By Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli
The man, Pasquale Buzzelli, called me because he heard I wrote books. He
needed help getting his story down on paper. His name was the same as
mineBuzzelli. Unusual, even as Italian surnames go. Coincidence, the
man said and we agreed to meet in New York City where I would listen to
what happened to him on September 11, 2001.
It was a usual weekday morning in his RiverVale, New Jersey, home, he told
me as we stood at an inner platform, looking down at the hole that was the
World Trade Center. On one side a new building was going up. On another
a bulldozer still moved dirt. Only the day before one more body had been
Shower. Shave. Got ready for work, Pasquale told me.
Thirty-two, married, with a first child on the way in two months, Pasquale
had no reason to fear going to work that day. It was just that he felt
tired. If he stayed home instead of heading into New York, to his job as
an engineer with the New York Port Authority, up on the 64th floor, North
Tower, of the World Trade Center, he could help his wife, Louise, paint
the babys room.
A clear, sunny morning. He sat at his kitchen window looking out at his
yard until he was almost late. By the time he finally finished his coffee
and set the cup in the sink, he had to hurry.
UP THE ELEVATOR
He got into Hoboken at 8:22. Less than 20 minutes, by the PATH Train, and
he was in the city, entering the northeast corner of the tower, into an
elevator that took him to the 44th floor and a second elevator to the
Usual morning. He ran into Bill, a man he saw daily, always waiting for
the same elevator at same time. They exchanged their usual morning
hello, pushed the elevator button and started up. His mind was already
on jobs waiting, people he had to talk to.
Nothing different on this day like any other day. Until the elevator gave
a violent shake and began to drop, then right itself before continuing to
the 64th floor.
At their floor, the elevator doors stuck. He and Bill pried the doors
open and stepped into a corridor filling with smoke.
A plane, someone yelled. Hit the south tower.
Poor pilot. Must have gotten disoriented. Somebody will take care of it.
Terrible accident, everyone said.
The cubicles and halls continued to fill with smoke.
Pasquale took a phone call from the worried wife of one of his coworkers.
Have you seen my husband? Dont you usually meet for coffee?
Hed been late, he explained. No time for coffee that morning. Hed call
back if he heard anything.
A phone call from Louise, his wife. She was distraught. No, no accident.
Its an attack. Get out of there, Pasquale. Please . . . hurry.
Two planes. They watched a blurry television in a conference room. No
Sirens clanged everywhere. Siren boxes flashed with strobing red lights.
The smoke was unbearable.
They didnt know what to do. One man started down the stairwell then
called back to the people on the 64th floor. Its slow going, he said.
A lot of burn victims. Theyre opening a lane to get burn victims down
faster. And a lane for the firemen on their way up.
The building shook. Smoke trickled in through the closed hallway doors.
Everyone held wet cloths over their mouths.
The Port Authority people started down the 64 flights of stairs because
they had no alternative.
At the 49th floor, the group ran into firemen sitting on the stairs,
exhausted from the climb up in full gear. Hollow-eyed, they looked at
Pasquale as he led his group passed. Be easy going down from here, one
of them said.
In the 30sthe group passed more firemen.
Another rescue worker plodded passed them. Its all fine ahead. A clear
run. Just keep going.
22nd floor. Not far to go.
They were moving down faster when the stairs gave a huge, groaning shiver
and began to shake violently underfoot. There were monstrous tremors
around them. Floors. Walls. The building was a terrible, shaking
machine. Pasquale clung to the railing though it tried to shake him loose.
Over their heads, a loud and growing pounding came as heavy objects
dropped directly above thema mountain of rock grinding downward.
The noise grew. The air filled with dust. Loud crashing -- the stairs
pulled away from the wall and the world began to end.
Pasquale awoke to a perfect, blue sky above him and the shock of pain in
his right leg. Hed been unconscioushe had no idea how long. He lay atop
an unimaginable pile of debris. If he moved, concrete and steel shifted
beneath him, pieces skittered off over a terrible edge, down a long way,
then echoed back.
Around him, there were only a few standing walls. Tall spikes of twisted
metal poked up from the debris.
Pasqual screamed for help. The fallen building groaned and settled around
him. After a while there was silence, punctuated only by the intermittent
creak of shifting metal.
He cried for help again and again, for what seemed like hours, praying
that after living through the collapse of the building he wasnt going to
die in one of the fires. Finally there was a voice, a rescue worker on a
bullhorn, calling out the name of one of his own lost men.
Firemen came from everywhere when they learned there was a survivor. A
rescue team was climbing up toward Pasquale when one of the standing walls
threatened to fall and the rescue workers had to scatter.
When it was safe again, the men climbed the pile of debris and handed
Pasquale, with a broken ankle and unable to walk, down in a slingman to
manuntil he was at street level, handed out and into one of the many
Pasquale remembers the streets of New York that night as being oddly
quiet, the hospital almost empty, medical personnel waiting to help people
who didnt come.
The book was never finished. The drama a book needs to sustain it was all
at the beginning. The rest has been years of survivors guilt, and pain,
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, therapy, and a holding desperately on to
family and everything real. Pasquale Buzzellis story became the quiet
account of one more family coming to terms with a new America.
Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli reviews books for the Express.