It has taken eleven years for one of the most amazing 9/11 stories to reach the national spotlight. Pasquale Buzzelli, 43, who was working as a structural engineer for the Manhattan Port Authority, was one of the last to evacuate the North Tower as it began to collapse.
He claims that he had reached the 22nd floor when the building collapsed beneath him and he was carried down through a blizzard of debris to the seventh floor, where he was rescued by firefighters.
At the time, his wife, Louise, was pregnant with their first child, Hope, now ten; and they have since had a second daughter, Mia, age seven.
He suffered survivor’s guilt for years afterwards but has finally come to terms with the grief thanks to his family.
His story is told in the Discovery Channel and Channel 4 documentary, “9/11 The Miracle Survivor” which is screened next week on the 11th anniversary of the disaster.
Holding the battered briefcase he was carrying that day, he said: “I haven’t opened this up in quite a few years. I came across it in my basement a couple of years after 9/11. I don’t even keep it in the house as it’s a constant reminder of that day. It basically rode down the building with me and its battered and torn and just a reminder of how lucky I was to survive.”
His story of survival has divided experts. Shiya Ribowsky, who led the investigation into 9/11, said: “You know I have a healthy skepticism which is in no way a reflection on this man’s character.
“In forensics there are certain statistics about the likelihood of surviving a fall and once you get above five stories then statistics are pretty grim. So you’re talking about an exceptional situation. You’re talking the wings of angels here.”
However, Prof. Thomas Eager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has studied the physics of the collapse and believes that the hurricane force wind pushed him down 15 stories.
“His description of a rollercoaster clinched it for me in believing the whole thing,” he said.
Pasquale Buzzelli, who now works in emergency planning for the Port Authority, was in an elevator on his way up to his office the 64th floor of the North Tower when the first plane struck at 8:46 a.m.
But instead of evacuating the building, he felt a duty to remain at his desk. He and his colleagues at the Port Authority, were watching the news when the second plane hit.
They finally began to exit at Stairway B, reaching the 22nd floor at 10:28 a.m. when the tower began to collapse.
“I thought something heavy is falling through the stairs or part of the building is collapsing and falling through,” he said.
“I just dove into the stairwell, went into a foetal position, covered my face and hands and buried myself as close to the wall as possible to protect myself from anything falling through.
“It was then that I felt the wall that I was next to and the base of the floor crack open and give way. That’s when I knew that that was it: the entire building was going. I said to myself: <>. I thought of my wife, my unborn child.”
Pasquale Buzzelli’s wife, Louise, who was seven months pregnant with their oldest daughter Hope, now ten, watched in horror as the tower collapsed.
“I knew it was over then at that point,” she said.
“I couldn’t watch anymore. I couldn’t believe that I was there watching this, carrying our first baby. I was a widow and I watched it and there was nothing I could do.”
But, incredibly, Pasquale Buzzelli began to freefall down the stairwell until he landed on the seventh floor. He regained consciousness three hours later, surrounded by twisted metal, with a badly injured ankle.
“I was totally numb,” he said.
“I felt nothing at all. I just opened my eyes and saw blue sky. I really thought I was dead until I started to cough and I started to feel pain in my leg. At that point I started calling out: “Help. Help.”
Back at Ground Zero, firefighters Mike Lyons and Mike Moribito, who disobeyed orders to search the wreckage, found Pasquale Buzzelli as he was beginning to fear he would be burnt alive.
“He looked like he was in a castle,” said Mike Moribito.
“He was sitting there in broad daylight like a king on top of a hill. I can remember it as clear as day.”
Within hours Paquale Buzzelli was in an ambulance on his way to a hospital. His first thought was to call his wife Louise.
“I picked up the phone and said: Hello?” she said.
“I heard his voice and he said: Louise it’s me. And I said: Oh my god Pascale. It’s you. And everyone in the house just screamed.”
However, Pasquale Buzzelli began to suffer from survivors’ guilt and it was only a reunion with Mike Lyons, who also suffered traumatic stress disorder that brought him out of his depression. Mike Lyons’ girlfriend Kathryn traced Pasquale Buzzelli and they now meet regularly.
“Time heals all wounds and you start to experience joy,” he said.
“With the birth of Mia I was finally able to experience those feelings and not feel guilt. In that sense I’ve realized that the best way to honor those that didn’t make it, is tot be the best person that I can be.”
Buzzelli kept in touch with Lyons and Morabito in the years after his rescue, sharing milestones like their children’s birthdays together. But another firefighter who created the rope device that rescued Buzzelli from the rubble, Jimmy Kiesling, had stayed well out of the spotlight. The two were reunited for the first time while working on the documentary.
“It was a really great feeling to just be able to give him a hug and shake his hand,” Buzzelli said.
“It wasn’t difficult to recount what happened to me physically,” he said. “It was more thinking about all the friends and co-workers I lost, about all the other husbands who died who didn’t get to see their children be born and grow up.”
Now on the 11th anniversary of the attacks, Buzzelli and his family feel more comfortable sharing their experiences with the public. Along with the documentary, Buzzelli and his wife wrote a book titled “We All Fall Down,” which tells his story along with the physical and emotional aftermath in the years following the attack. Daughter Hope drew the cover picture, and it can be purchased at 911survivor.com.
“I hope through the documentary and the book that people struggling with similar feelings can see it’s OK to move on,” he said. “That it’s OK to feel good again.”
9/11 The Miracle Survivor is screened on Channel 4 at 10:00 p.m. on Monday September 10 and 11:10 p.m. the following night. An e-book We All Fall Down: The True Story of the 9/11 Surfer by Pasquale and Louise Buzzelli was published on Amazon on September 8.