How a Canadian survived 9-11

I think not
Ron DiFrancesco was high in the South Tower when the plane struck. An inferno and 84 floors lay between him and his family.

Andrew Duffy
The Ottawa Citizen
June 4, 2005

CREDIT: Shannon Stapleton-Files, Reuters
People make their way down a crowded stairwell inside one of the World Trade Center towers struck by airliners on Sept. 11, 2001.

TORONTO - Almost four years later, Ron DiFrancesco still carries the South Tower with him -- tiny fragments of glass and stucco that occasionally migrate to the surface of his skin.

Mr. DiFrancesco was the last man out of the South Tower before it collapsed at 9:59 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. He was, according to the official 9/11 Commission Report, one of only four people to make it out alive that day from above the central impact zone on the 81st floor.

The stories of some of those other survivors are well-known.

But the 41-year-old Mr. DiFrancesco, a soft-spoken father of four, has scrupulously avoided the media spotlight. He doesn't like talking about his escape; he believes it's disrespectful to the families of those who died to celebrate the decisions that allowed him to live.

Mr. DiFrancesco has rejected dozens of interview requests from journalists and filmmakers. He rarely discusses the day's events, even with his children. "They know it's still raw for me, even though I'd be more open to it now," he says.

(Mr. DiFrancesco agreed to talk to The Citizen only with great reluctance and under the condition that he not be characterized as a hero.)

The almost four years since the terror attacks have been difficult ones for Mr. DiFrancesco, who continues to undergo therapy for back and hip injuries. He has also sought the help of a psychiatrist to better understand what he describes as "agitation," and the guilt he feels about his survival on a day when 61 of his Euro Brokers' colleagues died.

Mr. DiFrancesco sometimes suffers bouts of panic: when the lights flicker, for instance. Or, as was the case in August 2003, when he was caught on the subway as a massive blackout cut power across Toronto and much of the northeast.

At those times, it all comes flooding back.

As was his habit, Ron DiFrancesco woke just after 5 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 11. He washed and shaved and was out the door before his wife, Mary, and his four children had stirred from their beds.

He had to catch the 5.37 a.m. train near his Mahwah, New Jersey home in order to make the subway connection that would take him below the Hudson River to the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Mr. DiFrancesco always marvelled at the energy of the trade towers. It swept him along the moment he stepped from the PATH subway, in the fifth sub-basement of the complex. It hummed in the express elevators that sped to the skylobby of the 78th floor where he took a second elevator to the offices of Euro Brokers. There, on the 84th floor, it wafted from the office like the smell of strong coffee as his colleagues discussed overnight financial numbers from London and Tokyo.

He was at his desk by 7 a.m.

It was a postcard kind of morning with the sunrise glowing through the windows that lined the east wall in front of him on the Euro Brokers' trading floor. Mr. DiFrancesco worked as a money market broker, orchestrating short-term financial deals between international banks. He specialized in the needs of Canadian institutions.

The job, in many ways, had found him. In the late 1980s, Mr. DiFrancesco was working as a bartender in Toronto's Downtown, a cavernous bar partly owned by Maple Leafs defenceman Borje Salming, when he befriended two brokers. They worked for an international bond brokerage founded to trade the new European currency, the euro.

Mr. DiFrancesco was a business administration graduate from the University of Western Ontario, but he wasn't sure what direction to take his career. He had recently left a bankruptcy firm, and was thinking about taking a year to travel. But the two men sold him on the idea of applying to Euro Brokers, which was expanding into new business areas. He was hired the next week.

"This was before the movie Wall Street," he says. "It wasn't considered a glamourous business when I started."

During the 10 years that followed, Mr. DiFrancesco's career flourished alongside an increasingly busy family life. His children, Toby, Julia, Liam and Sam, were all born in the 1990s.

Then, in 2000, Euro Brokers announced

it was closing its Canadian office. Mr. DiFrancesco was faced with the prospect of moving his young family to New York or relaunching his career with another firm.

The lure of New York was strong. Mr. DiFrancesco had often travelled to Euro Brokers' WTC headquarters and he knew it offered the kind of adrenaline rush that can only be had from assembling 300 caffeinated and competitive brokers in one sprawling office. "It was exciting," he says.

In July 2000, he moved alone to New York City to test the waters. He brought his family down a month later.

Within a year, Mr. DiFrancesco and his wife, Mary, felt comfortable enough in their new surroundings to put down more roots. The children had settled into their school. Crime was not an issue. Life was manageable.

What's more, Mr. DiFrancesco thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere at Euro Brokers. His mostly male colleagues were intense and friendly and shared the language of offshore deposits, forward rate agreements, credit default swaps, interest rate swaps and options.

Some of those in the 84th-floor office would occasionally worry about their safety -- what they would do in the event of another bomb -- but Mr. DiFrancesco was not among them.

The WTC had been the target of an attack in February 1993, when Islamic terrorists packed a van with explosives and detonated it in a parking lot beneath the North Tower. The blast killed six people and injured hundreds more.

Mr. DiFrancesco had grown up in Stoney Creek, a quiet suburb of Hamilton. Those kind of things just didn't happen in his experience.

But on the morning of Sept. 11, the tectonic plates of history were in motion. A complex series of geopolitical events and intelligence failures were about to culminate in an unprecedented terrorist strike -- one that would imperil the lives of Mr. DiFrancesco and everyone around him.

About an hour after Mr. DiFrancesco took his seat at Euro Brokers, American Airlines Flight 11 left Boston's Logan International Airport on a scheduled flight to Los Angeles. Soon after takeoff, five armed men, led by Mohamed Atta, forced their way into the cockpit and took over the plane. The hijackers turned off the plane's transponder, making it difficult for air-traffic controllers to find it.

Loaded with fuel, Flight 11 tracked low over midtown Manhattan and slammed into the north face of Tower One, between floors 94 and 98.

It was 8.46 a.m.

Ron DiFrancesco saw a "huge flash" outside his office windows as sound boomed across the trading floor. The lights flickered overhead.

At first, no one knew what had happened. Brian Clark, an executive vice-president of Euro Brokers and a volunteer fire marshall, thought the explosion had come from within the South Tower, above him. He began to organize an evacuation.

Most people immediately headed for stairwells and elevators. Those who had experienced the 1993 attack were among the first to leave. Others turned their televisions to news channels in an attempt to understand what had happened.

Mr. DiFrancesco joined a clutch of people at the bank of windows. They watched as fire and grey-black smoke poured from the North Tower. People leaned out windows, waving desperately for help.

Those around him speculated that a small aircraft, possibly a Cessna, had crashed into the North Tower. Mr. DiFrancesco discounted the possibility of terrorism. It must have been pilot error, he said.

Within minutes, an official with the Port Authority, the agency that managed the World Trade Center, came over the public address system to reassure people in the South Tower that they were safe. There was no need to evacuate, the official said, and those in the process of leaving the building should return. Some of those who had taken the elevator to the lobby were told to return to their offices.

Mr. DiFrancesco called his wife, Mary. They had met at university and had fallen in love through late-night phone conversations. After more than a decade of marriage, they still talked often: Ron called her four or five times a day from the office.

Although never surprised to hear from him, Mary was shocked by Ron's news: The North Tower had been hit by an airplane. "But it was Tower One that was hit. I'm in Tower Two," he reassured her.

Ron described the scene he had witnessed from the windows of Euro Brokers. People had started to leap from windows to escape the flames. "It's horrible," he said.

Mary turned on the television to watch events unfold as she phoned Ron's family to assure them he was safe.

Mr. DiFrancesco, meanwhile, tried to return his attention to the financial numbers that scrolled down two screens on his desk. He was quickly interrupted by a long-distance phone call from Toronto. A friend, Paul Tepsich, berated him for staying at work while the North Tower burned. "Get the hell out," Mr. Tepsich told his former university classmate.

After several minutes, Mr. DiFrancesco relented and agreed to leave. He called his major clients and told them that he would be closing his trading desk for awhile. He called Mary again to let her know about his change in plans.

Then he walked toward the bank of elevators near the middle of the building.

Mr. DiFrancesco was moving down a narrow hallway when United Airlines Flight 175, which had been hijacked shortly after leaving Boston for Los Angeles, banked sharply into the South Tower at 950 kilometres an hour. The Boeing 767 cut into the east side of the south face between floors 78 and 84, igniting an intense fire fed by 90,000 litres of jet fuel.

The higher wing cut into the offices of Euro Brokers while the fuselage destroyed the offices of Fuji Bank below.

Mr. DiFrancesco was thrown against the wall and showered with falling ceiling panels, cables and drywall chalk. There was a gaping hole in the office trading floor that he had just abandoned.

It was 9.03 a.m.

He thought there had been some kind of explosion below as he still couldn't conceive of a fully loaded passenger plane hitting the tower. There was chaos. He knew immediately that the situation was desperate. He knew that his life could depend on what happened in the next few minutes.

Picking himself up, Mr. DiFrancesco found that he was steps from Stairwell A. He followed a small group of six or seven people through a fire door and down the narrow passage.

It was the beginning of a circuitous odyssey that would eventually take Mr. DiFrancesco out of the South Tower. The critically damaged building would stand for the next 56 minutes. Mr. DiFrancesco would need every last one of them.

The South Tower had three emergency stairwells, even though the fire code only demanded two such escape routes. As it happened, only one of them -- Stairwell A -- had not been cut in two by the plane's impact. (Stairwell A was the farthest from the airplane's point of impact and protected by an elevator machine room.)

Mr. DiFrancesco and the others who started walking down that stairwell had no way of knowing that they'd lucked into the only possible escape route.

The stairwell was smoky and dark, lit dimly by a flashlight carried by Mr. Clark, who was leading the descent. The group made their way down three flights to the 81st floor, where they met a heavy-set woman and her male colleague. "You've got to go up. You can't go down," the woman said. "There's too much smoke and flames below."

A life-and-death discussion began. Was it better to go up and wait for firefighters to arrive? Possibly get to the rooftop for a helicopter rescue? Or was it better to risk a dash through the fire and smoke below -- a dash that might only take them into the heart of the inferno?

Mr. DiFrancesco was listening to the argument when the group heard someone thump against a wall and call for help.

Mr. DiFrancesco and his fellow Canadian, Mr. Clark, abandoned the discussion and squeezed onto the 81st floor by pushing aside some drywall around the fire door. Desks, walls and ceiling panels were heaped into smoking ridges and knolls. Drywall chalk and smoke filled the cone lit by Mr. Clark's flashlight.

"I can see your light," said a voice.

The two men headed toward the sound. Mr. DiFrancesco breathed into his open backpack -- it normally carried his gym clothes -- in a bid to filter the poisoned air, but he was overcome and retreated from the room. (Mr. Clark, who would later say that he felt he was breathing in a kind of "bubble," went on to pull Fuji Bank employee Stanley Praimnath out of the debris; the two then continued down Stairwell A and out of the building.)

Mr. DiFrancesco returned to the stairwell. Gasping for air, he decided to climb the stairs in an attempt to escape the smoke. He hoped to get onto a higher floor, possibly find some clearer air, and await rescue. He still didn't know what had caused the explosion.

As he climbed, however, he found the fire doors on each floor locked. Controlled by a computerized security system, the doors were designed to prevent smoke from spreading through the tower. But the plane's impact had damaged the system. The doors could not be opened.

Mr. DiFrancesco continued to climb, trying each fire door as he gained a new landing. He caught up with his colleagues from Euro Brokers, some of whom were now helping the heavy-set woman ascend the stairs. She had convinced everyone to climb the South Tower in search of rescue.

The woman was struggling to breathe, so Mr. DiFrancesco gave her his backpack as a mask of sorts.

They met more people as they climbed. Some were going up, some down, all trying to find a way out of the stairwell. Cell phones didn't work. They were groping in the dark for the right answer.

All the while, the South Tower was rapidly losing its ability to stand over lower Manhattan. The tower had a unique design that distributed its weight between columns in its inner core and those along its exterior walls. The impact of the airplane had placed more pressure on the surviving steel columns, and the intense heat of the fuel-fed inferno was steadily robbing them of strength.

Mr. DiFrancesco believes he climbed as high as the 91st floor -- he's not positive what floor it was when he stopped -- in the 110-storey South Tower. All of the fire doors were locked. Panic rose in his chest. He was slightly claustrophobic. The higher he went, the more people crowded the stairwell. His mind filled with thoughts of his wife, Mary, and his children, all waiting for him.

Mr. DiFrancesco decided he couldn't wait any longer. Desperate to see them, he started down once more. Others followed his lead. But conditions this time were worse.

Mr. DiFrancesco worked his way down the stairs until the smoke thickened such that it was impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. He stopped at a stairwell landing in the middle of the impact zone where people were stretched on the floor. Everyone took to the ground beside them in an attempt to find a thin window of breathable air.

Mr. DiFrancesco and the others -- he believes there were more than a dozen people -- were face down on a strip of concrete, between two staircases. They were on 79th or 80th floor. Some of those beside him began to slip into unconsciousness.

Then, Mr. DiFrancesco heard a voice.

The conclusion of Mr. DiFrancesco's story appears in Sunday's Citizen.

The Exclusive Story of How a Canadian Escaped Death onSept.11, 2001

The Ottawa Citizen 2005
Even today,there are images of that ghastly event I can never forget. One of them is the jumpers who were trying to escape the conflagration.If there,I know I would have been among them-what a choice,burn to death or die from the fall!

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