We all have instructional life stories, but Carl Selinger’s is more dramatic, more harrowing, than most. And his story deals with an experience that helped him learn something crucial about himself that he’s carried into a productive retirement.
Selinger, 73, is a survivor of the FIRST World Trade Center attack, on February 26th, 1993. A truck bomb explosion in an underground garage killed six people and injured more than 1,000 nearly nine years before the worst terrorist attack in American history caused 2,997 deaths on 9/11.
Today, Selinger, a former Port Authority engineer, minimizes the experience of being trapped in an elevator for five hours compared to the tragic horror of 9/11. “Many of my closest friends died on 9/11,” he said. “It was such a stupendous tragedy, and I was trapped in an elevator for five hours and suffered a little smoke inhalation.”
But that’s a totally detatched perspective on what Selinger experienced when he stepped into an elevator by himself on the 43rd floor of One Trade Center at 12:45 p.m. on that winter day. It was lunchtime, and Selinger had a salad with him as he entered the elevator.
There’s a more significant aspect of Selinger’s own behavior, as the crisis unfolded in that constricted, smoke-filled space: he never panicked.
At 12:40 p.m. — as Selinger explained in the six-page account of the incident he wrote three days later — the smoke thickened and he thought of his family. He found a piece of loose leaf paper in his shirt pocket and wrote a letter to his wife, Barbara, and three children, then 14, 17, and 19. “A few thoughts if I am fated to leave you now,” he wrote. “I love you very much. Be good people. Do wonderful things in your life...I’m so proud of my children. They’re each so wonderful. Things I love and cherish — ideas, people, Cooper Union (Alumnus of the Year!!!), my work, my family, doing the best I could. Nothing more to say. Love, Dad.”
There was another crisis at 1:30: the lights suddenly went out. But, Selinger wrote, “still not scared, know where everything is — my food on the floor, the shaft wall, the control panel. Smoke doesn’t seem to be getting worse.”
And by 3 p.m. Selinger was stretched out on the elevator floor while covering his nose and mouth with a handkerchief and thinking, “What will be the first thing to happen when they start to rescue me?” At 3:44, the lights suddenly went on. There was applause from another stalled elevator. But by 4:45 the lights had gone out again and Selinger — who had been singing to distract himself — stopped and asked some hard questions when he realized there was now “absolute silence.”
What could that mean? Could there have been a nuclear attack and the building had been evacuated because of radioactivity and he was abandoned? He thought: “Maybe I’m not going to get out of here after all?”
But then, at 5:15, the elevator abruptly began moving upward and Selinger figured he’d be rescued and thought, “It’s all over.” It was. He walked out of the elevator at 5:30 p.m., back into his good and precious life that had been under a prolonged threat. But he had never panicked, and he is proud of that fact all these years later. “Sometimes we learn things about ourselves,” he said, “and I’m very happy that I reacted that way.”
Selinger retired from the Port Authority in 1999, and in 2002 he joined “The Write Group” in Montclair, N.J., an organization of writers that’s become a fixture of his post-professional life. Selinger, a Brooklyn native, lives in the adjacent town of Bloomfield. The first writing he’d done was the piece about his WTC survival, and that was published in a San Diego newspaper. He got into the group in part because of the WTC story, but he hasn’t expanded the piece and didn’t consider it a “badge of honor” when he joined the group. In fact, in his early years in the group he worked on a book about engineering instead of dwelling further on his WTC experience. That book, titled “Stuff You Don’t Learn In Engineering School,” sold 10,000 copies.
Selinger said he hasn’t focused that much on the WTC incident in his retirement years, but people do occasionally marvel at his cool demeanor in the crisis and say they probably would have panicked. And his elevator exploit has not gone unrecognized. He appeared on the “Today” show on the 25th anniversary of the incident last year, and at the WTC 9/11 memorial site there’s a separate room for the artifacts of the 1993 bombing. Among them: the letter Selinger wrote to his family when he thought he might never see them again.