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Martin Domb had been checking e-mail Tuesday morning, when he heard a loud noise and a rumble. A partner with the 20-lawyer firm of Hill, Betts & Nash, Domb has an office on the 52nd floor of One World Trade Center. “It felt,” Domb recalled, “like an earthquake.” Fearful at first that the building might be about to go down, he ran to a doorway for protection. Fred Van Remortel, an associate at Conway & Conway on the 33rd floor, had attended college at UCLA, and he knew this was no earthquake. The rumble didn’t last. “The building absolutely shook,” said Van Remortel. “And then the building started to sway, and I thought the building was going to tip over.” He saw debris falling past windows. He saw a green baseball cap float through the sky, followed by chunks of metal, sheets of aluminum and lots of office paper. Domb saw much the same thing, office debris in a whirl: “Some of it going down, some of it coming up — a huge amount.” Fortunately, said Domb, very few people were in the office. He grabbed the secretary, and the two decided to leave by a stairwell. But they had to switch repeatedly due to the crowds, which grew denser with each floor of their descent. It was slow going. Firemen began passing them going up the stairs. At one point, they found themselves beside burn victims. Smoke and chemical fumes were plentiful, but Domb said the situation never seemed as dire as the evacuation from the 1993 terrorist explosions, which he also experienced. During that descent, he recalled, the stairwell lights were out, and the smoke was much thicker. This time, he said, the collective mood on the stairs wasn’t even terribly anxious, and the evacuation was mostly polite. “Generally,” he said, “it was good.” In all, it took the pair more than 30 minutes to reach ground level. “The sprinklers were on when he got to the lower floors,” said Domb. “I got drenched.” But he dried off walking home to west 86th. At the time, he had no idea how lucky he was. The gravity of the situation only hit him when he heard news of the collapse on the radio. “I’m having trouble coping with the concept,” he said. Van Remortel also felt little sense of doom. When he left, he simply grabbed his shoulder bag. He never thought it was the last time he would see his office. “I wasn’t even sure we’d be going down the stairs,” he said. But the nervous laughter and gallows humor on the stairs gave way to a growing sense of tragedy. “A couple of people were burned like you couldn’t believe,” he said. “The skin was peeled off them. The hair was burned off their arms. That’s when it really began to sink in.” Once on the ground, he and others looked up to see life imitating art. “That’s when we knew it was like ‘Towering Inferno,’ ” he said. “ Nobody knew until we looked up.” The perception literally depended on your point of view. LAW FIRMS The World Trade Center is home to several law firms, and with communications into and out of New York City overloaded with traffic Tuesday, some offices around the country had difficulty determining the fate of their colleagues. The largest law firm in the center towers was the former Brown & Wood, which merged with Chicago-based Sidley & Austin to form Sidley Austin Brown & Wood on May 1. The Trade Center location had 600 to 700 employees, located on floors 54 through 58 of One World Trade Center, the north tower. All who were in the office were safely evacuated before the buildings fell, according to George Petrow, a New York-based member of the firm’s management committee. The firm closed all of its offices worldwide on Tuesday, according to an announcement on its Web site. The firm had planned to move the 250 people who work in the former Sidley & Austin offices at 875 Third Ave. in Midtown to the World Trade Center later this year, Petrow said. The firm has approximately 500 lawyers in New York. As of early afternoon, Rochester, N.Y.-based Harris Beach, which has a 50-lawyer office on the 85th floor of Two World Trade Center, had conflicting reports about whether all its employees were safe. A contractor who was renovating the office thought everyone got out safely, but the office’s managing partner spoke to a receptionist just before their tower was hit by the second plane, about 25 floors below their offices, according to spokeswoman Hillary Guthrie. As of 1 p.m., about 75 percent of the 113 people who work in the office had been accounted for, she said. The firm merged with Manhattan’s Gainsburg & Hirsch earlier this month, but those attorneys had not relocated to World Trade from their Midtown offices, she said. Philadelphia-based Drinker Biddle & Reath has fewer than 20 employees, including about eight lawyers, in its 89th floor office in One World Trade Center. As of 1 p.m., all but two had been accounted for, according to a firm spokeswoman. Calls to the Jersey City, N.J., White Plains, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., offices of Thacher Proffitt & Wood, which has 135 lawyers on the 40th floor of Two World Trade Center, were not answered. Firms miles away from downtown were also scrambling to find lawyers who were scheduled to be in and around the Trade Center complex Tuesday morning. Two lawyers from Rosenman & Colin showed up at the Trade Center for a 9:30 a.m. meeting, shortly after the first plane hit the building. They were denied access, and were out of harm’s way when the twin towers collapsed, according to Rosenman chairman Joshua S. Rubenstein. Another lawyer from the firm who was near the courthouses, several blocks away from the Trade Center, witnessed both planes hit the towers. “She’s just a mess,” Rubenstein said. Ninety percent of the firm’s staff lives outside Manhattan, and traveling off the island was difficult to impossible as of mid-afternoon Tuesday. “Everybody who does live in Manhattan has opened his or her home. We’ve made sure everyone is buddied up,” in case travel continued to be restricted, Rubenstein said. In the end, most witnesses memories of the tragedy will have come from a distance. Kevin Goering, a litigation partner with Coudert Brothers, works on the 44th floor of the firm’s midtown headquarters, where his office looks due south at the World Trade Center. He arrived at work about 5 minutes after the bombing Tuesday morning but thought he was just witnessing a big fire. “Nobody on my floor had even focused on it yet,” said Goering. Then, a few minutes later, he walked two doors down to the offices of Tony Williams, the firm’s managing partner whose office too faces south. Goering, Williams, and a few others — alert now to the fire — were watching as the smoke billowed. “I saw a low flying plane coming in from New Jersey,” Goering recalled. “At that distance, the plane didn’t seem that big. Oddly, it seemed to be flying around the tower. I said, ‘What an idiot!’ Then it slammed into the tower and there was this huge fireball. By now, more and more folks at the firm were starting to come into Tony’s office and watch when suddenly the first tower collapsed, and later the second went down. After that, we just stood there in awe.” This story was reported by John Anderson, David Hechler and Rorie Sherman of American Lawyer Media.

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