By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer
The 10th anniversary of 9/11 was a solemn occasion for Americans to reflect, and to remember where they were when they heard that the nation was under attack.
Robert Ideishi, senior manager for logistics and import/export compliance at Kingston Technology in Orange County, remembers all too well. He was attending a seminar at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Ideishi was on the 55th floor of Tower One, listening to a presentation on Mexican customs, when there was a loud boom and the building shook violently. Then the building swayed back and forth, and for a moment he thought it would tip over. Some thought it was an earthquake, never imagining that an airliner had just crashed into the building.
Not realizing that his life was on the line, Ideishi was the last one out the door. “I had this big seminar notebook and my laptop,” he said. “When the building stopped shaking and people started running out of the room … I put my laptop into my computer bag and then I was trying to get that seminar notebook into that computer bag, but I couldn’t zip up the zipper — it was too big … That’s the reason I was way behind everybody else.”
Once he entered the crowded stairwell, it was clear that something terrible had happened, but he kept his cool. “The way I acted that day was very surprising to me, but I think a lot of it comes from my upbringing in the Japanese American community here … because you’re always thinking that you have to act right, otherwise you’re going to let down not only yourself and your family but your whole community,” Ideishi said.
Everything he learned from family members, Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and NAU basketball “came out in a surprising way … and in a good way, because it helped me keep my wits about me and remain relatively calm even though it was obviously a very scary situation.”
Surrounded by strangers, Ideishi found that “we took our cues from each other. Once everybody saw certain people helping other people, everybody started to do that … It was just a revelation that when people are in trouble, they act. The goodness comes out of them, the humanity comes out of them. And that’s what happened that day.”
The acts of compassion in the stairwell stand out in his memory. “This kind of heavy lady, a young girl, she sat down on the steps and she started crying and said, ‘I can’t make it. I can’t go. Just leave me here. Just go’ … And this really old African American gentleman, he stopped right next to her … and he said, ‘You can’t stay here. You have to get up. You have to go. If you’re not going to go, I’ll carry you down.’ He was really frail and this lady was big … They were about half a stairwell in front of me, and they were like Siamese twins all the way down the stairs.
“That was heroic in itself, and also gave you the courage to say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to keep going and we’ve got to help each other’ … I don’t even think he knew her.”
Another woman took off her high-heeled shoes, and a man started pushing the broken glass on the stairs to one side so that she would not cut her feet. “We all started to do that — pushed all the glass to one side,” Ideishi recalled. “That way all the ladies … could take off their high heels and walk down barefoot … They might not have made it the whole way in high heels. That was a lot of floors.”
Ideishi and the others also stepped aside to make way for the wounded from the upper floors. “They were really badly burned. It looked like one of those Vietnam War pictures, after some village has been napalmed … We watched them walk past and they were so badly burned that you couldn’t keep looking. You had to look away.”
Ideishi has high praise for the courage and determination of the first responders. “We saw many firemen come up the stairwell … They would try to encourage you and have smiles on their faces and tell you everything’s going to be okay and offer you water bottles, but … they would look up and you could tell that they were very scared too, because they had no idea what was going on.”
He talked to one man who may have been a captain. “I wasn’t crying or screaming or freaking out like some other people, so he asked me what I had seen on my floor, whether anybody was still up there, and whether the floor was still intact. I said when I left it was intact, nothing had collapsed or anything. And I know that he died because they were the first group up.”
Ideishi added, “They had so much gear on their backs … They took the express elevator to the 40th floor, I believe, and then they walked up the rest … They got to us pretty quickly, within 20-30 minutes, and some of them were so exhausted, they were perspiring like crazy and some of them were just collapsing from exhaustion on the steps. But their firemen brothers would just keep encouraging them, almost like a football team, and they would get up because they knew they had to … It’s hard to think about them all dying. It really is.”
Once Ideishi reached the ground floor, the first responders “made a corridor for us … because they wanted us to run a certain way. They didn’t want us all to just scatter. They wanted to funnel us through this one exit, the exit that went into the plaza right between the buildings.
“I didn’t know this then, but it was because most of the people that were jumping out the windows were jumping on the outsides of the buildings. They weren’t jumping into the middle of the plaza.”
Ideishi was told to go north, but didn’t know which way that was. Looking up the hill, “I saw this church. It had a black wrought-iron fence around it, and that was my target. So I started running towards that. But there were things on the ground, pools of water, different kinds of debris, and what I thought were pieces of desks because they were kind of bigger, and I was leaping over all of those.”
Meeting with some of his fellow survivors a year later, he was asked, “Did you see all the body parts in the plaza?” He was surprised to learn that the objects he had jumped over were not furniture. “Those were from the initial plane impact, and the bodies had been blown out of the building. Many of the body parts fell right in the plaza. They said there were body parts all over the place … I didn’t notice any of that …
“Once I reached the church and was running away from the buildings, there were people running the other way … trying to get closer and take a look. We had been told, ‘Don’t look back, don’t look up, just run. Just run north.’ So I didn’t look back.”
“I’m thankful that I wasn’t in the plaza looking around … which some people did,” Ideishi said. “There were also people that never left their rooms … Because of the previous bombing (in 1993), they had all been instructed … not to do anything until they got instructions from the PA system, where to go and when to go. But when the north tower was struck … it had cut everything off, so there was no PA system, there were no instructions given. Some people told me later that while they left, other people refused to go … They stayed on their floors and were still there when the building collapsed. Fortunately, I didn’t know any better and we all just ran.”
Kindness of Strangers
After being drenched by water from broken pipes as he left the building, Ideishi was coated with a thin film of dust as he walked to safety. “When a group of people saw me like that, they stopped me and they cleaned me up and they gave me water, food, offered to let me go up to their apartment and lie down. I was really touched by those people …
“I didn’t know the towers had collapsed until I met that group of people that took care of me … They said … ‘There’s no more towers.’ I said, ‘What?’ I turned around and you could see that big mushroom cloud, and that hit pretty hard. My knees kind of buckled when I realized I was in there.”
Ideishi wanted to get his benefactors’ contact information. “Unfortunately, we had to break up because there was kind of a panic right when we were talking. Someone was acting like he had a bomb and everybody just started panicking and running down the streets … so I never got their names.”
When he returned to New York a year later, Ideishi tried to find that neighborhood, without success. But he will always remember that despite New Yorkers’ reputation for not being helpful to strangers, “they were that day … and I’m grateful for that because I literally had no clue where to go, what to do.”
Ideishi returned to California by bus a few days after the attack. Although the ban on commercial flights had been lifted by then, “I wasn’t taking a flight. Getting on a plane, I couldn’t do that at the time. There was no way.”
Despite being safe and sound back home, he said, “for two or three months I had a really, really hard time sleeping. I was barely getting an hour or two a night. I just kept wanting to watch the news to see if there was any more information about what happened.”
The turning point was triggered by another disaster — the Nov. 12, 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587, which killed 260 people on the plane and five on the ground in Queens. It was widely assumed to be another terrorist attack, but was later attributed to pilot error.
“I remember seeing it on TV. It was 4 or 5 in the morning here,” Ideishi said. “I remember I just kind of let out a scream like ‘Oh, no!’ and I got in my car and I went and drove on the freeway. It was early in the morning, so there weren’t too many people out there. I just started screaming and saying some bad words that I shouldn’t repeat … After that I kind of cooled down, I came back home, sat down and I was better. I can’t explain it.”
He had spent the first couple of months seeing friends and relatives, who told him they were glad he survived. “But I never got the chance to just let it out, and I didn’t want to do it in front of my wife and children. That crash just spontaneously made me yell … If you want to say that’s post-traumatic (stress) syndrome, maybe, I don’t know.
“But the other thing I’ve tried to do is … focus on all the positive things. When I give talks, it’s always about the positive things that all the people did. That helps me get over it, too.”
Going back to New York a year later was also a step forward. “I literally almost left the gate because I didn’t want to get on that plane … But I did and I’m glad I did because … I met the people I was with that day and we all sat around a table and started talking about many different things, what happened that day, how it affected our families, how it affected us. And that was good, it was really good.”
Even people who were on the same floor had different stories, he said, noting that a group of women who left immediately “were on the 11th floor when they saw the firemen and I was on the 40-somethingth, so they were like 30 floors ahead of me. We probably left the stairwell within a minute of each other … So everybody had a different experience coming down those stairs and after they got out of the building.”
Many of those who had worked at the WTC were unemployed, Ideishi added. “Some of the people that I saw when I went back there, they were having a really tough time getting along because … they couldn’t find another job. There weren’t any jobs to be had. So the aftermath hurt as well.”
Since the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, Ideishi has often been asked, “Aren’t you glad he’s dead?” His response: “If it helps to stop other terrorist attacks, yeah, I guess so. But it’s bigger than one person … Killing one person is not going to stop it. There are still so many people out there who feel wronged … so many misunderstandings between different peoples and cultures.”
Telling His Story
Ideishi has told his story at public gatherings many times over the past decade. “I did a lot at the first-year (anniversary), I did a lot at the five-year, and I’ve done a lot this year. In between it would be sporadic.”
He spoke at a “Salute to Freedom” event in Dinuba in June and a scholarship dinner at the Venice Japanese Community Center and a Sacramento Barons youth camp over the Labor Day weekend.
Requests come from a variety of organizations, he said. “Japanese American and Asian American groups, community groups, church groups, sports groups … all up and down the state … Civic groups here in L.A. … Rotary Clubs, Elks Clubs, City of Torrance Cultural Arts Center, different things like that.”
When asked if it bothers him to recount his experiences over and over, he says no. “I’m alive, I’m here to talk about it, and I know people over here want to know what happened because it was so far away.”
He donated his computer bag — which he often used during his presentations — to the Japanese American National Museum, where it was recently displayed as part of the “American Tapestry” exhibition. And he distributes booklets containing detailed accounts that he wrote for the Rafu Shimpo.
Ideishi, who was interviewed at the Rafu offices on Friday, said he planned to spend the 10th anniversary quietly. “I’m just coming off three weeks of talks in a row on the weekends, so amazingly, this weekend I’m off … I’m going to go stay in a hotel by myself so I can watch the ceremonies by myself, without my family there … Sometimes I’m perfectly fine, other times it kind of hits me, but I’m going to … just kind of hide out.”
On Monday he was scheduled to give a talk at his younger daughter’s high school, at the principal’s request.
“I feel better, trying to make sure people don’t forget what happened, don’t forget the people that died, don’t forget all the heroes,” Ideishi said. His message at youth events: “I think you’ll surprise yourself if you’re in the same situation. I think you’ll do the right thing. In fact, I know you will.”
He tells Japanese American youth that while the events of 9/11 may seem distant, “you do have a connection through me because I’m just like you. I went to Japanese school, I went to the church, I went to community center, I ate gohan every day just like you guys … I played in all these tournaments, I played CBO, CYC and all that too, just like you guys …
“So don’t think you’re not part of what happened there … Because I happened to be there, you are connected to what happened.”
Ideishi reflected, “Some of the bad things fade away… but you remember all the good things that people did, how you’re very lucky to be here. It’s impacted me that way. I think I’m a better person for it. I think I’ve been a little more community-oriented … I feel an obligation because of that.”