Mary Lee Hannell has worked for The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey for over 20 years and is currently the Director of Human Resources. She manages a department that is responsible for the agency’s 7,000 employees. The Port Authority designed and built the World Trade Center and its staff felt a tremendous sense of ownership over it. Their headquarters were housed in the North Tower and Mary Lee had spectacular views from her office.
On September 11th, she had just arrived at her office on the 67th floor when the first plane hit the building. She could see large pieces of metal falling past the windows and then she saw smoke pouring out of an elevator. Remembering that during the bombing of the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993, the smoke was the biggest problem in evacuating the building, she told the staff, “We need to go and we need to go now.”
Since 1993, the employees had regular evacuation drills every six months and knew they had to quickly walk down the stairs. Only when she saw firemen walking up around the 28th floor did she realize that if they could get up, she could get down. By the time she reached the plaza level, Mary Lee could see the devastating and deadly impact of the disaster. She managed to get two blocks away from the building before she felt the rumble of the collapse.
Her three children were 5, 7, and 9 at the time, and they all had very different responses. The way in which Mary Lee has discussed September 11th with her children has changed with their ages and the passage of time. In her work in the Human Resources Department, Mary Lee has helped to develop a volunteer program in which both old and new employees can participate in community service around the anniversary of September 11th every year. Mary Lee joined the Tribute Center as a volunteer and leads tours that share the history of the World Trade Center and her experiences in 1993 and 2001.