‘Boom!' El Centro man recalls attacks

September 18, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

El Centro's Jose Antunez stood in New York City's Washington Park when United Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the World Trade Center.

"Boom! It was loud — a deafening blast. We were like, ‘What's going on?'

"We see people running, ‘A plane crashed into the World Trade Center!'

"We were like, ‘Nah!' So typical us … ‘Let's go see,'" he remembered.

It was the fourth day of a birthday trip to New York for 22-year-old Antunez. He was touring the city with his cousin Joel Gutierrez of Escondido and his buddy Matt Reagan of Manhattan.

"So we go walking," he said. "We walked another three blocks (toward the WTC) and then the — boom! — the second one hits."


He can still remember the sound, "I'd never heard that sound. The sound … Aw man.

"We just started running the opposite way. We just ran north. We ran.

"Everybody is crying, yelling, screaming, ‘What the hell is going on?'" he said.

In the chaos and confusion, rumors spread.

"They were saying there are bombs all over the World Trade Center," he said.

Antunez described the scene.

"You know how when they let the toros go in Spain — whoosh — they push each other down, kick you, stomp you."

"We just ran — about 30 blocks — (to the Penn Station train depot)," he said.

"It must have taken us like 20 minutes to run 30 blocks … Trust me! I'm pretty sure you'd run that fast, too.

"We got the train and got out of there."

They took the train to their Garden City hotel on Long Island and watched the news all day Tuesday and Wednesday.

They didn't want to go anywhere and there were bomb scares at the Empire State Building and Penn Station.

On Thursday, Reagan called and asked his friends to come back to the city.

The three went to Chelsea Pier.

"That was where the traffic was coming in; all the Army guys," he said.

They started walking toward the rubble of the World Trade Center; toward the source of the billowing smoke.

"We went back to Washington Park where we had been and we couldn't breathe," he said.

The smoke was acrid and foul and reminded Antunez of crushed sheetrock. They started walking back toward the pier.

"All you heard were sirens — sirens, sirens, sirens: ambulances, marshals, the police — just driving; everywhere … fire trucks."

They tried to donate blood but were turned away. One New Yorker had waited six hours to donate blood before being turned away.

As they walked back toward the pier, people who had lost loved ones in the attacks came up to them.

"People walking up to me ‘Have you seen this person? Are you sure?'" he said.

He hadn't but he told anyone who asked that he would keep an eye out.

"They wanted the reassurance that you were going to at least try to help them out," he said.

"To me I would run into it and try to help out. I would be digging with a shovel and physically looking for people.

"I feel so sorry for those people, people putting up signs.

"I wanted to help but you can't."

Back at the pier, people waited on the street just for the opportunity to volunteer.

"It surprised me about New York. I was surprised at how united New York City is," he said.

Even though they were united in their resolve to help, he could tell the attacks had taken a heavy psychological toll on the denizens of the city.

"People were walking around like this (he scanned the skies craning his neck back and forth.)

"I was like, ‘God.' I was looking up too. You pass by tall buildings and were looking up just in case another plane hits," he said.

The experience of the city on Thursday was enough.

He didn't go back during the remaining days of his vacation,

"We didn't want to go. The sites of the people crying, it was overwhelming."

On Sunday he was scheduled to fly back to San Diego.

His flight wasn't canceled but when he got to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

It was practically empty.

"No lines," he said.

When he walked through the metal detector, it beeped because of his steel-toed boots.

An airport security official told him to take off his boots.

He had worn the boots just in case someone tried something on his flight,

"I was going to kick ‘em."

"Everybody is looking at me. I told him, ‘I got steel-toes on for protection'," he said.

When the 1997 graduate of Southwest High School got back to San Diego he was greeted by his mother, Socorro who was holding a big sign festooned with flags.

"She hugged me. The minute she saw me she started crying. She hugged me like — like… I don't know — like I was going to die tomorrow," he said.

He didn't.

He's back in El Centro attending the nursing program at Imperial Valley College.

As for his next trip to New York, "I'm not going to go back; not any time soon."

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or

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