PALM DESERT, Calif. - Fifteen years ago Sunday, the world watched in horror as New York's mighty twin towers disintegrated into rubble and toxic ash, completely disappearing from the Manhattan skyline.
Terrorists hijacking four commercial aircraft on September 11, 2001 attempting to take out four high profile locations in the U.S.
Tonight in an exclusive interview, we hear from a local 9/11 survivor who was on the 78th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center on that fateful day.
Memories of the terrorist attack that took nearly three thousand lives are still vivid 15 years later for Palm Desert resident Bert Upson. In New York that day to give a talk to financial sales executives. Up bright and early, walking from his hotel to the World Trade Center's south tower then catching the express elevator to the 78th floor.
"Said hello to the people in the conference room and just then I heard this WOOMPF and the building shook and the electricity dimmed and I went down the hall to see if there had been a bomb," says Upson. "I never heard anything like that in my life, this was eerie and hackles went up on the back of my neck and my heart stopped.
The north tower had been hit by a plane hijacked by terrorists. Upson was still unaware of what was happening and was paralyzed with fear for what may have been less than a minute, then he says, even though he was scared something extraordinary happened.
"Right after that I moved into action. Something motivated me to do something. I had to make a choice, do I stay or do I go?" "I knew that if I stayed I may never be able to go."
Out the window Upson could see the once beautiful clear day had turned gray with dust, debris and smoke. It still wasn't clear where the trouble was but Upson says intuition told him something serious and life threatening was happening. His instinct was to get out. He had a choice to make.
"Now there's swarms of people running, hysterically running for the stairs, because I had been in a bomb scare before, and I had to go down 39 flights of stairs, took an hour and the little voice, the intuition I had came back and said, "you don't have time" take the elevator. Well, the elevator doors were closed and then another miracle, they opened."
Full to capacity, Upson pushing his way into the elevator was standing in the middle of the crowd. People from the back feeling smothered pushed forward, the pressure forcing some of them out of the elevator.
"The doors close and I can hear people screaming from the other side", says Upson. They said "let me on, let me in, help me, save me, don't leave me to die."
The express elevator carrying Upson from the 78th floor makes it down in 45 seconds. Doors open and everyone is pushing and shoving then running frantically. He looks back just in time to see the second hijacked plane crashing into the south tower, right where he had been just minutes before.
"Thousands of people are running, the debris from the north tower was falling all over the place, the concrete and furniture was falling into the street, you had to dodge around it as you were running I know several people who were killed by shrapnel," says Upson.
Feeling numb and angry he kept running and surprisingly he says he was clear headed as he made it five blocks to his hotel.
Upson says, "It was like a beacon in the tragedy, but when we were running we could hear people screaming, we could hear people running out of the buildings, we could smell burning flesh, I mean it was chaos and mayhem and it was a stampede."
When asked if he takes anything for granted, Upson had this to say, "Not anymore, I don't assume, assume nothing, I take nothing for granted. It's amazing what's happened total transformation of the way I was, I can't give you a before and after, but I feel relieved."
Upson says following the attack, he suffered from a mild case of post traumatic stress, nightmares, lack of sleep and some congestion in his lungs. He put his thoughts, feelings and memories on paper, writing a book about his experience which describes in more detail how the day unfolded from his vantage point. Now Upson and his wife travel the country talking about his first hand account. He's has had nearly 70 speaking engagements.
When asked why he chooses to keep talking about his 9/11 experience, Upson says, "I am a teacher by nature and I am trying to help people understand what happened and what could happen."
If you want to hear more, you can order Upson's book, "On a clear day, 9/11 an eyewitness account" at Amazon.com