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Saturday, September 10th, 2011

South tower survivor's life changed


By Shelley Grieshop
CELINA - The bright lights of New York City captivated Jerry Winhoven a decade ago.
Today, the glitter of the city reminds him of the tragedy he somehow survived and what truly matters in life.
Winhoven, a Celina resident, was in the south tower of the World Trade Center for a work training session when terrorists flew a plane into the building. The terrifying event changed him forever, he said.
"At 24, I thought I had it all ... I was on my way," he said. "That day very quickly put me in check to what's important - my family, my roots."
Winhoven is the keynote speaker for a 9/11 memorial service at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Lake Shore Park in Celina. The event to observe the 10-year anniversary begins with a parade downtown.
Monte Diegel, a member of the local 9/11 committee, said Winhoven's firsthand account is "chilling."
"Having spoken with Jerry numerous times now over the last few months, I still get goosebumps when I listen to his escape story," he said.
Winhoven and 304 other financial advisers were assigned to the 61st floor for a two-week training session offered by employer Morgan Stanley, the biggest tenant in the south tower.
At 8:45 a.m. Sept. 11, the group took their first break. Winhoven was checking e-mail messages in a nearby cubicle when he heard a loud noise and the sound of breaking glass.
"I thought someone had leaned into a glass display case in the hallway and it shattered," he said.
He quickly returned to the training area where windows had cracked and splintered. He later learned the damage was from the impact of the first plane hitting the north tower, which wasn't visible from his location.
"One of the windows was completely blown out so I stuck my head threw it and looked down. All I could see were millions of papers falling to the ground. It was like a birds-eye view of a ticker-tape parade," he said.
He recalled the smell of natural gas and thought an explosion had occurred in one of the tower's cafeterias. A security guard began evacuating the floor, so he and a dozen others grabbed personal belongings and headed down a stairway.
"The first 10 or 15 floors went by pretty quickly but eventually it got slower as more people entered the stairs," the 1995 Celina High School graduate said.
Someone in the stairwell told him a helicopter had hit the north tower. He knew 'something' had happened but felt no urgency to hurry, he said.     
About halfway down, a voice came over the building's intercom system assuring occupants it was safe to return to their floor.
"I didn't trust that," he said.
As he approached the 18th floor he heard a loud sound and felt a jolt "like the shake of an earthquake," he said. The second terrorist plane had struck his building.
He remembers looking into the eyes of the firefighters who passed by him on the right. They struggled up the narrow steps with heavy gear and hoses.
"I'm sure they all lost their lives," Winhoven said.
He felt a huge sigh of relief as he reached the mall area on the bottom floor, which was littered with debris. Firefighters and paramedics were holding open the 25 to 30 entrance doors that lined the front of the tower.
As he approached the sidewalk, he saw hundreds of people across the street staring in horror at the upper floors of the building.
"I took a couple steps out and saw both towers were on fire. I walked on a little further and asked a bystander what happened. The guy said he thought a plane descended and hit both towers," Winhoven said.
After retreating eight blocks, his thoughts turned to his family who knew he was at the World Trade Center in New York. He didn't have a cell phone and lines were long at every pay phone. He hailed a taxi to return to his hotel.
"I was asking the cab driver if he knew what had happened. That's when I looked back and it (the tower) started coming down. Had I known ... I would have been flipping out," he said.
Winhoven's mother, Lynn, was working at Reynolds & Reynolds in Celina when she heard about the disaster in New York. She fielded a call from her son's boss confirming her worst nightmare - her child was working in one of the towers.
"Panic set in," Lynn Winhoven said. "I had a really bad feeling, my mother's instinct kicked in."
Minutes later she watched a live telecast in horror as the first tower fell.
"My knees collapsed, they fell right out from underneath me," she said. "The ladies around me had to help me."
It was more than an hour before she finally got word her son had made it out alive.
Jerry Winhoven's dramatic experience led to a deeper appreciation for the work emergency responders perform each day. He admits it affected him emotionally but also led to some beneficial soul searching.
"I thought I was going to be this big city guy. I was devoted to being successful," he said. "Now I know what's important and I feel grounded again."
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