Public Buildings Service
General Services Administration
New York, New York
Helped evacuate 6 World Trade Center despite great personal risk and would not leave the building until he was satisfied that no one was left behind.
Nelson Palma’s first instinct upon learning that a plane had struck the World Trade Center was to leave the safety of his nearby office for the chaos engulfing the complex that was home to a building he managed. First, he had to make sure that people in his building – 6 World Trade Center – were safe. He called his building management team and together they decided to immediately evacuate the building. Ten minutes later, it was almost entirely empty.
As Palma approached 6 World Trade Center moments later, the chaotic scene seemed surreal to him. He had been involved in the evacuation of the same building after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. He couldn’t believe it was happening again.
He entered the building through a garage and asked a remaining security guard if all other occupants had indeed left the building. He was told that a few Customs Agents had stayed behind – the building housed an area where the US Customs Agency kept contraband from search and seizure operations and agents were reluctant to leave their posts even in emergencies.
Palma took an elevator to the 8th floor to make sure all personnel had evacuated, pausing momentarily to call his wife. She pleaded with him to leave the building. He told her not to worry, but he recognized that he was in a dangerous situation. “I have to do what I have to do and do it fast,” he thought.
His instincts were right. The second plane struck the south tower as he searched for stragglers. Now acutely aware that he and anyone else still in the building were in immediate peril, he continued his sweep, evacuating a couple of people and ensuring that cafeteria stoves and hazardous equipment in the Customs Lab were shut down to prevent fires.
Palma then returned to the building’s command center, finally seeing through bloodstained windows the horrible scene of raging fires, and body, plane and building fragments enveloping the World Trade Center complex. As he made his way down to the lobby, he found the remaining security guard and the building’s fire safety director, the first tower collapsed, plunging them into total darkness.
Palma later said that in that chilling moment all he could think about was his wife and two young children. He was also happy he wasn’t alone. “I needed to get out,” he remembered. “But I was glad to be with another person and we knew we had to stay together.”
He also knew the precise layout of the building, including exit locations. “I knew that I could not use the two nearest exits because they would lead us right into the falling rubble and debris,” he said. He and the security guard and fire safety director traveled 200 feet in total darkness to another exit. “I remembered that there was some construction going on on that side of the building and that there was scaffolding that might shield us from falling debris so we exited there.”
They split up and Palma eventually made his way back to his office to assist at the General Services Administration’s (GSA) newly fashioned command center. He later worked as part of the GSA team that helped provide temporary and permanent housing for several agencies displaced in the attacks. Within hours of the catastrophe, he helped outfit the Emergency Operations Center with telephones, copying and fax machines, printers and other needed office supplies. Karl Reichelt, GSA’s Northeast Regional Administrator, recognized Palma’s effective collaboration in a time of unfathomable crisis: “This could only have been accomplished with the extraordinary teamwork that Nelson was an important part of.”
Nelson Palma took the initiative to ensure that others were unharmed even though that meant putting his life on the line. These are the actions of a dedicated public servant who placed a devotion to duty ahead of his own safety. The former police officer and EMT put it simply: “Someplace in your brain you know that’s what you’ve got to do. It’s ingrained.”