that day."
The day started problem-free. So from the Port Authority Trans Hudson control center in Jersey City, across the Hudson River and a few miles from lower Manhattan, all Moran had to do was monitor movement of the trains.
"I used to joke, 'Where else can you get a job where your boss comes in and you have your feet on the desk and he's happy?'" he said.
At 8:46 a.m., the first plane struck.
Outside the Exchange Place station on the Jersey City waterfront facing lower Manhattan, sanitation supervisor Frank Martinetti saw the explosion as American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower. His was one of the first calls to reach Moran.
"Where the control center is situated, they don't have pictures of the World Trade Center," Martinetti said. "They have cameras in the station, but not on the outside, so I wanted to get them the information as fast as I could."
Five floors below street level at the trade center, the lights flickered on and off in dispatcher Donna Martinez's windowless office. She and a few other employees left to investigate and smelled fuel, and she immediately ordered the crew of a train that had just pulled in from Hoboken, N.J., to evacuate instead of waiting for more passengers and heading back out to New Jersey.
Up in a restaurant at the foot of the towers, PATH deputy director Victoria Cross Kelly was meeting with other deputy directors of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Noticing people running past, they quickly left money on the table and walked outside to the concourse. By the time Kelly got outside the building, the scene reminded her of a ticker-tape parade as paper rained down from the north tower.
Still not sure what was happening, she went back into the building toward the restaurant, near the top of an escalator where unsuspecting PATH commuters were emerging. Judging by his monitors, Moran said, they appeared to be "lumbering along."
Kelly heard police officers directing people to leave the building, and one of them told her a small plane had hit the trade center.
She immediately went to a PATH phone and called Moran, who recalls the control center being in "total chaos" at this point.
"She said police want the service stopped," Moran said. "I said, 'I'm still running trains.' She's yelling at me to stop the trains, and she doesn't yell; she's usually very composed."
By now, a train from Newark had just arrived at the trade center and a second from Hoboken was approaching on a separate track. On the other side of the river, engineer Noel Roman's train was approaching Exchange Place.
With Kelly still on the phone, Moran ordered the Hoboken train to loop back to New Jersey without unloading passengers. "I kept repeating, 'Don't open your doors, don't open your doors.' It was an unusual instruction."
On the train was 30-year-old Michael Middleton, headed to his job at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter on the 45th floor of the south tower.
"We sat there for about five minutes, with the usual grumbling," he said. "We had no idea what was going on."
The Newark train left, as well — after managing to get many passengers to re-board.
When Kelly hung up, Moran looked at a clock and wrote down the time: 8:52, six minutes after the first plane hit.
Moran's next call was to Roman. He told the engineer to drop off all his passengers and then go pick up anyone left at the trade center. Then he began to order all other trains to head to the nearest station and wait.
As Roman headed underground toward the trade center, United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower. Martinetti, who had been one of the first to call Moran, saw the explosion from outside Exchange Place and decided to close the station. The reaction amazes him even now.
"People were actually fighting with us to get on the trains," he said. "I had people getting in my face. It just blew my mind that people were trying to get on the train, to go toward the trade center."
Dispatcher Martinez had made her way up to the street in time to see the second plane hit. She called Moran, who thought she was referring to the first plane. "I said, 'We know, we're dealing with it,'" Moran said. "Then she said, 'No, a second plane hit the other tower.'"
Down below, Roman arrived to an eerily quiet scene. The platform was nearly empty except for a handful of PATH employees and cleaning people, and smoke had begun to filter into the space.
A homeless man sleeping under a bench became violent when Roman and others tried get him onto the train, but he eventually was subdued, and the last train to leave the trade center pulled out.
Roman chokes up when he recalls stopping his train where it emerges above ground in New Jersey and looking back at the towers.
"I started to see the reality of what had transpired, and I was in denial," he said. "I couldn't believe what I was watching."
Middleton caught a train back to Jersey City and walked to his home three towns away. He passed a firehouse where firefighters were craning their necks to see across the river, where he had been barely an hour earlier.
"I asked what was happening and one guy said, 'Turn around,'" Middleton said. "And the south tower had fallen. It basically wasn't there.
"If they'd let me off that train, I probably would have gone up to my office to see what was going on," he said. "Had I done that, who knows what would have happened?"
Allowing the trains to run even 10 or 15 minutes longer would have put a few thousand more commuters in the lower levels of the World Trade Center on a morning when confusion and panic reigned.
Of the roughly 35 trains in operation when the first plane hit, only one — the empty train from Hoboken that had been ordered evacuated and idled by a dispatcher — was in the trade center when the towers collapsed, Moran said. It took rescue crews nearly a week to dig through the debris and reach it.
Riders on the separate New York City subway system, which had tunnels beneath the trade center, also escaped harm.
Moran credits Kelly's call for setting in motion the crucial sequence of decisions on the PATH system. Kelly said she merely acted on a combination of training and instincts.
Both received poignant letters of thanks from people who were on the train that kept its doors closed and continued on.
The emotional wounds from that day healed at different times for the PATH employees. Martinetti said he "didn't want to do anything" to commemorate the attacks in the first few years.
The attacks renewed Roman's Christian faith, and he said he often silently quoted Scripture to soothe his fears after he eventually returned to the depths of the trade center to help rebuild the PATH station.
Kelly has visited ground zero and other memorials near her home in northern New Jersey on the anniversary of the attacks, but this year will be at a transportation conference in Europe on Sept. 11.
"I truly loved the towers; I know not everybody did, but I thought they were beautiful," she said. "But I think now it's about moving forward, proving that the attacks didn't have a permanent effect on us by building something that is bigger and better even than what we had before."