On the 8th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, 9/11 survivor Charles Santos recalls the guardian angels that saved him and the loss he can never forget
Charles Santos is an elegant man with an air of easy sophistication. His thick silver hair frames his Richard Gere good looks, and he dresses in a distinctly high-end manner than that straddles the line between professional and artsy. You could perceive him as a man with no worries in the world.
You’d be way off.
Santos agreed to meet at Buli a few days before the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which he lived through. Santos is a 9/11 survivor.
"My arrival here became much more about being a 9/11 survivor than my resume. I’m amazed how your geography on a particular date becomes part of your identity," he says.
In the summer of 2001, Santos had just been tapped to serve as the executive director of TITAS, the arts organization that brings dance and music productions to North Texas. The new job meant stepping down from his post as managing director and producer of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which officed in Tower 5 of the World Trade Center complex but which had studios on the 92nd floor of Tower 1.
On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Santos was headed for a meeting at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th floor of the North Tower. But he also needed to prepare for a show that night with dancer David Parsons as part of their Evening Stars festival.
"Lot of things kept me from that meeting," he says, his voice cracking subtly at the memory. "I had little guardian angels. I was supposed to be at a morning breakfast meeting at 7:30 at the top of the center. Because we had a show that night, my boss said ‘Don’t come in, you’re doing the show. I’ll take care of it.’ I left later [than I would have] and the planes hit right when I was leaving my apartment."
By the time he had arrived at Ground Zero, the second plane had hit and was scurrying to find his staff. They had all evacuated after the first plane struck, but two artists had spent the night in their studios. Only one was able to make it down to safety.
Santos’ story is transfixing, drawing his listener closer to the disaster. The cafÃ© is loud, but all I can hear is Santos’ voice relating the horrific events.
He uses the word "surreal" often to describe his experience. The images he conjures support that: Lines at payphones stretching a block-and-a-half and walking over cars while completely covered in gray soot are seared into our collective consciousness, but Santos’ first-person proximity to it all makes the story more chilling.
"When the first tower came down, everyone was screaming. It was all so fast. All you could do was run. The cloud took us over in a matter of seconds and then it became deadly quiet. You couldn’t breathe to scream. We couldn’t see; we were walking with our hands on buildings. It’s a weird memory for me right now," he says.
Santos recalls going to friends’ houses to clean up, use the phone and begin making his way to his partner, Rick.
"I realize hours are passing. The city was on lockdown so there was no mass transit. I remember being so happy to see Rick. When I finally got home, I went through this weird period of making phone calls telling people I’m not dead," he says.
Eight years later, he is still with Rick and is still with TITAS. And he holds his head high, though the experience lingers.
"It’s not something I think about every day but I do take things for granted less," he says. "I don’t, however, believe in living in paranoia. Also, I’ve given myself permission to be emotional about it."
As the infamous anniversary swings back around, Santos admits to getting a little sad, but he also says he’ll watch the specials on TV — something his partner doesn’t like to do.
"He gets mad at me for doing that. But it’s important to remember," Santos says. "I have a renewed appreciation for veterans now. But, life goes on."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 11, 2009.