'. . . it was a Hollywood blockbuster'

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'. . . it was a Hollywood blockbuster'

It was a normal Monday morning one year ago for Choo Ick-soo, 42, the president of Hyundai Securities (America) Inc., based in New York.

At 8:45 a.m., after his usual morning meeting with his staff of six, Mr. Choo sat in his window office on the 78th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center, drinking coffee and examining business faxes from Seoul. It was the typical start of a day. But before he could finish his coffee the building quaked and thunder roared.

"I thought it was an earthquake at first," Mr. Choo said in a phone interview from New York. He ran out of his office, telling his staff to lie down on the floor. Then he saw something flash past the window outside, and he sensed that what was unfolding was not a natural disaster. "I figured out later that it was the remnants of the airplane that hit the building," he said. At that time, however, Mr. Choo thought it might have been a light-weight plane; it was not uncommon for such craft to fly through the city at the height of the 78th floor. "There was an accident last month where a paraglider hit the Statue of Liberty, so I thought something similar was happening," he said.

But when he saw the news on television, he could not believe it. "It was just too implausible," he said, "so I intentionally discounted the gravity of the situation. I thought Hollywood once again had made a costly blockbuster with cutting edge special effects. I don't know, maybe I didn't want to believe it."

Mr. Choo heard cries from security guards to get out of the building. He took paper towels moistened with water and distributed them to his staff so they could cover their noses and mouths, and together they made their way out.

The 78th floor lobby, which usually bustled with activity, was deadly silent. Cracks ran the height of the concrete pillars supporting the elevators, making them clearly unusable. Mr. Choo and his staff hurried to the stairs, where they found other people, many injured, hurrying to escape. "Firefighters were leading the crowd out, saying that it was a terrorist attack," he said.

Mr. Choo and hundreds of other workers in the tower ran down the steps to the second floor, where bodies were strewn amid broken glass and pools of water. "It was a state of war," he said, "and all of us panicked." Following the firefighters, he made it to the ground floor and onto the street.

But he was not yet out of harm's way. Just about when he thought he was finally safe, he heard a boom -- the sound of the south tower crashing. "The sky was tumbling down," he said. Mr. Choo just knelt, placing his head on the ground. After a few moments, he cracked his eyes, but could not see anything because of the dust and dark smoke. Things kept falling from the sky and he and the others who had fled, full of fear, ran back into the north tower. Inside was pitch-dark and he could barely breathe. About 10 minutes passed in total silence, with no sign of rescue. "I thought I was dying," he said. Another 15 minutes crawled by. "First, I thought of my 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter," he said, "then my wife and parents. I prayed for their happiness in the dark."

Finally a firefighter appeared, carrying a flashlight and an ax. He told the group to follow him. Mr. Choo left the building, again, in a daze. He could barely hear rescue workers who were shouting to head north, to get away from lower Manhattan. Walking several blocks toward Midtown, he heard another roaring sound -- the north tower collapsing. Stunned by the site of the 110-story building tumbling into dust, he kept walking until he got to the office of Daewoo Securities on 52d street. "Passers-by came over and asked if I was fine. A stranger came up to me and offered a cigarette," he said with a sigh. Daewoo workers offered him lunch, but he could not eat a thing. After resting and making phone calls for about an hour, Mr. Choo headed home in a car lent him by Daewoo.

His wife was waiting for him. Then the phone calls started coming in, more than 100 in three days, from his family back in Korea, newspaper reporters and the Korean Consulate in New York. "I think I got as many calls as I had gotten in my entire life. I had to unplug the phone at night," he said. But he could not sleep for the nightmares about a skyscraper and a plane.

The next day, he was happy to find his staff safe and sound. Except for Gu Bon-seok, who worked for LG Insurance, most of the Korean workers at the World Trade Center survived.

One year has passed, but the terrible memories remain. Airplanes and skyscrapers frighten Mr. Choo. He made a point of setting up his new office below the 40th floor -- the 33d, in fact, in a quiet neighborhood in Midtown. "I wanted to move somewhere peaceful," he said.

Mr. Choo said that he finds himself closer to his family. "Now I always tell myself to always be ready, for anything can happen anytime to anybody," he said. He went back to ground zero once, which made him feel grateful that he is alive. He said that the attacks created a special bond with others who went through it. "I got to know my co-workers and even my children better," he said. For the one-year anniversary, he is going to get together with those who were with him on that day.

Whenever Mr. Choo tries to remind his daughter of the importance of always being ready for danger, she replies with a, "Not again, daddy." And then he thinks to himself, "Yes, not again."

by Chun Su-jin

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