Local News

Cary Man Becomes Hero In World Trade Center Attack

Posted September 17, 2001 1:49 a.m. EDT
Updated August 22, 2021 6:30 p.m. EDT

— There are many stories of heroism that are emerging from the terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, including one that involves a graduate from North Carolina State University.

John Cerqueira graduated from N.C. State in June and took a job with a telecommunications company in the World Trade Center. He said he felt lucky to go to work in that building every day. When terrorists attacked the trade center, though, he discovered courage he did not know he had.

"I thought people were slamming doors,and then walls started coming down," Cerqueira said.

Cerqueira was on the 81st floor of Tower One when the first plane struck the World Trade Center. He did not know what hit them, but he knew he needed to get out.

When Cerqueira reached the 67th floor of the stairwell, he saw his manager helping people evacuate. Together, they headed upstairs, where they found a woman in a wheelchair. They knew she could not get out on her own.

"We didn't know what to do. It was a motorized wheelchair, it was pretty heavy. My boss saw the emergency wheelchair, kind of like a stretcher. We put the lady in that and strapped her up," Cerqueira said.

They carried a woman they had never met down 68 crowded flights of stairs. At one point, firefighters offered to take over.

"We finally got to the 20th floor, and the firemen said, 'Lady, we'll take it from here', and she said, 'Please don't leave me,'" Cerqueira said.

They did not. Cerqueira and his manager made it outside and put the woman in an ambulance. They were just a few blocks away when the tower collapsed.

"All of a sudden, I hear it, and I look up, and it's falling. We start running, a guy with a camera is filming us," Cerqueira said.

"I jumped behind the van and it just comes over us, and it gets black and dark and silent. I thought I was going to die," Cerqueira said.

Cerqueira survived, but he feared the woman they had carried out of the building had not. It was not until later, as he was driving home to the Triangle, that he found out she also made it out OK.

"He said she survived. That lady made it out alive," Cerqueira said.

Everyone in Cerqueira's office got out of the World Trade Center safely. They got together afterwards, and Cerqueira said they feel like a family now after what they went through together. But he says he will not go back to work in another high-rise building.