It was 20 years ago this month when Stanley Praimnath saw the plane coming right at him.
The morning of September 11, 2001 was as clear, bright, and beautiful as could possibly be in downtown Manhattan. On that day, Stanley worked as a bank executive on the 81st floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. When the first plane struck the North Tower at 8:46 AM, Stanley wasted no time and made to leave the building. But when he reached the ground floor, tower security told him to go back to his office. The building, they said, was secure.
Stanley went back up.
The phone was ringing when he returned to his desk. It was a colleague from Chicago, calling to see if he was okay. He assured her that everything was fine. Then, by pure chance, he turned toward his window. As Stanley later described it:
“…for no reason, in mid-sentence I just raised my head and looked to the Statue of Liberty and what I see is a big plane coming towards me…a big gray plane, with a red stripe. I dropped the phone, screamed, dove under my desk and said, ‘Lord, you take over. I can’t do this.’”1
Within seconds, the tip of the plane’s left wing sliced through his office. Stanley was covered in debris, but the good news was that he was alive. The bad news was that he was trapped.
Three floors above, a man named Brian Clark was wrestling with the most important decision of his life: Up or down? As the volunteer fire warden for his company, Brian had gathered several survivors together. They began going down, until they were met by a woman who told them the stairs were impassable. They would have to go up, she said, to get away from the fire and smoke.
While the group debated, Brian heard a banging sound. Then, in the distance, a voice shouted, “Help, I’m buried and can’t breathe. Can anybody hear me?”
There was hardly any time. The floor was becoming engulfed in smoke, and Brian’s group had already decided to go back up. But Brian and another man decided to stay. “We’ve got to go get this guy,” he said. Brian squeezed through a partially blocked doorway to make it onto the 81st floor. Then, he began searching through the darkness and wreckage with a small flashlight. He clambered over debris and moved fallen drywall while the voice guided him.
Finally, Brian reached a wall of fallen rubble. Near the top was a gap, and through the gap stretched a desperate hand. It was Stanley Praimnath.
By this point, Brian’s colleague found the smoke too unbearable and went back to join the others on a higher floor. (He would eventually change his mind and head back down and was the last person to escape before the tower collapsed.) Stanley, too, kept repeating that he couldn’t breathe, that he was suffocating. The heat and the smoke must have been immense, but Brian refused to leave. He cleared the blockage as best he could, until finally he was able to peer over the top of a fallen wall and see the man he was trying to rescue.
“You must jump,” Brian said. “You’ve got to jump out of there.”1
So, Stanley jumped – just high enough for Brian to grab him and pull him over. The two fell in a heap and embraced. “I’m Brian,” one said. “I’m Stanley,” said the other. The two men had worked in the World Trade Center for years, just three floors from each other, but it was the first time they had ever met.
When the plane crashed into the South Tower it severed two of the three emergency stairwells in the building’s core. But the last stairwell, the one farthest from the plane’s impact, was miraculously spared. This was the stairwell Brian and Stanley went down. Carefully, leaning on the railing and on each other, they navigated through the smoke, over collapsed drywall, and around running water from severed sprinkler lines. Stanley’s leg was injured, so they had to go especially slow. At some points, the walls were cracked, and they could actually see flames spreading through the building. But they kept going, rescuer and rescuee, all the way down to the bottom. Eighty-one flights of stairs in less than fifty minutes.
When they reached the ground, they made their way to a nearby church. That’s when Stanley finally broke down and cried. “I think this man saved my life,” he told the ministers. But Brian didn’t think of himself as a hero. He knew that if he hadn’t stopped to listen to that voice in the darkness, if he hadn’t had the courage to find Stanley’s hand in the chaos, if he hadn’t had the strength to grip that hand as tight as he could and say, “Jump!”, then he may well have gone up the stairs, too – for which there would be no coming down.
“Stanley,” he said, “I think you might have saved mine, too.”
The September 11 attacks were the worst acts of terrorism our country has ever known. No one who witnessed the tragedy, either in person or on television, can forget the fear and pain we felt. But twenty years later, it’s not terror that endures, but inspiration. Countless people performed countless acts of bravery, charity, and sacrifice that day. Bonds were forged on 9/11 that cannot be broken. Bonds between victims’ families. Bonds between survivors. (Brian and Stanley remain close friends to this day.) While the towers fell, the country remained standing. Over time, fear fades. Pain eases. But hope and heroism endure forever. All because of people like Brian Clark, who, in the midst of smoke and flame, heard a voice call for help…and went towards it.
As we observe the twentieth anniversary of that fateful day, I wish you and your family hope, inspiration, and peace. May we never forget the strength and sacrifice shown by so many on that clear, bright morning – and in remembering, grow stronger ourselves.