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A 9/11 survivor’s perspective: ‘I’ve already had the worst day’


Read more and watch a video of Mike Dunn reflecting on 9/11.

Updated: November 4, 2011 10:32AM

On Sept. 11, 2001, Mike Dunn was a 29-year-old consultant with Chicago-based Keane Consulting Group preparing for a meeting on the 92nd Floor of the World Trade Center south tower when terrorists struck.

Ten years later, Dunn struggled to tell his very personal, tragic story of our nation’s greatest tragedy.

“I was with a woman named Suzanne, who went down the stairs and then …” Dunn said, tears pooling in his eyelids.

He paused, took a deep breath, cleared his throat and began again.

“Then I remember Darya, another woman I was working with, was teaching a class. So, I told Suzanne, “You go ahead and we’ll catch up with you.”

He looked out the window, composing himself while his wife, Sarah, fetched him a glass of water.

Sometimes it’s hard for Dunn to say what has haunted him for a decade — he never again saw his friends, Suzanne Kondratenko and Darya Lin, both Chicagoans in New York on business. Just thinking about them is overwhelming.

“It’s weird man,” Dunn said at the dining room table in his Downers Grove home. “I can tell the story sometimes and it’s nothing. And other times I can’t.”

Sarah returns with a pint glass of cool water. He takes a sip and calmly continues.

Dunn was in a small conference room when the first hijacked plane hit the north tower at 8:46 a.m.

Dunn and his colleagues didn’t know what exactly had happened. Someone said there was a fire. Others said a small plane hit the adjacent building.

So Dunn, a Wheaton native, gathered up some people and directed them down the fire stairs.

Folks seemed nervous, but not frantic.

When they reached the 78th Floor — the Sky Lobby where express elevators shuttled office workers to the ground floor — it was packed with people.

As he waited for an elevator in the crowded hallway, a voice over the intercom said, “A plane has struck Tower 1. You are in no danger. Please stay where you are,” Dunn said. “That’s kind of how I remember it even though I’ve read it so many different ways.”

People calmed and some started taking local elevators back up to their offices.

Dunn told a co-worker, “I’m just going to run down and see what’s going on.”

Curiosity saved his life. Sometimes, he feels guilty about that.

“I should have grabbed everyone I was with and said ‘Let’s go check it out,’ ” Dunn said. “That would have been a happier story.”

On the ground

After the announcement, Dunn took an elevator to the ground floor. He saw flaming debris burned in the street.

“When I got down there, that’s when I saw what was happening and you could see the security guards’ faces. They were freaking out,” he said. “The [second] plane hit. We had no idea what was going on and there was all this fire and debris falling on the street.”

One of the express elevators came zooming down and air pushed through the crack in the doors as the car crashed — metal to metal — at its final stop.

From the tower lobby the thunderous crash of the elevator was louder than when the plane hit the building.

“All the sudden feel like … this is it.” Dunn said.

A guard ran into the underground mall between the two towers, Dunn and others followed. After minutes of scrambling in the dark they climbed an escalator that emptied onto Church Street.

“There were giant pools of blood on the street,” Dunn said.

He made it to the Trinity Churchyard, a historic Manhattan cemetery where Alexander Hamilton, an American founding father whose face is on the ten dollar bill, is buried. Dunn climbed the wrought iron fence to get a better look at the towers and hoping against hope he would spot his friends.

His view of the damage — the size of the flames, thickness of the smoke and devastation on the streets below — was on such a more massive scale than what it looked like on TV.

Police approached and pushed the crowd back.

“They were saying these towers could come down,” Dunn said. “No one was moving. It didn’t seem possible.”

At 10:28 a.m., the north tower collapsed. People on the street were frozen in moment of silent disbelief that was quickly replaced by mass panic and a stampede.

“We just scattered and turned and ran … looking back and you see this dust cloud coming and its coming faster than I can run. It was as tall as the buildings around you … I was just in shock and looked back and see all this smoke and just one tower and that was so surreal. And then … there were no towers.”

The living and the dead

Dunn called his office. Only one other person had checked in to say they were safe.

From his hotel room, Dunn spoke with the family of co-workers who were still missing.

“People wanted to know, ‘Do you remember what they were wearing … All these people left for work and [their] wives and husbands couldn’t give descriptions,” Dunn said. “Those calls were very hard. In a way, they were harder than seeing what I saw.”

Dunn remembers talking to the husband of a pregnant woman who was in the stairwell with him on the day of the attacks.

“He was angry. He was angry at me. He literally said, ‘Why didn’t you take her with you,’ ” Dunn said.

That still haunts him. Sometimes, he feels guilty for being alive. And when he has spent time with the family of co-workers who died that day, including Suzanne Kondratenko’s family, he tries to read their minds.

“You know they have to be thinking, ‘How come Suzanne didn’t make it, too,’ ” Dunn said. “I feel like they didn’t blame me, but I’m sure the thought had crossed my mind. ‘Why couldn’t he have brought Suzanne?’ ”

Moving forward

On Sept. 12, 2001, Dunn took a train back to Boston, where he was living with Sarah and their 2½-month-old son, Colin. They were engaged and planned to a “modern marriage” in 2002. On Friday, he went back to the office.

“I was still a little bit in shock. We worked in a pretty small company. … It was hard because Darya and Suzanne were very popular and well-liked in the office, and I was with them and I made it out and they didn’t. And I was with them.”

That weekend, Dunn drove to Maine with his family. He and Sarah picked a spot to get married and set a wedding date, June 1, 2002. Dunn returned to work, but it was difficult to concentrate. That first year was exhausting.

Dunn was one of those guys who didn’t believe in depression. He kept his feelings bottled up. It wasn’t the first anniversary of the attacks that he started feel “post traumatic.”

“What made me very angry was how it turned into this patriotic … everybody putting flags on their cars. Of course everyone wanted to say we know about this and we remember it, but to me it was a very personal, traumatic thing.”

Dunn moved his family back to Chicago, a place in Lincoln Square. He joined a support group for WTC survivors at the Willow House, a counseling center in north suburban Riverwoods.

“I was never comfortable talking about it. I don’t talk about it barely at all today. Most people I work with now barely know about it,” he said. At Willow House, Dunn was able to “say everything that happened. Which for whatever reason I don’t do with anybody else, and I’m doing it with these strangers.”

After a year of monthly meetings, many of them very emotional moments, Dunn started to feel better, more capable of coping.

Today, 10 years later, indelible images of 9/11 remain in his thoughts daily. He doesn’t dwell on them, but they’re there.

Dunn now works for R.R. Donnelly in a three-story building in Downers Grove not far from home, a comfortable place wrapped in wild flowers with a sprawling back yard. He and Sarah have three children, Colin, Patrick and Audrey.

“I hate to say 9/11 made me a better parent because I hate to give it any credit for that. But when you go through something it does give you a bit of perspective. It’s hard to keep that in mind all the time,” Dunn said. “You can’t walk through life always thinking, ‘Hey, I’ve already had the worst day.’ But it helps. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but it does help you get a little perspective.”

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