Stairwell A

Illustration by Kevin Hand

Paths to Safety
Brian Clark, executive vice-president at Euro Brokers.
Richard Fern, an IT manager at Euro Brokers
Ron DiFrancesco, a money-market broker at Euro Brokers
Stanley Praimnath, an executive at Fuji Bank
1. Eighty-fourth floor offices of Euro Brokers: Clark took Stairwell A, along with DiFrancesco and a handful of others. After fleeing a burning elevator, Fern also hit the stairs here.
2. Clark and DiFrancesco stopped at the 81st floor to help free Praimnath, who was trapped. Meanwhile, others from the group decided to join some others going up. Praimnath and Clark proceeded down together, making it out with five minutes to spare. By that time, Fern was already out.
3. After stopping on the 81st floor, DiFrancesco decided to go up; he ascended to the 91st floor, then turned around.
4. DiFrancesco paused around the 80th floor, gasping for air, but made it out just as the building crumbled.

When the first plane hit the North Tower, all three of the building’s stairwells were instantly blocked for the 1,356 people above the impact line of the 92nd floor. There was no way out, except the windows. But when the second plane hit floors 78 through 84 of the South Tower, one of that building’s three stairways briefly remained passable. Stairwell A was in the tower’s northwest corner, as far as it could have been from the second plane’s impact. Dozens of people tried to leave through Stairwell A, but many went up, not down, and still others didn’t make it out before the building crumbled (the South Tower was the first to fall). Only four people who were above the 81st floor when the plane hit ultimately were able to use Stairwell A to escape—each of them beating the worst possible odds of survival that day.

Brian Clark was a 54-year-old executive vice-­president at Euro Brokers, a brokerage firm on the 84th floor. He also was one of the floor’s volunteer fire marshals. At first he urged people to leave, but he and many others stayed. As he recalled later to PBS, “The very familiar voice, the one we heard all the time, came over the system and said, ‘Building Two is secure. There is no need to evacuate Building Two.’ ” He was near his office on the west side of the building when the second plane hit. He felt the building sway, then right itself. A wing of the plane had sliced through Euro ­Brokers’ trading floor, destroying it and sending the office into chaos. Stairwell A was close by, but so were B and C. He said he selected A randomly. The flashlight he had as a fire marshal came in handy, since the emergency lighting system was not working. At the 81st floor, others came up from below, claiming there was fire and more smoke, and the group started arguing about whether to go up or down. Clark turned to a colleague, Ron DiFrancesco, and suggested they investigate a muffled voice emanating from behind a collapsed wall. They left the stairwell and Clark freed Stanley Praimnath, then 44, an employee of Fuji Bank. By the time Praimnath was out, the others had gone up, and Clark and Praimnath decided to proceed down.

DiFrancesco, then 37, instead went up to the 91st floor but the doors were locked, so he decided to try to head down again. “I was panicked,” he later said. “I wanted to see my wife and kids again.” On the 79th or 80th floor, the smoke began to overwhelm him, and he paused with a group of others, laid on the floor, and gasped for air. DiFrancesco said a force or spirit led him back to the stairway, encouraging him to keep heading down. “For the grace of God,” he said, “somebody led me out.” The building collapsed just as he exited. The last thing he remembers seeing is a large fireball. He awoke three days later at St. Vincent’s, suffering from extensive burns and a head laceration.

Clark and Praimnath remember running into one colleague of Clark’s who was continuing up, and a security guard tending to an injured person on the 44th floor; they stopped on the 31st floor to call their wives and then 911 to alert rescuers to the person on the 44th floor. As they kept walking down the stairs, Praimnath was increasingly concerned that the building would collapse. They made it out with five minutes to spare.

Richard Fern, then 39, an IT manager at Euro ­Brokers, had just boarded an elevator to leave as the second plane hit. He was thrown against the wall and fled the cab as flames shot around it, heading to an unlit Stairwell A. Because of his job, he had a two-way radio, and listened helplessly to co-­workers who were trapped inside the building. He heard one of the company’s security men, Jerry Banks, calling another co-worker, Dave Vera. “Dave was still in the building telling Jerry that there was a lot of smoke and to send help,” Fern recalled for the Times. Banks made it out; Vera did not.

In 2006, a year after Euro Brokers merged with another company, Clark retired. He had presided over the firm’s 9/11 relief fund (Euro Brokers lost 61 people). He said that his experience that day “taught me very much not to worry about the future. I don’t count on the future happening the way people plan it.” He has called the last ten years “a gift.” He and Praimnath consider each other blood brothers; Praimnath and his wife, Jenny, sat at Clark’s table at Clark’s daughter’s wedding.

Praimnath, who left Fuji Bank in 2007 for the Royal Bank of Scotland, spends much of his spare time speaking at schools and to church groups. “My goal is to help people understand that regardless of the circumstance, God is able to do all things,” he said. He has become credentialed as a pastor with the Assemblies of God church.

Fern left the former Euro Brokers in 2008, and now works for another firm. He’s not in regular touch with the other three survivors. “It’s funny,” he said. “We always say we should get together every year on the anniversary. It just stopped happening.” He finds what happened that day easier to talk about now, but never easy. “You start seeing the planes again.”

DiFrancesco and his family moved to Toronto, their hometown, in the summer of 2002. Going back to work at Euro Brokers, which had moved to 199 Water Street, wasn’t difficult for him, but it was for his kids, who were 8 and 10. “They’d be sitting by the window wondering every day if I was coming home,” he said. “It was no way for us to live.” Having spent twelve days in the hospital and months recovering, DiFrancesco has more physical scars than the others. “I have a big gash on my head that hasn’t healed very well. I still have problems with my hips and my back. But you know, I’ve got ten more years now, so I’m fortunate.” He doesn’t like to talk about what happened much. “I just think of the families—my colleagues, their spouses—seeing me out there. I’ve had a few people question me about their spouses, and that’s been tough.”

From the archives
The Miracle Survivors (New York Magazine, September 15, 2003)

Stairwell A