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The Miracle Survivors

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And that was the last thing Buzzelli wanted. In his family room, Pasquale sits in a club chair, in the same position, he points out, as he’d found himself on that slab of concrete. He’s twenty pounds heavier. It had taken him a long time to decide to talk about this again, and he speaks haltingly. “When I think about that day, I start to feel the emotions I felt that day,” he says, and that’s not good. “I can’t go through a whole day like that,” he says. “I need to forget. And I can’t forget.”

For a long time, Buzzelli wanted to be left alone—most of the survivors did. Billy Butler, who got himself a tattoo—a tattered flag and the date, 9-11-01—would go upstairs when he got home, turn on the TV, ignore his wife and kids. “It’s not a deliberate self-absorption,” explains Komorowski. “You’re just trying to battle to keep yourself together on a day-to-day basis.”

Buzzelli didn’t really want to talk at all. “I was so emotionally drained,” he says, “I just wanted to sit down, watch a movie, not talk to anyone.” He’d started seeing a therapist. “So I can move on,” he says. “And here I was being brought back by Louise. It’s reliving the day you almost died, should have died.”

Louise couldn’t quite fathom her husband’s change. “He always had something going on, some plan,” she says. “It’s not like that anymore.”

“I’m more relaxed,” says Buzzelli.

“More passive,” says Louise. “He’s more like, ‘Whatever, if it happens, it happens.’ ” Louise felt otherwise. She seemed energized by her new mission. She says, “It made me feel alive again.”

Their lives moved in different directions. Was it possible that, against all odds, her husband had survived only to have his marriage come apart? “Pasquale and I weren’t really communicating anymore,” says Louise. “We were disagreeing on so many things. We were not the same couple anymore. It was almost tearing us apart.”

Still, Louise was intent on organizing a Mother’s Day celebration for these new mothers and recent widows. “I needed to know that these mothers knew that somebody felt what they felt,” she says. She set out to track them down. “Every time I got to speak to or e-mail one more,” she says, “it was like, okay, I could breathe a little easier.”

“Why aren’t we happy? As opposed to feeling that at any moment, it could be totally gone again?”

Louise knew that thinking about September 11 pained Buzzelli. Oh, my God, I’m killing my husband, she thought. Still, she wanted him to tell his story to the media, to help publicize the foundation. “We’re together, we have a baby,” she pleaded with him. “These people don’t have that.”

“I wanted to do it,” Buzzelli says. He wrestled with her request. He didn’t think of himself as the type to mope. He couldn’t remember being afraid of anything. “She felt it was something she had to do, but it was painful to talk about,” Buzzelli says. He decided to give her a day. “I felt like, ‘Who am I to say no?’ ” he says. There were a couple newspaper articles, and Channel 11 did a nice report. Then Buzzelli said, “Don’t ask me to do another thing.” Louise remembers, “Peter Jennings called. Pasquale didn’t talk to him.”

Louise raised $10,000 and distributed it this year at a Mother’s Day luncheon. She gave 50 mothers $200 in the name of their babies, a nice gift, and, for Louise, a tremendous relief.

“When she had her Song for Hope thing, it was a really nice day,” Buzzelli says. “I couldn’t be there. I felt like I would make the mothers feel bad. How can they not feel bad?”

On stairwell B, after the noise of collapse—one fireman said he heard each floor come down, like a drum roll—the narrow space was quiet and almost completely dark. Dust and ash clogged the air. The walls—when flashlights were retrieved—appeared mostly intact, which made the space, as one recalls, “claustrophobic and dreamlike and terrifying.” One fireman shimmied out of his coat and laid it on top of Harris. There wasn’t much talk. A couple guys tried a door. Some stayed on their backs, lethargic, half buried, worried that any movement would trigger a secondary collapse. Entombed was the word that came to Jonas’s mind. He figured that hundreds of feet of rubble lay on top of them.

The highest-ranking officer in the stairwell was Chief Richard Picciotto. After helping clear the nonambulatory from higher floors, Chief Pitch, as he was called, had given the order to evacuate. Then he’d raced down the stairs. He’d landed on his back, a couple floors below Jonas, buried under half a foot of pebbles and dust. Picciotto and Jonas had been pals for years. They lived a few minutes from each other and had studied together for Fire Department tests. “It’s better to die with a friend than a stranger,” Picciotto would later say.

It wasn’t an idle thought. Above and below them, they knew, firemen were dying. They knew that because they broadcast their final words over their walkie-talkies. Chief Richard Prunty said he was in the lobby, pinned under an I-beam, and losing consciousness. “Tell my wife and kids I love them,” he said into his radio. Jonas picked up a Mayday from the lieutenant of Ladder Five, who reported that he was in Stairwell B on the 12th floor. Jonas had passed him on the way down, helping a civilian. “I’m trapped and I’m hurt bad,” he said. Jonas, who was on the fourth floor, tried to climb the stairs but couldn’t ascend more than a floor, and in any case, as he’d later learn, the stairwell had no 12th floor. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” he radioed back.

Meanwhile, Jonas and Picciotto radioed their own Maydays. Brother firefighters picked up the distress calls. “We’re in the North Tower,” Jonas radioed. “Where’s the North Tower?” came the reply. Eventually, a slender shaft of light saved them. It would turn out that the stairwell—five flights of it—hadn’t been completely buried. It poked up through the rubble like a chimney. They’d been entombed as much by the smoke and ash clouds as by the debris, and when light broke through an opening in the top of the stairwell, they followed it out, Picciotto in the lead.

Thirteen people would eventually climb out. (Harris would be lifted.) More than 100 floors had fallen on top of them, and after a few hours, this group simply walked out. They were a fortunate handful united by a singular experience. Then, eight months later, Picciotto’s book came out. (“We should write a book,” he’d told his friend Jonas a few days after they climbed out. “Write a book?” Jonas replied. “I can barely get out of bed.”) Picciotto’s Last Man Down became a best-seller.

It would also end his friendship with Jonas—“It’s a very bad book,” says Jonas—and whatever camaraderie he shared that day with the others from Ladder Six. “We don’t speak to him,” says Komorowski. “Liar,” Butler wrote in his copy of the book.

In the scheme of things, this is perhaps a minor intramural scrap. Still, in a sense, history is at issue—who gets credit or blame, and also, maybe, who sleeps well. And so, fueled no doubt by the potent emotions that swirl around that day, there is competition over details—who spotted the shaft of light, who took roll call—which adds up to who was a hero that day. (“It depends who you ask,” says Picciotto.)

“It was part of my personality to take charge of a situation,” Picciotto writes. “I’d never been the type to sit idly by while someone else called the shots, and I wasn’t about to start now.”

“Picciotto was the highest-ranking guy, but he was not the commanding officer. He was doing nothing. He was balled up in a corner,” says Jonas.

In his first days at home, when Picciotto, now 52, couldn’t sleep, he dictated his memories into a tape recorder. Writing the book, and its success, probably helped Chief Pitch get clear of the worst effects. “It was cathartic,” he says. The book also provided a financial cushion. Picciotto retired after almost 30 years as a firefighter.

The book is an account of Picciotto’s day, and he did a lot that day. Yet in some instances, he seems to have gotten carried away. He writes that he matched Josephine Harris with Jonas’s company, Ladder Six. “There was something about Josephine that seemed deserving of my extra special attention,” he writes. But Harris doesn’t remember Chief Pitch. And Jonas and Butler know they came upon Harris alone in the stairwell. Picciotto also writes that he was running the show in Stairwell B. But many of the firemen seem to have taken their orders from Jonas that day. “He writes about us like we’re lemmings, like Please, Rich Picciotto, save us,” says Jonas.


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