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Four Above WTC Crash Zone Tell Stories

Aired September 7, 2002 - 07:35   ET


CHARLES MOLINEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Turning now to the anniversary of September 11. After the second hijacked plane hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center, only four people who were at or above the crash zones survived.
CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: CNN's Michael Okwu describes how two of those survivors got out. It is a story of split second decisions, a chance encounter, and of course a good deal of luck.


MICHAEL OKWU, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Stanley Praimnath and Brian Clark had never seen the World Trade Center site from this vantage point. They are alive to see it because their paths crossed at just the right moment. Their ordeal began the way everybody else's did.

BRIAN CLARK, 9/11 SURVIVOR: I normally arrived 7:15 in the morning. 84th floor of the South Tower. I did so that day.

STANLEY PRAIMNATH, 9/11 SURVIVOR: Picked up my raisin bagel and coffee, make my way to the 81st floor. Nothing unusual.

OKWU: By the time the morning was over, they would owe their lives to each other. And would be two of only four people above the 78th floor in the South Tower who would survive.

CLARK: There was just this tremendous boom that I heard. And a bit of a shudder. More from a shock wave than anything else. And I spun around and where I normally see the Hudson River and the World Financial Center below me, was nothing but a fireball. Like, right against my glass. Just complete flames swirling.

OKWU: Three floors below, Praimnath, the loan officer with Fuji Bank, was with a co-worker.

PRAIMNATH: We ran down the hallway from the south end of the South Tower, took the elevator. We went down to the ground floor. A security guard asked us where you guys going. Well, I saw fireballs coming down. I'm getting out of here. "No, your building is secure, it is safe." Eventually we got back in that elevator.

OKWU: On the 84th floor, Clark heard the all clear on the PA system as he consoled a female co-worker who had been watching people jump off the North Tower.

CLARK: I walked her out of the -- out of our east side trading floor -- and I really do think it's that walk -- Susan coming to me and me walking her to the lady's room all the way over to the west side of the Tower -- that probably saved my life.

OKWU: In minutes, the second plane would fly into view. Careening towards the southeastern section of the South Tower.

PRAIMNATH: I just happened to raise my head, watching toward the Statue of Liberty and as I watched I saw this giant aircraft -- big, great plane -- is coming in slow motion towards me. Eye level, eye contact. And I just froze.

OKWU: Again, Praimnath was on the 81st floor. Clark on the 84th. The plane would plow though floors between 77 and 84 before exploding.

CLARK: There was this concussion and our walls, you know, ripped at odd angles. Door frames fell out of the walls. The ceiling just collapsed. Speakers, lighting, cables, air-conditioning ducts. The ceiling just emptied, if you like. The building just swayed one way and just kept going. Yards, yards further. When's it going to stop? Further. And then it finally stopped.

PRAIMNATH: And, I'm shuddering. And I'm trembling. And I'm crying. Lord, don't leave me to die. And I realized I'm covered with debris when I try to get up. Picking through the rubble when all I could see was the plane wing wedged at my office door, 20 feet from where I was.

OKWU: What looked like the wing could have been the tail. In any case, Praimnath remembers watching it glow, like an ember. Back on the 84th floor, where he was a fire warden, Clark grabbed his flashlight, unaware of the devastation below him, he and six other co- workers raced towards the exits. If they had chosen stairwells B or C, they would have eventually been blocked by debris. By sheer chance, they chose A, the only one that could have led them to safety.

CLARK: We met a very heavyset woman coming from below. "Stop, stop you can't go down. We've just come off a floor in flames and there's smoke and we've got to get above it, we've got to climb higher." All of a sudden I heard this banging on the wall and this voice, strange voice, crying in the darkness somewhere on the 81st floor.

PRAIMNATH: And I'm screaming, "I'm right here, this is Stanley Praimnath from the Loans Department, don't leave me to die."

CLARK: And I put down my -- well, I guess I had my flashlight off -- and when I put it on and I shone it around the floor.

PRAIMNATH: And this person is saying behind the wall, knock where you are and I'll know.

CLARK: When I shone the light a little clearer through the hole where he was, I could see this very animated face through an opening, but there was something immovable between us.

PRAIMNATH: And Brian said, jump. And I said I can't jump. He said if you jump over this wall, I'm going to grab you. And as I jumped I grabbed and I held on to this wall.

CLARK: And I jumped and reached over and somehow grabbed onto something under the armpit, I don't know what it was, and pulled this body over the top and we fell in a heap on the floor.

OKWU: Both men now have open wounds on their hands.

PRAIMNATH: And Brain took my hand, my right hand and he held out his left hand and he rubbed it like this together and he said, from today, you're my blood brother.

OKWU: A little more than five minutes had passed since the plane hit. The group Clark had descended the stairwell with had changed direction and retreated to higher floors. Only one of them would survive.

OKWU: Did you ever debate going back upstairs?

CLARK: When we got to the stairs, I just turned down. I wanted to test what was below.

OKWU: The two men made a slippery descent down the west stairs. Occasional cracks in the walls exposed flames within.

PRAIMNATH: And Brian was telling me, take your time, take your time. There's no hurry. And I'm like, no, we've got to go, we've got to hurry.

OKWU: Four minutes after getting out, they heard it.

PRAIMNATH: It was like steel bending and creaking, it made this -- I can't explain the sound, but it's like -- it was an eerie sound.

CLARK: And we heard this boom, boom, boom.

OKWU: As the tower collapsed, Stanley Praimnath, then Brian Clark, were watching from less than 100 yards away, just before they ran. Two of the very last people to get out alive.

Michael Okwu, CNN, New York.





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