By Lynnette Harris

Witness to 9/11

When John Carman traveled to New York City to meet with an attorney about obtaining a patent on some of his research involving plant genetics, he didn't expect to witness a fireball gushing out of the north tower of the World Trade Center as he rode away from the nearby Greenhouse Restaurant in a cab. And while feeling the cab shake from the concussion of the first crash and explosion Carman, like many Americans, did not expect to learn a few hours later that the deaths of nearly 3,000 people were the result of terrorist-hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon that day.

Carman, a professor in the Department of Plants, Soils and Climate simply remains grateful that he had an appointment with the attorney earlier than he expected. Gerry Baldwin, the lawyer, typically did not meet with clients as early as 9 a.m. on weekdays. But this particular day, Baldwin decided to break from custom.

“I am just grateful to have been in those circumstances ,” Carman said of his narrow escape. “I do not know that my life was worth being spared more than anyone else’s, but I remain grateful for how things fell into place for me. ”

Carman’s trip had begun with a plant embryology conference in Slovakia where he was a speaker. He had then traveled through Vienna, accompanied by an Egyptian friend he had met earlier. But the last stop before coming home included a stay at the Twin Towers Marriott in New York, where Carman met with Baldwin.

“I didn’t even eat breakfast very long that day,” said Carman, who received a receipt printed at 8:35 a.m. for his brief breakfast, just 11 minutes before the first plane crashed into the nearby tower. “It was just something, how many things fell into place.”

As Carman left the restaurant, there was an available cab just outside and he got in and gave the driver the address of his meeting in midtown. Moments later the cab rocked, and though the driver blamed it on construction, Carman saw people in the street staring at the towers. He turned and saw flames filling a wide gash in the north tower.

Carman asked the cab driver to stop when he saw flames leaping from the buildings, but traffic forced the two forward. Carman, who later learned that one of the plane’s engines passed completely through the building and landed on the Marriott roof, said that he imagined that 200 to 300 people had been “instantly vaporized” by the destruction. Though in the weeks to come Carman would learn that those figures were far too low, one of his former graduate students, Rod Fuller, who was living in New Jersey at the time said he was grateful that the attack came at a time when the city was quieter than it would have been later in the day.

“If they would have attacked an hour later, the deaths would have been magnified,” said Fuller, who was in a law office in New York City at the time of the attack.

Stunned, like everyone else, Carman thought he might go back to the hotel to retrieve his luggage, but soon realized that would be impossible. Carman later wrote, “I had the clothes I was wearing, a cell phone that wasn’t working (and the battery was going dead), a notepad and a wallet. Even with a wallet, it was unsettling to be 1800 miles from home and no place to go. My belongings and unfinished manuscript…were in my room. I wouldn’t be getting them. Half of the Marriott had collapsed, and it finished collapsing suddenly the following morning with other nearby buildings. “

Carman made his way to another Marriott hotel in hopes of finding a room after many unsuccessful tries in the chaotic city. With his room key from the now destroyed Twin Towers hotel, Carman was invited to stay along with many other stunned and stranded people on cots in the hotel ballroom, where everyone was alternately watching the news on a big screen or talking about their experiences.

Fuller’s helping hand came at a time when Carman lacked options in the anxious days immediately following 9/11 when airlines were shut down. Carman spent the next several days with Fuller’s family at their home in Princeton, N.J., after managing to jump the pay gate - as no one was selling or checking tickets - and get on the last car of a train traveling from Penn Station to Princeton.

“It was great to help a friend and be with him,” Fuller said. “John's a great man. It was comforting to offer to help and serve and offer a home for him, watch the news together and kind of be stunned together. In the middle of it, you don't know what's going on. You’re just seeing people fully covered in dust. To watch it was so impactful, seeing people in the street just crying. To be able to be with John during that, it was a bond and something we share now.”

Fuller had originally been scheduled to be in Utah at the time to see off his mother, who was leaving for an LDS mission. But days before traveling west, Fuller said he felt the need to stay in Princeton. Though his family initially thought Fuller just couldn’t afford the plane ticket, they offered to pay for it so that he could support his mother. But that had nothing to do with it.

“That Sunday came, and nothing happened,” Fuller said. “I began wondering why I had actually felt the need to stay behind. But I certainly had that question answered later.”

With no airports open for several days, a car rental from the Princeton area enabled Carman to drive back to Utah from New Jersey. Making stops in West Virginia, Ohio and Iowa along the way, taking opportunities to share what he had experienced with others at gas stations and other stops in the journey. He was even invited to speak about his personal experiences in New York to an LDS congregation in Lyman, Wyo., the Sunday before he made it back to his family in Utah.

“What a relief,” Carman said of the reunion. “Like any other close call, I was glad to once again enjoy the simple things of life, like eating a sandwich, enjoying the warmth of the late summer sun on my back, the birds singing, the wind slightly blowing limbs of a beautiful weeping willow.”

Though Carman remains unconvinced that the particular arrangement of events on 9/11 that moved him out of harm’s way were designed to spare him more than others, he remains grateful nonetheless.

“I am thankful to be alive, to be able to pursue the work that interests me,” he said. “I do hope to be around long enough to see our work (of scientists throughout the world) produce worldwide benefits.”

Writers: Rhett Wilkinson and Lynnette Harris