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November 22, 2001 How the telephone linked an anxious family



catherine Vallejo and her extended family

Standing, from left: Leilani, Horacio, Brendon, Yacinda, and Ernest Dieterle. Seated: Catherine Vallejo and her mother, Greta van der Plaats. The photo was taken at a celebration of Mrs. van der Plaats’ 80th birthday, in 1998. Several months later, Yacinda and Ernest got married.

by Barbara Black

The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York affected the Vallejo family at its very heart, because Yacinda Vallejo, 28, a graduate of Concordia and sometime employee in the Arts and Science Dean’s Office, and her husband, Ernest Dieterle, 30, were working there.

Fortunately, they escaped, but it was a day of high drama — not only in Manhattan, but also in Pointe Claire, where Yacinda’s mother, Spanish Professor Catherine Vallejo, was able to link the young couple and reassure anxious family members in at least four countries. What follows is based on a phone log she compiled of those calls.

The day unfolds

Early in the morning, Catherine, who is chair of the Department of Classics, Modern Languages and Linguistics, drives downtown to the outdoor parking lot on de Maisonneuve Blvd., west of Guy St. Since she will be there until after her evening class, she leaves it at the back of the lot, where four cars will soon be parked ahead of it.

08:45 A plane hits One World Trade Center.

09:02 A second plane hits Two WTC. Yacinda Vallejo works for the brokerage firm Morgan Stanley, on the 70th floor; her husband works on the fourth floor of Tower Four.

In Pointe Claire, Horacio Vallejo, a physician, gets a call from his sister in the Dominican Republic. Catherine’s mother, in Dollard des Ormeaux, hears about the disaster on the radio, but is afraid to call, fearing the worst.

09:12 Call from Horacio Vallejo to his wife Catherine, at Concordia: “Lourdes called from Santo Domingo for me to turn on the TV. Both World Trade Center towers were hit by airplanes. They are on fire.”

09:22 Collect call from Ernie, on a pay phone in Manhattan to Concordia: “This is an emergency! There’s been a terrible accident. A plane has hit the Trade Center! There’s flames everywhere. I’m seeing people jumping out of windows high up in the Tower, and I don’t know where Yacinda is! I’m calling from a fire station. . . I have to go. Someone else needs the phone.”

09:29 Collect call from a payphone in Manhattan to Pointe Claire: “It’s Ernie, Mr. Vallejo. Have you heard anything from Yacinda? My cell phone doesn’t work.”

“WTC was a communications hub, and all the cell phones were disabled, because a large antenna on One WT was knocked out when the tower was hit.” Catherine said later.

“Ernie said there were long line-ups for the payphones, but people were kind to one another, and kept their calls short.”

09:40 Cell phone call from Manhattan to Pointe Claire: “Daddy? Daddy? It’s me, Yacinda. I’m out. I’m OK.”

Yacinda had been on the 70th floor when the plane hit the neighbouring tower. She and her fellow workers walked to the 59th floor, and took an elevator to the 44th floor. At that point, another plane hit their tower, and there was a mad scramble down the stairs. with people shoving and yelling. A lot of people lost their shoes in their haste; others were literally knocked out of their shoes by the impact. It took her 50 minutes to get down to the street, and then Yacinda phoned home.

09:46 From Ernest’s mother, in Wildwood, N.J., to Concordia: “It’s Barbara, Catherine. My God, what’s happening? Where are our children?” “They’re out! Ernie called earlier, and Yacinda just called. They’re safe!”

Catherine leaves the Hall Building for the parking lot, waits for all the cars to be removed so she can get out, and drives home to Pointe Claire, arriving at about 10:30. The Vallejos’ other daughter, Leilani, 26, a nursing student, is already there. Their son Brendon, a chef, has just moved to New Zealand, where his flatmates wake him up to tell him about the disaster they’ve seen on TV. Brendon stares at the TV and says in disbelief, “My sister works there!”

9:58 Collect call from Manhattan to Concordia: “This is Ernie. Can I speak to Catherine?” “This is Marilyn [Malofy], the receptionist, Ernie. Yacinda is safely out of the Tower, and Catherine has gone home to be with her family.” “OK, thank you! . . . Oh, my God, the building is falling down!”

10:00 Two World Trade Center collapses, burying Tower Four, where Ernie worked.
“Ernie huddled with four other men under the stairs; he was a bit confused on that call,” Catherine said. “Then he ran through the dust storm and ashes northeast to the waterfront.

10:30 One WTC (North Tower) collapses.

11:22 Collect call from Hoboken to Pointe Claire: “This is Ernie. I’m across the river in New Jersey, at Harborside Park. I want to stay and help. There is a centre here to attend to any wounded arriving from the city.” “Ernie, go home, we need to be able to contact you to pick up Yacinda when she can get back. We haven’t heard from her since she called from the street, and we don’t know how far away she was when the tower collapsed.”

12:23 From Pointe Claire to Jersey City, where Yacinda and Ernie live: “This is a message for Ernie from Catherine: Call us when you get home, please.”

13:03 From Jersey City to Pointe Claire: “This is Ernie. I’m home safe. Is there any word from Yacinda?”

13:04 Collect call from Manhattan to Pointe Claire: “Mom, it’s Yacinda. I’m in a hospital somewhere. Just after I called Dad, I collapsed on the sidewalk. We had walked down from the 44th floor. A paramedic came by; they were giving me oxygen when the tower started coming down. I had to jump into a passing ambulance and I was taken here. I don’t even know which hospital — I’ll have to ask.
“I’m OK, they’re letting me go. I’m going to try and find transport to go home. It’s quite well organized; down in the main entrance there is a row of desks with signs giving destinations. They are walking people to various points in Manhattan for further transportation. Please call Ernie to let him know I’m OK. I’ve lost my cell phone. Someone was using it when we had to run away from the building.”

13:13 From Pointe Claire to Jersey City: “This is a message for Ernie: Yacinda was taken to a hospital somewhere. She is OK, and going to try to get home. We’ll let you know when we hear anything.”

The Vallejo household in Pointe Claire was “a madhouse,” Catherine said. “Friends on cell phones on the back porch, in the basement. Calls from friends and family in Ireland, Italy, the Dominican Republic, Holland. There were six cars in the driveway.”

13:24 Collect call from Beekman Hospital, New York, to Pointe Claire: “Mom, it’s Yacinda. I went outside to orient myself. They’re gone, Mom! Both towers are gone! This is so awful . . . I saw a woman with her skin hanging loose from her body, all burned, being carried by firemen. . . I’m going to walk to the docks with a group of people. There are all sorts of boats there to take us where we need to go. It might be a couple of hours. Don’t worry.”

15:03 Collect call from Bayonne, N.Y., to Pointe Claire: “Mom, it’s Yacinda. I came across the river in some tugboat. I’m in New Jersey, at the Bayonne subway station. Ernie will know where it is. Tell him it’s where we sometimes go for dinner. It’s only about 10 minutes from home.”

15:43 From Jersey City to Pointe Claire: “Hi, Mom and Dad. We’re both home, safe. But all those people . . . We can still see the smoke across the river in Manhattan. My friend Thomas is missing. . .”


Although Morgan Stanley employed about 3,500 people in the WTC, the company suffered only 12 deaths, six of them security guards. Thomas was the only friend Yacinda lost, but the shock was enormous.

She saw indelible sights: a man cut by falling glass, a man naked from the waist down because of burns, the woman with loose skin flapping like a plastic garbage bag. She thinks of the 91 elevators crammed with people. She heard some crashing down from the 44th floor. In others, the occupants hammered on the doors as the building melted and collapsed.

Like many who were less intimately affected, she watched television for hours. Talking about it was difficult; there were long silences. However, she took some counselling, and spoke with her family on the phone twice a day. The Vallejos persuaded the young couple, with some difficulty, to leave New York and spend a week in Pointe Claire.

Now they’re doing fine, and are both back at work. Ernest’s office is in Rockefeller Center, on the 26th floor. Yacinda feels a strong sense of loyalty to her colleagues. “No one else can understand,” she says.

Yacinda and Ernest did so many things in the WTC complex — they shopped there, and met for lunch. Eventually, Yacinda’s cell phone and other items that she had dropped when she was whisked away from the falling tower were returned to her. Among them is a receipt for a skirt she exchanged at a store in the WTC. It reads: “J. Crew, 8:29 a.m., Sept. 11.”

From her new office in Jersey City, she can see the Manhattan skyline, and the gap that marks the place where she and Ernest used to work.

For Catherine Vallejo, the experience was an affirmation of the love and strength of her extended family and the compassion of the people around her.

“I can’t tell you how many people have quietly stuck their heads into my office, or spoken to me when I’ve gone into the Dean’s area, and asked me how things were,” she said.

She is also deeply grateful for the technology that allowed her to be the link between these two young people, and to find out they were safe directly from them.

Days after the disaster, a prayer service was held for about a dozen victims in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In Holland, a cousin of Catherine was watching television. He suddenly spotted Yacinda among the mourners, and cried out in recognition. Suddenly, he said, an unreal, unimaginable event, belonged in some way to him.