WTC burn victim: 'I feel pretty lucky'
(CNN) -- On September 11, Manu Dhingra was just reporting to his job at the firm of Andover Brokerage in the World Trade Center's north tower when a plane hit the building. The ensuing fireball severely injured Dhingra, but -- with the help of friends -- he survived. He spent three weeks in New York Weill Cornell Medical Center before being released Tuesday. He spoke with CNN anchor Paula Zahn Thursday morning.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We have talked so much over the last couple weeks about those folks that miraculously survived the explosion of the Twin Towers, and you are going to meet a man who has one of those stories to tell. Manu Dhingra went home from the hospital exactly three weeks after the attack and he joins us this morning to tell us this story.
So good to see you.
MANU DHINGRA, WTC SURVIVOR: Thanks for having me.
ZAHN: You got to feel so lucky.
DHINGRA: I feel pretty lucky, but I'm very saddened about everything that happened, and sometimes the guilt about why are you here -- and why not somebody else -- just comes through, and I'm trying to work with that a little bit right now.
ZAHN: Take us back to that dreadful day. Where were you at the time the first plane hit?
DHINGRA: I had just gotten out of elevator. I was just a little late to work, so I don't know.
ZAHN: Thank God, right? Earlier you think ...
DHINGRA: Well, actually, I probably might have been safer, I don't know. But I had just gotten out of elevator and just made a right turn into a hallway going towards my office, and that is when the first plane hit, and I believe, not exactly sure, but the flames went through elevator shaft, engulfed me.
ZAHN: Had you been in the elevator you might not have been killed instantly?
DHINGRA: I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be here, because I know a gentleman named David I was in hospital with, he was on ground floor, and he was in front of elevator door, and when that opened, it just engulfed him, and he is a lot worse off than I was in the hospital, and he was on the ground floor.
ZAHN: So you thought to yourself, this all over.
DHINGRA: I thought it was all over, and I was hoping it was all over, because it was very painful, and it seemed like it he was -- was going to go on forever the flames, but ...
ZAHN: So you were burned basically over -- mainly over the lower part of body.
DHINGRA: Actually it just -- it came from my back and my sides, so I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt at that time, so it basically took my whole back and my arms, also. Luckily my face, it didn't do too much damage to, but it was the size of a basketball when I was hospital, when I first came in.
ZAHN: But you had suffered such serious burns at that point. How did you get out of there?
DHINGRA: My friends kind of helped me ... they told me nobody was going to come up there at that time. At that time, I was on the 83rd floor, and nobody knew what had happened, so they said you have to try to get down on your own with us. I didn't want to be responsible for any of them staying up there with me if something else happened, so I just tried to get some energy and just started walking down with them.
ZAHN: So actually a friend led you, and then there was one behind you.
DHINGRA: Yes. Just because, they couldn't really touch me, I was in a lot of pain, and burned all over, so they couldn't touch me, so everybody in stairwell, they were great, because nobody had any idea what was going to happen to the buildings. So they were letting all of the people who were hurt go through. There was no panic, there as no chaos. I mean, everybody was helping each other. I mean, a lot of times, because I was so dehydrated, people gave me water as I was walking down the stairs, otherwise I probably wouldn't have been able to make it.
ZAHN: You certainly were aware you had been seriously hurt.
ZAHN: How did you maintain any sense of calm or resolve?
DHINGRA: I just wanted to get some help. I knew I was really burned, but I was just worried that if I didn't get to an ambulance it would have been a lot more serious. The ambulances weren't downstairs. You still had to walk a little bit of the way to (the) street to get to them. I just wanted to get some help, maybe quickly get to a hospital, because the pain was so bad, I just wanted the pains to go away a little bit.
ZAHN: And when you got to the hospital, what did doctors tell you?
DHINGRA: They basically just knocked me out for a little while. Then they transferred me to Cornell Medical Center, the burn center, which is one of the best in the country. Doctors there ... had a lot more experience with this kind of injuries and said I should be OK -- rehab and everything -- within a year.
ZAHN: What will your rehab involve?
DHINGRA: I have to go every day actually after this to work on -- because I got skin grafts on my arms. The skin contracts, so you have to flex the fingers every day make sure that you have full movement and everything. So I have to keep doing that a year, and hopefully like everything works out where I can use my hands and everything.
ZAHN: I know you said that you're experiencing a sense of guilt right now. I know it is very difficult for you to look at the debris field or "the pile," as it is called right now.
ZAHN: Will you ever go down there?
DHINGRA: I want to go down there, just because it is now, I believe, its memorial, and I was -- I mean, I was there, and, I would hope -- I wish the rest of the country could even get a sense of what had happened. They see it on TV and everything, but to just to be there, to sense what happened, is incredible. The spirits of the people there during that time, and the courage that was there -- that was incredible to see also, how people are reacting towards each other.
I mean, a lot of my friends try to help other people out, and I know a lot of other people did a lot of good things for other people to try to save each others' lives. That was incredible to see that.
ZAHN: We have heard in all these stories told over the last couple of weeks (about) the enormous strength that was shown, including your courage. When you look back on that, now you understand the extent of your injuries, can you believe you behaved the way you did?
DHINGRA: No, but I just -- I mean, I guess survival instincts take over at that time. Once you know that you are not dead, you just want to make -- you just don't want to be dead, and you just want to do anything you can to kind of ... get out of the situation, and that is what I did. I mean, I still don't think of myself as anything special, my story anything special. I just know I just didn't want to die, after I found out that I wasn't going to.
ZAHN: But you clearly are a very powerful reminder of just some of the miracles to come out of this story. Do you have a final word this morning, anything you want people to understand about what you are going through and others who have been similarly injured?
DHINGRA: I just want to thank everybody for the support. Around New York City, everybody has been so great, my family, my friends, and just complete strangers, and it's great to see the city unite, and I just wanted to thank everybody for that.
ZAHN: Well, we salute your strength and appreciate your coming in.
DHINGRA: Thank you so much for having me.
ZAHN: Good luck with your rehab. I know it's a long road ahead.
DHINGRA: Thank you.
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