Frozen in Time: Wristwatch Tells Tale of Survival

Frozen in Time: Wristwatch Tells Tale of Survival

Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum, Gift of Tom Canavan in memory of the survivors as well as the fallen on 9/11/01. Photo by Jin Lee, 9/11 Memorial

Time stands frozen on the dust-coated, battery-operated and water-resistant men's wristwatch. The glass watch face has some dried blood residue from its owner, Tom Canavan, who survived one of the most tragic days in New York City history.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Canavan went to work as a securities specialist for Unity Bank on the 47th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. When Flight 11 slammed into the northeast face of the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., Canavan felt the entire building shake.

As a survivor of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Canavan immediately knew something was wrong and ordered his co-workers to evacuate down the building stairwell while he stayed behind to put securities into the vault. He was descending the stairwell when the second plane hit the South Tower. After stopping only once to pour water over an exhausted firefighter’s head, Canavan made his way down to the plaza.

Once out of the building, Canavan remembers feeling “a huge rush of air straight down, just like what I would imagine a wind tunnel was like, and the sound of a locomotive but one thousand times that noise.” The South Tower had collapsed.

Canavan survived the collapse but found himself buried underneath the wreckage. While attempting to climb above the rubble to safety, Canavan felt someone grab his leg. It was a security officer from the building. He and Canavan crawled an estimated 40 feet east and then another 30 feet up before they found a pinhole of light.

“[It was like] being in the eye of a hurricane. I could see blue skies straight up, but everything around me was swirling,” Canavan recalled after emerging from the rubble on Vesey Street.

While escaping up the street, he felt that familiar and terrifying rush of air again — the North Tower had fallen. Moments after making it to safety, his bloodied face and calm demeanor was captured by journalists. An iconic photo of Canavan is part of the Museum’s historical exhibition, wordless proof of how his watch became marred with blood.      

Today, Canavan is still very involved in the 9/11 community. Years after 9/11, he donated the watch he wore that day to the 9/11 Memorial Museum and currently works as the facilities dispatcher at the museum. When asked about that day, Canavan simply replies, “You get over the loss, but you never forget.” 

By Jared Lee, 9/11 Memorial Marketing Intern