What turns certain death into a narrow escape? For countless explorers, extreme athletes, and even victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a spectral presence, seen or sensed, has stepped in to save them: the Third Man.
Ron DiFrancesco was at his desk at Euro Brokers, a financial trading firm on the 84th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York, when the plane struck the North Tower opposite him. It was 8:46 am on September 11, 2001. There was a loud boom, and the lights in the South Tower flickered. Gray smoke poured from the North Tower.
At impact, all the stairwells in the North Tower became impassable from the 92nd floor up, trapping 1,356 people. Some waved desperately for help. Most of those who worked at Euro Brokers started to evacuate the building, but DiFrancesco stayed. A few minutes later, a terse announcement was broadcast over the South Tower’s public-address system: An incident had occurred in the other building, but “Building Two is secure.
There is no need to evacuate Building Two. If you are in the midst of evacuation, you may return to your office by using the reentry doors on the reentry floors and the elevators to return to your office. Repeat, Building Two is secure.…”
DiFrancesco, a money-market broker originally from Hamilton, Ontario, telephoned his wife, Mary, to tell her that he was fine and intended to stay at work. “It was Tower One that was hit,” he assured her.
“I’m in Tower Two.” He tried to focus on the screens of financial data on his desk. Then a friend from Toronto called. “Get the hell out,” he said. DiFrancesco agreed and, after calling a few people to tell them of his change of plans, began walking toward a bank of elevators.
A few minutes later, at 9:03 am, the second plane struck. United Airlines Flight 175, traveling at 590 miles an hour, sliced into the South Tower, igniting an intense fire fed by up to 11,000 gallons of jet fuel.
As the world was about to learn, the Boeing 767, carrying 56 passengers, two pilots, and seven flight attendants, had been hijacked by Al Qaeda terrorists after taking off from Boston’s Logan International Airport en route to Los Angeles.
The plane banked just before it slammed into the building between floors 77 and 85. The higher wing cut into the Euro Brokers offices, while the fuselage hit the Fuji Bank offices on the 79th through 82nd floors.
DiFrancesco was hurled against the wall and showered with ceiling panels and other debris. Brackets, air ducts, and cables sprang from the ceiling. The building swayed. The trading floor he had just left no longer existed.
DiFrancesco entered Stairway A. The South Tower had three emergency stairwells. Fortuitously, he had stumbled upon the only one that offered hope of escape for people above the zone of impact.
An enormous elevator machine room on the 81st floor, where the nose of the 767 hit, acted as a firewall; in fact, the elevator equipment took up more than half the floor space and had forced the tower’s architects to route Stairway A from the center of the building toward the northwest corner — the farthest point from the impact zone.
Others joined DiFrancesco in the stairwell, and all began to descend. The stairwell was smoky, lit only by a flashlight carried by Brian Clark, an executive vice-president at Euro Brokers and a volunteer fire marshal on the 84th floor. Three flights down, they encountered a heavy woman and a male colleague who were coming up. “You’ve got to go up. You can’t go down,” the woman insisted. “There’s too much smoke and flames below.”
They briefly debated whether to ascend and wait for either firefighters or a rooftop rescue by helicopter, or continue their descent despite the smoke. Clark shone his flashlight into his colleagues’ faces, asking each, “Up or down?” Then they heard someone call for help. Clark grabbed DiFrancesco by the sleeve. “Come on, Ron. Let’s get this fellow.”
The two left the stairwell and fought through debris on the 81st floor to locate the person. But DiFrancesco was soon overcome by smoke. He had a backpack, and held it over his face in an attempt to filter the air. But it wasn’t helping, and he was forced to retreat. Gasping for air, he decided to go up, hoping to escape the smoke.
He climbed several flights, but at each landing, when he tested the fire doors, he discovered they were locked. A mechanism designed to prevent smoke from flooding the building had malfunctioned after the impact, preventing any of the doors, even on designated reentry floors, from being opened.
He continued to climb and eventually caught up with some colleagues from Euro Brokers, several of whom were helping the large woman. She had convinced all of them that the best escape route was up the stairs.
But as DiFrancesco continued up, the stairwell became more crowded. All the fire doors were locked. He guessed he had reached the 91st floor of the 110-story building.