World Trade Center: an interview with survivor Ron DiFrancesco

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

Undicisettembre is offering today its readers the personal account of survivor Ron DiFrancesco who was working in Tower 2 and left his office moments before the second plane crashed into the tower.

We would like to thank Ron DiFrancesco for his kindness and his help.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on 9/11?

Ron DiFrancesco:
I was living in New Jersey at that time but I worked in New York at the World Trade Center. I had left my house at about 5:30 in the morning to catch the 5:40 train, I took the train into Hoboken, New Jersey, and then I took the PATH train to go to the World Trade Center. I worked at the 84th floor of Tower 2. There were different elevators that you had to take to get there: I took the express elevator from ground floor to the 78th and then I transferred over to the smaller elevators to take me to the 84th floor. I arrived probably around 6:45.

My desk was in a trading room with three hundred and fifty people sitting there working, yelling, screaming and watching the world markets. The reason why I was there so early is that the Asian markets were closing at that hour, the Europeans markets were halfway through the day and we would continue from there. I sat at my desk and I was working and talking to my colleagues and to my clients on the phone, telling them what was going on in the markets. We were settled into the day when back to the right there was a loud explosion; we didn't know what it was but we looked to the right and we saw thousands of pieces of paper streaming in the air all around. We ran to the window to see what was going on and we saw a big gaping hole in the side of Tower 1. At that point a lot of people started to leave our floor.

I didn't know it was a terrorist attack, I think some of those who left understood it was a terrorist attack because they were there in 93. I am Canadian and was living in Canada at the time of the first attack, I had moved to New York in 2000. When we had started hearing the news they told us that a light aircraft had gone off course and crashed into the World Trade Center, I didn't know any different, I just knew from seeing people in the hole in the side of the building that it was pretty severe. Everybody in the world was watching on the news what was going on, but we were in the middle of it and still we had no clue and they kept telling us "Building 2 is secure, please go back to your desk", so I went back to my desk and I got a lot of phone calls from clients in Canada who were asking me what was going on but I really didn't know.

I got a call from a university friend who started yelling at me to get out of the building, I said I would go so I called my wife to tell her I was leaving and I would call her when I got downstairs. I grabbed a colleague of mine and him and I made our way towards the elevator banks and as we were leaving the second plane hit our building: the right wing went from the 78th to the 85th floor and sliced through our trading room.

We got knocked down and battered, all the ceiling tiles came down from above. My colleague and I wiped the debris from ourselves, we met with our colleagues and we started running towards the stairwell. We started going down and after two or three floors we met two gentlemen and a lady coming up, the two men were helping the lady up, and they said we couldn't go down because there was too much fire. We heard someone crying for help so we went to assist this man whose name is Stanley. I was overcome with smoke, so I left this man with one of my colleagues and I went up the stairwell and reached maybe the 91st floor hoping to get to one of the floors but all the doors were locked for security reasons. Once we realized we couldn't get out of the stairwell our only choices were all the way up or all the way down. At that point panic really set in.

I wanted to get out the building, so we started going down and we got close to our floor or even a bit below and smoke overtook us. People started to lie down to try to get beneath the hot smoke,. I was lying down too when I heard a voice calling me saying "Get up and come this way"; so I got up and followed the voice, into the heaviest smoke area and pushed against a piece of drywall and it revealed the staircase down below. I slid down and ran down three flights of stairs that were on fire. After those three flights of stairs it was wet and cool, I think just because the sprinklers were working at those floors; so I started to run down as fast as I could. About halfway down I run into three firefighters coming up, I told them I was having trouble breathing, they checked me out and told me to get down below and I'll get help there.

About an hour after the crash I reached the lobby of my building which was facing the courtyard between the two towers, I just wanted to get out of the building and run but outside I could see lots of debris and bodies everywhere. I wanted to go out but they wouldn't let us because it was too dangerous and they made us go to the PATH train station to go out to Church Street on the farthest corner away from the World Trade Center. So I went down another flight of stairs, I started walking towards the exit and I run into a colleague of mine, an older gentleman who in his best days had troubles walking; as we were down there we heard this very loud, loud noise, I looked to my right and I saw this huge fireball coming at us. I yelled at my colleague "Run!", I ran as fast as I could and I woke up three days later in a hospital. I remember getting hit on the head and that's all I remember.

Undicisettembre: What did your family know or think happened to you after the attacks, when you could not get in touch with them?

Ron DiFrancesco: It was actually harder on my wife than it was on me, she could not get hold on me; I think they called her at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and told her that I was in the hospital and she then related the message to my family in Canada. They didn't know how badly I was injured and I of course wasn't aware of the panic that was going on with people frantically looking for people.

Undicisettembre: What happened next to you, in the following weeks and months?

Ron DiFrancesco: While most of the people either got out physically unscaved or they died, I was banged up quite badly, I had burns on 60% of my body, I had a broken bone in my back, my contact lenses were melted to my eyes and I was in rough shape. For days I hadn't known the World Trade Center had come down. When the plane hit our building I thought it was a generator down below blowing up, I didn't know it was a second plane. I found that out from my wife.

Undicisettembre: When was the first time you went back to downtown Manhattan after 9/11?

Ron DiFrancesco: I went back in November 2001 for a colleague's funeral, I went there and then I met my family uptown.

Undicisettembre: Did you decide to leave New York because of 9/11?

Ron DiFrancesco: Yes. I went back to work part time in March 2002 and full time in April. When I went back full time getting into the city was tough: you had to take the train to Hoboken and then the ferry across the Hudson river to get to our new office, which was moved away from the World Trade Center of course. Every night my kids would be sitting by the window wondering if I was coming home. We realized after a while there was no way for us to live there, so we moved back to Canada.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your everyday life even today?

Ron DiFrancesco: I am blessed, I'm fortunate and I'm lucky that I'm still here, I have an immense sense of gratitude. I was in a dark spot for a few years, like "Why did I survive while so many of my colleagues did not?". But I'm now on a different place, a different mission too: to help people. If you think about what's happening in our world now, everybody has been struggling for the last few years and the mental health crisis is very tough. Everyday is not great for everyone, after 9/11 I didn't know if I wanted to live or die, I struggled for a while. Someone told me: "You need to tell your story about what you do to survive because it may help some people", so I studied positive psychology and tried to do the best I can day in day out in the hope of something better.

Now I have gratitude for smaller things and small things in life, because every day is a bonus for us. I could ask you what your problems are and maybe they are bigger than mine, but we both have a house and health and that's a bonus because many people don't have them.

Nessun commento: