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An improbable escape

Two men defy odds and find a way out of the WTC

Stanley Praimnath
Stanley Praimnath was on the 81st floor of the South Tower when the plane hit the building.  

From Michael Okwu
CNN New York

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Brian Clark arrived on the South Tower's 84th floor at 7:15 a.m., grabbed a cup of coffee and sweet roll, walked the floor, said his morning "hellos," then began reading his e-mail.

Three floors down, and a little more than hour later, Stanley Praimnath sauntered into his office with a raisin bagel and coffee.

"Nothing extraordinary about that day," Praimnath recalled.

By the time the morning was over, the two strangers would become blood brothers. Through fate, good fortune and raw determination, Praimnath and Clark were two of only four people to escape the South Tower at or above the impact zone after United Airlines Flight 175 struck the building at 9:03 a.m.

They saw their offices torn to shreds, hurdled obstacles, encountered heroes who did not survive, and coped with their injuries and emotions by cheating death.

Watch CNN on Wednesday, September 11, for more on this story.

Only one of the six people who walked down with Clark from the 84th floor survived; Clark left the group to follow Praimnath's screams, and the two would walk out together.

Praimnath has no doubt about why his life was spared and why he lived to see his wife and two young daughters again.

"Had it not been for God's glory and this man's goodness," he said, pointing to Clark, "I would not be here."

Frozen in time

In his Euro Brokers office, Clark spun around after hearing an enormous blast -- American Airlines Flight 11 slamming into the neighboring North Tower.

Brian Clark
Brian Clark, who was on the 84th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, tells CNN that when United Airlines Flight 175 hit, "... I was standing along the west wall and the building was just rocked, our room sort of fell apart."  

"Where I would normally see the Hudson River and World Financial Center below me was nothing but a fireball against my glass," Clark said. "Just complete flames, swirling."

A fire marshal on his floor, Clark hustled about 200 workers down the stairs. Some 50 people stayed behind, believing their tower was safe because it hadn't been hit.

Praimnath did head downstairs, taking an elevator to the South Tower lobby. A security guard, however, assured him the building was secure so he hopped back on the elevator with his boss, Kenichiro Tanaka, and several other Fuji Bank colleagues.

Back at his office, Praimnath felt safe until he looked outside. "I just happened to raise my head watching the Statue of Liberty and as I watched I saw this giant aircraft ... coming in slow motion towards me -- eye level, eye contact. And I just froze."

United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the building, smashing through walls, bringing down the ceiling, breaking computers and overturning every desk -- except the one Praimnath had ducked under.

"I'm trembling and I'm crying, 'Lord, don't leave me here to die!' And I realize that I'm covered with debris when I try to get up," he said. "Peeking through the rubble, all I could see was the plane wing wedged at my office door, 20 feet from where I was."

Utter destruction

Three floors up, Clark had been consoling a co-worker, Susan Pollio, distraught after watching people jump from the North Tower.

"That walk -- Susan coming to me and me walking her to the ladies room all the way over to the west side of the tower -- that probably saved my life," said Clark.

Then the Boeing 757 hit, tearing his office apart.

"The building just swayed one way and just kept going yards, yards further," said Clark, calling the 10 seconds after impact "the most terrifying moment" of a terrifying day.

When things settled, Clark grabbed his flashlight, gathered with six others and, by chance, turned down stairway A -- as it turned out, the only one of three stairways in the upper floors of the South Tower not blocked by debris.

At the 81st floor, a woman stopped Clark and his group, told them not to go down further and, instead, urged them to go up and get above the smoke.

"All of a sudden I hear this banging on the wall and this voice, strange voice crying in the darkness somewhere on the 81st floor," said Clark.

Clark grabbed another man in his group, Ron DiFrancesco, and said, "Come on, Ron, we've got to get this guy."

Becoming blood brothers

Smelling fuel and screaming, Praimnath began to crawl on top of the rubble and ended up behind a mangled wall. He punched a small hole in it, but was otherwise unable to go anywhere.

Prainmath explains to CNN's Michael Okwu how after Clark saved him, they became blood brothers.
Prainmath explains to CNN's Michael Okwu how after Clark saved him, they became blood brothers.  

DiFrancesco, overcome with smoke, turned back up the stairs, but Clark -- breathing and seeing "as if I had a bubble over my head" -- soldiered on.

"When I shone the light a little clearer through the hole, where he was, I could see this very animated face," said Clark. He'd found Praimnath.

At Clark's insistence, Praimnath ran up the wall in an attempt to go over it.

"I jumped and reached over and somehow grabbed onto something under the armpit and pulled the body over the top," said Clark, "and we fell in a heap on the floor."

Both men now had open wounds on their hands.

"Brian took my hand, my right hand, and he held out his left hand and he rubbed [them] together," said Praimnath. "And he said, 'From today, you're my blood brother.'"

Disagreeing with his group's decision to retreat upstairs -- only DiFrancesco survived, and only then after running down from the 91st floor and getting out right before the South Tower fell -- Clark returned to Stairwell A. Shoulder to shoulder with Praimnath, the pair began the dangerous descent down the wet stairway.

By the 78th floor, the air was clearer, the stairs drier, and the lights were on. They passed Jose Marrero, one of Clark's co-workers at Euro Brokers who'd led several people down and was going up for more. On the 44th floor, they came upon a wounded man being watched by a security guard, who insisted on staying with the man until help came.

While Clark thought they should take their time, Praimnath urged them to hurry -- sensing that the building might fall. Four minutes after they got out, it did.

"It was like steel bending and creaking," Praimnath said. "It made this -- I can't explain the last sound but it was an eerie sound."

"We heard the boom, boom, boom -- like a series of gunshots," said Clark. "It disappeared into its own dust so quickly. We didn't run initially; we just stared at it in awe."




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