Pasquale Buzzelli was going down the stairwell of the north tower at the World Trade Center when he felt the whole building moving. Suddenly, he was free-falling in the middle of rubble, smoke and people.
How could anyone survive that? Twenty years ago, the world was shaken.
On September 11th, 2001, four planes were hijacked by the extremist group al Qaeda and used to attack the United States. Two planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The third plane hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and the fourth plane hit a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Nearly 3,000 people died from those attacks. But hidden amongst all that tragedy, there are incredible stories of survival. Today we’ll look at three stories of people who survived the falling of the Twin Towers due to their courage, the hands of a stranger, or just sheer luck.
Where was the safest place inside the towers? Why is one survivor known as “The Surfer”? And how did calling 9-1-1 end up killing people?
According to the Federal Building and Fire Safety investigation, 99% of the individuals below the points of impact in both towers survived. But for those above the impact point, it was a lottery. In the middle of all this chaos, some people were trying to escape while others were coming in to rescue them. And in our first story, the people being rescued help the rescuers make it out alive.
Number 3. A lucky encounter
A crew of firefighters entered the north tower just before the plane crashed into the south tower. Each of the six men carried 45 kg (100 lbs) of gear. After evacuating people, they started going back down. Around the 20th floor they found Josephine Harris, a 59-year-old bookkeeper who had been making her way down from the 73rd floor.
She was exhausted. Rescuing her put the firefighters at risk, but they didn’t hesitate to help her. They continued down the stairs with Harris’s arm around one of the firefighters. But around the 4th floor, she collapsed and told them to leave her.
They didn’t abandon her. Instead, they all huddled together as the building came down on top of them, all one hundred floors of it. Luckily, stairway B was the safest place to be at that moment. It was the only one that had three supporting beams around it.
As the tower’s floors started to pancake on top of one another, the debris field around the building had spread widely, which helped distribute the weight of the collapsing building. If the firefighters hadn’t slowed down because of Harris, they wouldn’t have been at that safe spot when the floors above them collapsed. Eventually, they were able to climb through the rubble to safety. When the building collapsed, Pasquale Buzzelli was 20 floors above them. But we’ll get back to that.
Number 2. Blood Brothers
Brian Clark, the executive vice president of Euro Brokers, worked on the 84th floor of the south tower, and he was above where the plane hit the building. And right before he would have entered stairway C, he had a strange feeling that pushed him toward stairway A.
On the 81st floor, he heard someone calling. It was Stanley Praimnath, who had watched the plane hit the building. He was trapped under rubble. Clark went to find the man and told him to climb over the sheetrock wall that separated them.
After a first failed try, Praimnath scrambled up the wall. Clark grabbed him and pulled him over the wall. They fell to the floor and introduced themselves. Praimnath recalls Clark saying, “All my life I’ve lived as an only child. I always wanted a brother, and today I found that person. From today, you’re my blood brother”. And Clark rubbed their wounded hands together.
They continued their escape as Brian shone his flashlight down the stairs. He only saw smoke, no flames. They had to push their way through the rubble. They got out of the building just before it collapsed. Before watching our last story, let’s see what helped our first two cases to survive.
In both examples, the most important lesson is to take the stairs, never the elevator. Staircases are usually reinforced. But elevators could get stuck or fall at high speed. In “A Lucky Encounter” and “Brothers of Destiny,” taking the stairs right away allowed the people to survive and help others.
And even in the most challenging conditions, there are some ways to increase your chances of surviving. Use your shirt or a piece of cloth to cover your mouth and nose. This will help you avoid inhaling smoke, dust and debris.
Do not shout or scream unless you know there are people nearby looking for you. Shouting can exhaust you quickly, and it causes you to inhale more dust, debris or toxic fumes. But even if you do everything right, sometimes all you need is a bit of luck. This brings us to our last story.
Number 1. The Concrete Surfer
Now, let’s go back to 34-year-old engineer Pasquale Buzzelli. He was working on the 64th floor of the north tower when the attacks happened. He didn’t evacuate right away since the building security staff instructed people to wait. Many 911 callers got the same directive since it is the protocol for high-rise fire scenarios.
But sadly, it meant that many people would die because they should have left as soon as they could have. At 10 a.m., Buzzelli called his wife, who was seven months pregnant. He said not to worry because he and his fellow employees were about to head down stairwell B.
He looked down the stairwell, and it was smoke-free. He led about one dozen other people down the narrow stairwell. When they got to the 22nd floor, they felt the building shake. He dove into the corner as he heard the sounds of objects falling. Then he felt like he was free-falling.
Two hours later, he woke up and found himself on top of a massive piece of concrete. He felt numb, and there was nothing above him but the sky. He had fallen almost 15 stories on top of that piece of concrete, which got him his “9/11 Surfer” nickname.
There was rubble and smoke everywhere. Buzzelli heard fire and explosions. His right leg was painful, which helped him realize that he was not dead. The rescuers worked to reach him through the fires. Eventually, he was put on a stretcher because he could no longer walk. He had a fractured foot.
After getting out, he called his wife at about 3:30 PM. When their daughter was born, they named her Hope. Despite the hardest conditions, plenty of people chose to help others even though they put themselves at risk. Many did not survive, but will always be remembered as heroes. Now, after 9/11, you are less likely to be a victim of such massive terrorist attacks.
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- “On 9/11, Luck Meant Everything”. Graff, Garrett. 2019. The Atlantic.
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- “Miracles of 9/11 A World Trade Center Stairway | Miracle Detectives | The Oprah Winfrey Network” 2021. youtube.com.
- “The Sept. 11 saviour and the Saved”. Paul Hunter. 2016. thestar.com.
- “9/11 Stories: Stanley Praimnath And Brian Clark”. 2011. BBC News.