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The Miracle Survivors

In Stairwell B of the North Tower, 16 people lived amid the avalanche of concrete and steel. But surviving was only the start of their struggle.


Back From the Dead: Louise and Pasquale Buzzelli with their baby, Hope.  

Just three months after the World Trade Center collapsed on top of him, Pasquale Buzzelli, a brawny 34-year-old structural engineer, returned to his desk at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Buzzelli, a numbers person used to calculating risk, still hadn’t been able to comprehend what happened to him. “When you start to think about the numbers,” he says, “it doesn’t really seem possible that I’m alive.” Still, he told himself, “Shrug it off, move on, get back in the saddle.”

Buzzelli’s office had been on the 64th floor of the North Tower. At about 10 a.m. on September 11, 2001, he’d phoned his wife for the second time that morning. “Don’t worry,” he said. She was seven months pregnant and at their home in Rivervale, New Jersey. She’d been watching on the giant TV in their family room—she’d turned it on after his first phone call. He assured her that he and a dozen other employees were about to head down Stairwell B. He’d investigated. It was free of smoke. Buzzelli took the lead, his briefcase over his shoulder. It was slow going. The stairs were narrow, and clogged with people.

Then, as he reached the 22nd floor, the building shook, stairs started to heave. It sounded to Buzzelli like heavy objects were being dropped right above his head. The sound got louder, closer. He dove into a corner. “I felt the walls next to me crack and buckle on top of me,” he says. Suddenly, he seemed to be in free fall, and the walls seemed to separate and move away from him.

Maybe two hours later, he regained consciousness on a slab of concrete 180 feet below the 22nd floor. (He may be the source of the rumor that someone surfed the collapse and lived.) He was atop a hill of rubble in the midst of an endless field of rubble, smoke, and fire, sitting as if in an armchair, his feet dangling over the edge. His bag was gone. He felt numb. The air was thick with smoke and dust. He heard explosions.

Buzzelli, who is six two, 270 pounds (just that morning, he’d decided to join Weight Watchers), looked around and thought, I’m dead. His right leg, though, was in pain, a sign, he understood, that he was alive. He pulled his shirt over his face to breathe. He shouted for help. A little later, a fireman appeared a short distance below.

“Holy shit, guys, we have a civilian up there,” the fireman called. For a few minutes, a raging fire drove rescuers away. Buzzelli looked around for something sharp. He didn’t want to die by burning alive. Soon, though, half a dozen firefighters reached Buzzelli and led him across the debris field, a rope around his waist. He slid down mangled beams, then, when he could no longer climb, the firemen passed him along on a stretcher, talking to keep him conscious. One fireman said, “Man, you are a heavy fuck. What’s your name?”

By December 2001, though still on crutches—he’d suffered a fractured foot—Buzzelli thought he should get back to his job. He’d grown up in Jersey City, son of Italian immigrants, had won a scholarship to Cooper Union, and had immediately been hired by the Port Authority.

The building was pancaking down, blasting air down the stairwell. The wind lifted Komorowski off his feet.

He didn’t believe in therapy. It seemed like babying himself. “You feel stupid even talking about September 11,” he says. “How are the people who lost a loved one supposed to feel? If I were them, I’d say, ‘What the hell are you talking about? You’re alive. What bad days do you have?’ ” Buzzelli loved his job; the Port Authority had always been like a big family for him. Port Authority had lost 84 employees. People were happy to see a survivor.

Buzzelli, though, had trouble fitting in. “I couldn’t understand certain things,” he says. “Things I would have brushed off or discussed rationally before. I would just lose it. One time, I punched the wall.” Buzzelli had little practice at being emotional. “Before, I hardly ever cried,” he says, “and that’s one of the problems now. Talking about the people with me that died, I get choked up, I can’t control it at all.”

At work, there were constant reminders of those people. He developed an ulcer. He’d have nightmares, not about the collapse but about being trapped in an elevator—again and again. “There was something definitely wrong with me,” he says. After a short time, Buzzelli had to take a leave. For the next seven months, he mostly sat in a chair in front of the TV or by the pool, trying to get his head together.

“People think it ended when my husband walked through the door alive,” says Buzzelli’s wife, Louise. “That’s when it began for us. You can’t understand why you feel so bad when you should feel so elated. You can’t make sense of anything.”

To an extent, we are all survivors. One study asserted that 17 percent of the entire United States population outside New York reported symptoms like nightmares, sleeplessness, and anxiety in the days after September 11. Still, the more intense the exposure, the greater its effect. So for every non–New Yorker who suffered, almost three New Yorkers reported symptoms. And the closer that New Yorker was to the Trade Center, the more he felt it. You could measure the difference in blocks. People below Canal Street reported symptoms at almost three times the rate of those below 110th Street. If this is true, then the most intense experience of survival was had by sixteen who experienced almost incomprehensible luck that day. These people—a bookkeeper, an office temp, an engineer, a Port Authority cop, and twelve firemen—survived despite having the World Trade Center collapse on top of them.

For them, surviving has proved to be a complicated task. As one survivor’s wife explains, “Everyone else feels like 9/11 was a long time ago. I still feel like we are stuck on September 12, not really able to move beyond it.” And, as she inevitably reminds herself, they are the lucky ones.

Sixteen people survived inside the collapse of the World Trade Center, and they were all in Stairwell B of the North Tower, in the center of the building. The survivors were spread out between floors 22 and 1. A step or two slower meant death, but so, too, did a step or two faster. Captain Jay Jonas and five of his firefighters from Ladder Six, based in Chinatown, had been on the 27th floor of the North Tower when they heard a rumble, felt the staircase sway, watched as the lights flickered off and on. A captain from another company let Jonas know the cause of the disturbance: The South Tower had just collapsed.

“I’m pulling the plug,” Jonas said, and gave the order to evacuate. He didn’t tell his men why; they didn’t know that the South Tower was gone. “For me, that was the scariest point,” said Jonas. “I’m thinking, We’re not going to make it out.

Each firefighter carried close to 100 pounds of equipment that day, but Jonas, a stickler for regulations, wasn’t about to let them drop any of it. Still, they moved down the stairs at a good pace. Matty Komorowski was last in line, and not worried. “We had a building around us. Everything was fine. It was clear as a bell.”

On about the twentieth floor, they ran into Josephine Harris, a heavyset, 59-year-old bookkeeper who’d worked at the Port Authority for six months. Harris had a limp, but she bulled ahead. She was stubborn that way. Just a few months before, she’d been hit by a car. “My back went up in the air,” she says. “I came down on my side.” Still, she’d signed herself out of the hospital that same day. “I put a brace on my leg and went on about my business,” she says, matter-of-factly reassuring herself, “It’s not my time yet.” On September 11, with one good leg, she’d already made it down 50 floors.

Catching sight of the limping Harris, firefighter Billy Butler looked at another firefighter, who looked at Jonas. “What do you want to do with her, Cap?”

Jonas lives in Goshen, New York, just over an hour from his firehouse, and tends to take emergencies in stride—he delivered two of his three kids in the backseat of his car. That day, Jonas was, at 43, the oldest of his firemen. Among them, they had more than half a dozen young children. Others had already run down the narrow stairway by Harris. Would anyone have blamed Jonas if he had left her to struggle on alone, if he had chosen six lives over one?

“That’s not in the culture of the Fire Department,” Jonas would say. “If somebody needs help, we got to give it a shot. It wasn’t a difficult decision.”

“We got to bring her with us,” he told his company. By that point, Harris could barely stand. Butler, short, barrel-chested, the company’s strongest man, put her arm over his shoulder. The company’s pace slowed to Harris’s.

Then, on the fifth floor, Harris stopped. She wasn’t thinking of dying, she’d later say. She was simply exhausted.

Jonas hustled off to look for a chair (he couldn’t find one). They’d carry her down. That’s when Port Authority officer David Lim ran into Jonas. Lim, a canine officer, had locked his yellow Lab in the South Tower, promising to return, and run to the North Tower to help. Now he was racing down the stairs.

A Port Authority captain yelled at Lim to get moving, but he said, “You go ahead,” and he, too, put an arm around Harris, helping to carry her to the fourth floor.

That was when the wind started, even before the noise. “No one realizes about the wind,” says Komorowski.

The building was pancaking down from the top and, in the process, blasting air down the stairwell. The wind lifted Komorowski off his feet. “I was taking a staircase at a time,” he says, “It was a combination of me running and getting blown down.” Lim says Komorowski flew over him. Eight seconds later—that’s how long it took the building to come down—Komorowski landed three floors lower, in standing position, buried to his knees in pulverized Sheetrock and cement.

Lim landed near Harris. “If Josephine doesn’t slow me down, I’m dead,” he’d later say. “I figured this out.” That captain who’d urged Lim to go ahead didn’t make it. “Josephine Harris saved my life,” he says definitively. Harris landed on her side, clinging to the boot of Billy Butler.

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