Five Who Survived

Up, or down? Kelly Reyher stood in the crowded 78th-floor elevator lobby of World Trade Center 2 and pondered whether to retrieve his Palm handheld from his office, 22 stories above. It was just after 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001, and Reyher, a lawyer with Aon Risk Services, had been interrupted in mid-evacuation. Fifteen minutes earlier a Boeing 767 had flown into the North Tower, touching off a fireball that, across the 140 feet separating the buildings and through the windows on the 103d floor, still felt to one of Reyher's colleagues, Judy Wein, "like putting your head in an oven." Reyher and about 20 co-workers had set off down the stairs, then turned around after hearing an announcement that the South Tower was "secure" and workers could return to their offices.

They had emerged on 78, one of two "sky lobbies" where workers transferred between express elevators to the street and local cars serving the floors above. At that moment a second 767 was banking over New York Harbor on a course that would lead it to within 100 feet of where Reyher was standing. To anyone who could have seen the disaster in the making, the right decision was self-evident: go down. Reyher, 41, watched as his colleagues piled into a car headed for the street. Then he punched the button to go up.

Up or down, life or death. The two great fires in the sky touched off by the 9-11 terrorists swept everything before them--paper and plastic, concrete and steel, flesh and blood. At least 1,100 people were trapped on or above the floors where the planes struck--roughly from 78 and above in the South Tower, and 94 and up in the North. Some jumped to their death; others tried to reach the roof (which was locked) in hope of a rescue by helicopter (which authorities had ruled out anyway), or waited for emergency workers, who never reached them. But a tiny handful--fewer than 20, according to definitive surveys by USA Today and The New York Times--made their way down a smoke-filled and treacherous stairway in the South Tower to safety. Of the 17 still alive, 10 agreed to tell their stories to NEWSWEEK, some for the first time. The five shown here agreed to be photographed. They brought with them indelible memories of wrecked hallways lined with corpses, and a humbling awareness of how narrowly they slipped through the door to survival. Because those who lived weren't the smartest, or fittest, or best prepared, and as a group they were no more deserving of life than the firefighters who passed them on the stairs going up. The key to survival wasn't even as simple as knowing in which direction the street lay. Just ask Kelly Reyher.

What many of them recall is how dark it was afterward, and how still. There were, by various estimates, as many as 200 people crowding the sky lobby when the 767 smashed into the south face of Tower 2, flying in a steep bank that spanned seven stories. Wein, 45, was there with three colleagues from Aon and, in a separate group, Ling Young, 49, and Mary Jos, 53, college friends who worked together in the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. The blast wave from the plane's impact, channeled between the elevator banks, swept north up the central lobby where people were waiting, and leveled them. "I flew from one side of the floor to the other side," Young recalls. "When I got up I had to push things off me. I can't see because my glasses were filled with blood. I took them off, cleaned them very carefully, and I looked around and saw everybody lying there, not moving. It was like a flat land. Everybody was lying down."

With the initial impact, Wein went flying, too, and was airborne long enough to reflect on what a crummy, meaningless way to die this was. She landed on her right forearm, shattering the ulna almost beyond repair. Then, as the tower shuddered and snapped back to the vertical, she slid back across the floor in a jumble of debris, coming to a stop just short of an open elevator shaft through which she could see flames licking up from below. "I got up and walked to the people in my group, walking over bodies. They were all over. I sat down, and Howard [Kestenbaum], my boss, was flat on his back and motionless, and I believe he was not alive. I've known him for 23 years." She remembered that there was a communications desk in the middle of the floor and she went to find it, but it was gone, and the farther south she walked the more bodies she encountered. Men in suits sat amid the wreckage of marble walls and ceiling tile, crying softly. She walked back toward the north windows, where she could see papers fluttering from the burning North Tower, and she sat down on the floor to wait.

What she didn't know, and Young didn't know, was that they were only a few yards from safety. Of the three emergency stairs that ran down the South Tower, two were destroyed by the crash and useless from at least the 77th floor up. But one--Staircase A, the farthest from the impact, protected by the heavily reinforced machine room for the express elevators--was passable, although at times smoky and in places partially blocked by debris. "I didn't know where the staircase was," Wein says. "We were sitting there saying, 'Where is the staircase?' We were so close, but we didn't see it." But Jos, who had been separated from her friend Young, did know where it was. Jos has no memory of the impact itself, but remembers waking up a moment later, covered with the dust of crumbled wallboard. "I turn and look south toward the windows, and I see fire and my face feels like it is totally on fire," she says. "I turn back, and I feel like my back is on fire. I could hear nothing, absolutely nothing. The only people I saw were dead. But I remember a girl who worked for me would walk up to the 86th floor from 78, and there was a stairwell there. So I crawled to the stairwell." She was thinking, she says, of her husband, Dave, who had just retired and begun planning the house they were going to build on the North Fork of Long Island. "I just said, 'God, I can't die here. I can't leave him'." She stood up and pushed on the door to Staircase A. It opened.

Around the same time, others were discovering Staircase A. Six floors above the sky lobby, Richard Fern, 39, a technical-support manager for Euro Brokers, remembers watching people jump from the windows of the North Tower and thinking, it's about time I got out of here. He had just stepped into an elevator that would take him down to 78 when the second plane hit, tossing him against the wall of the car and knocking him to his knees. He got up and scrambled for the nearest exit, which turned out to be Stairway A. It was dark inside and he could smell smoke, but he could just make out a luminescent stripe on the steps, and there was never any doubt in his mind about which way to go: down. "I'm running and running, and all of a sudden there's a man and a woman looking up at me saying, 'You can't pass.' There was a wall down, and it was covering the staircase. I didn't even acknowledge them or say anything; I just lifted the wall a foot or so, and it popped onto the handrail and stayed there, and I went underneath. I hope they followed me." A little farther along he came to another section of collapsed wall, and this time he went over it, skidding and rolling down and landing on his feet. Farther down, the stairs were clear but still seemed to stretch endlessly. "When I got down to the 30s my legs just felt like lead. But I didn't take a break, not once. All I could think was 'Get out, get out'."

Just behind Fern another group left the 84th floor, composed of six or seven men led by Brian Clark, a 54-year-old executive vice president of Euro Brokers. Three floors down they encountered a man and a woman, probably the same pair who had accosted Fern. The woman--Clark remembers her as "very heavy" and her companion as "frail"--urged them to turn around and head back up. "You can't go down!" she warned. "There's flames and smoke. We've got to climb higher, to get above it." While the group debated what to do, Clark heard a banging from the other side of the stairway wall, and a voice calling for help. He squeezed through the partially blocked doorway leading to the 81st floor. The last thing Clark saw on the stairway was his companions Bobby Coll and Kevin York and David Vera, calming the woman, taking her by the elbows and helping her up the steps, away from the fire. They all died.

The man calling for help was Stanley Praimnath, 45, an executive at Fuji Bank who had improbably survived an almost head-on collision with the jetliner. The sight of fireballs erupting from the North Tower had already sent Praimnath down to the building lobby once that morning. But then came the announcement that the building was secure, and his colleagues had bullied him into returning to work. Praimnath pointed his assistant toward the express elevators and told her to take the rest of the day off. "They looked at me like, what kind of business decision is that, letting her go home? The elevator doors open, and I have a feeling of dread. They're making fun of me: 'Stan the man, you're not scared, are you? We're not scared. Come on in'." Uneasily, he trudged back to his desk, near a south-facing window on the 81st floor. He was answering a phone call when he saw the nose of United Airlines Flight 175 filling his window. He dropped the phone and dived to the floor just before the plane hit--Praimnath calculates barely 20 feet away.

The floor was a shoulder-high heap of rubble, and Praimnath could smell the jet fuel boiling out of the ruptured tanks. He hauled himself to the top of the wreckage and began to crawl away from the gaping hole made by the fuselage. He heard voices, saw Clark's flashlight and let out a yell.

Now smoke was beginning to envelop them. Praimnath was having trouble breathing. But Clark found himself--"miraculously," he says--in a "bubble" of fresh air.

Praimnath was still separated from his rescuer by an eight-foot-high slab of wallboard.

"Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" he yelled to Clark.

That's not what Clark expected to be asked, but he said he did.

Praimnath asked Clark to pray with him, and they shared what Praimnath describes as a moment of reverent silence, although what Clark remembers thinking was "Let's get the hell out of here!"

"I pointed a finger at him and I said, 'You must jump over this! It's the only way out!' He jumped, got a handhold, and I tried to grab him, but I missed. He went up again and somehow I got an arm around his neck and pulled him up and over."

The two men, remarkably uninjured save for bloodied palms, walked down 81 flights and out to the street, where they headed for Trinity Church.

"You saved my life," Praimnath exclaimed fervently.

"Well, Stanley," Clark replied, "maybe so. But you may have saved my life too." He didn't realize, at that moment, how true that was. As they watched, the tower plummeted to the ground.

While Clark and Praimnath made their way down, Young, badly burned herself, sat among the corpses in the dim wreckage of the 78th floor, waiting to be rescued. "We were looking for the stairs, but we didn't know where to look," Young says. "There was no sign. To feel your way around you have to walk through all the bodies, and we weren't going to do that." Suddenly a voice called to them: "I found the stairs--follow me." Young made her way to the voice, which belonged to a handsome young man with a red bandanna. He led her partway down the now deserted stairway--Young remembers seeing him carry a young woman on his back--then left and headed back upstairs. From the sky lobby he gathered another group, including Judy Wein and at least two others. Both Young and Wein's group made their way to the 40th floor, where the only elevator still running shuttled them to safety. "If it weren't for him," says Young, "we would have waited for the firemen to come up and get us. And they never got there."

The two women never learned the young man's name or his fate. Then, in May, an account of the man with the red bandanna appeared in The New York Times. It was read by Alison Crowther, whose 24-year-old son, Welles--an equities trader with Sandler O'Neill and a volunteer fireman in his hometown of Nyack, N.Y. had been killed in the collapse. "Two days before 9-11 we had dinner together, and Welles pulled out a red bandanna," Crowther recalls. She sent Welles's yearbook picture to Young and Wein, who confirmed the identification.

Since May the two women have become close with Alison Crowther and her husband, Jefferson. It is, one imagines, a complex relationship. Welles Crowther could easily have saved himself, but he stopped to rescue Wein and Young and at least four others. In his grief, Jefferson Crowther justifiably takes "inestimable pride" in his son, but at the same time he finds himself admonishing Welles in his fantasies: C'mon, knucklehead, get yourself out of there! Jefferson believes his son didn't realize the risk of a building collapse--after all, neither did the FDNY commanders on the scene--but he is still haunted by the moment when Welles made his fateful choice. He went up.

And that leaves Kelly Reyher in his elevator on the 78th floor, the man who chose to go up when the smart people were heading down. But the colleagues who boarded an express elevator for the 45-second trip to safety never arrived downstairs. As for Reyher, he was knocked unconscious by the jolt and came to in a wrecked car in a burning shaft. He squeezed through a narrow gap between the doors, using his briefcase as a shield against the flames, and then, with his colleagues Keating Crown and Donna Spera, made his way down Staircase A to safety. And the very next day he drove far out on Long Island with his fiancee, Liz, and her 18-month-old daughter, Caitlin. It was as he watched Caitlin splashing in the pool that he cried for the first time, over the randomness of his survival, the preciousness of what he had nearly lost and the magnitude of the grief settling over the nation. And it is that which has stayed with him and sustained him through this terrible year, the laughing girl in the pool, a reminder of the moment when, on a sunny, terrible morning in New York, he somehow chose life.

Five Who Survived | News