Henrico man escaped World Trade Center on Sept. 11, saving 120 of his employees

Published: Sep. 10, 2021 at 6:21 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 10, 2021 at 7:05 PM EDT
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HENRICO, Va. (WWBT) - People who do heroic things typically don’t like to talk about it, and that’s the case with a man in Henrico.

Christopher Quimby’s neighbors know him as the friendly, retiree, with the well-manicured yard, who lives at the end of the cul-de-sac. But what they probably don’t know, is that on Sept. 11, 2001, he single-handedly saved more than 120 lives in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Quimby is currently enjoying retirement life; he left the hustle and bustle of Lower Manhattan for a quieter life near his daughter’s family in Short Pump. When the weather is nice, you can often find him in his garden.

A stickler for detail, this top executive planned well, and now enjoys the fruits of his labor. But 20 years ago, nothing could have prepared him for what was to come.

At exactly 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Quimby was at his desk in the office he managed on the 86th floor in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The next 17 minutes will be indelibly etched in his mind until the day he dies.

“I was talking to a gentleman about some mundane thing, and there was a jolt. I won’t repeat what I said … and then I saw flames go across my window, say paper go across my window.”

American Airlines Flight 11 had just struck the North Tower.

Quimby suspected a plane accident, but maybe a small Cessna – he had no way of knowing New York City was under attack. While Quimby says he didn’t have a sense of imminent danger, he was responsible for his 120 employees, and instinct just kicked in.

“I pulled the trigger and said ‘okay, we have to leave.’ We had to get out of there, I don’t know why – I can’t give you a really good reason.”

Quimby’s quick thinking saved his life and the lives of everyone in his office.

Workers in the government office next to his on the 86th floor opted to stay but. Sadly, they would not survive.

The 90-second express elevator ride to the lobby had Quimby feeling relieved. He fully expected to be back in the office by lunchtime until he stepped out into the street and heard a noise. When he looked up, he saw the second plane hit and plow through the building he just left.

“When that plane hit, there was debris starting to fly,” he said. “I remember covering my head, thinking I could get hit by something and this could be it for me.”

Quimby remembers running at a full spring from a cloud of dust and debris that seemed to be chasing him. He managed to make it to a hotel lobby about a mile away, where he called his wife.

No one answered, but he left a message that he was alive.

Then, through a series of trips on a ferry and car rides from kind strangers, he eventually made it home. His wife was waiting in tears on the driveway. “He looked like the man who fell to earth, he was just literally covered in soot,” said Evan Quimby, Christopher’s wife.

“When I ambled up the driveway, I was covered in white and we had this emotional embrace on our driveway because she didn’t think she would see me again,” said Quimby.

In the days that followed, the constant barrage of news coverage kept his emotions raw, but Quimby bottled it up inside – even his family didn’t notice.

“He’s very private and he’s very stoic, and I said to him the next day, ‘do you want me to stay home?” said Evan Quimby. “He said, ‘no, no, no - go to work, go to work.’ So, I went to work.”

A day or two later, that wall Quimby built around himself came tumbling down, and all it took was an early morning car ride.

“Evan drove me down to the train station a couple of miles away, and that when it dawned on me how bad it was,” Quimby said. “The parking lot was full at 4 or 5 in the morning, and that’s the first time I broke down.”

The parking lot should have been empty – a stark reminder that while he survived the day, many of his neighbors in Suffern, New York had not.

In the years that followed, little things could spark bouts of deep sorrow. Quimby avoided driving by airports because just seeing a commercial jet coming in for a landing became too much to bear. But as they say, time heals all wounds.

In 2011, on an Alaskan cruise – the couple’s first big trip together since the tragedy – Quimby has an epiphany. He now knew 9/11 could no longer define him

“We went to this internet coffee shop, and I’m sitting there drinking my coffee and there was a little TV in the corner of the room,” he said. “It’s 9/11 – I completely forgot about it.”

Quimby admits he occasionally still has a bad day, but not often.

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