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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ M P Anil Kumar

9/11: A Tale of true friends

September 11, 2007

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The sixth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks is upon us. It is an occasion to pause and reflect, and to remember the victims and bravehearts. Like in every saga of human struggle, 9/11 too abounded in inspirational chronicles of altruism and heroism.

New Mobility magazine (November 2001) recounted the accounts of friends and co-workers who imperilled their lives to save two wheelchair-bound mortals. They worked on separate floors of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

John Abruzzo, 41, a staff accountant, was working at his computer on the 69th floor of WTC one when the first hijacked airliner lanced into the skyscraper. The tower reeled and he sensed the tremor.

A quadriplegic, he instinctively coaxed his power wheelchair into the hallway. Once there, he hailed an associate who hastily fetched the office EvacChair and transferred him into this rescue device -- a large pushchair look-alike with a sled-like portion to cushion the bumpy journey down stairs. The evacuation procedure peremptorily bids the wheelchair user to wait for the firefighters, but ten of his fellow workers ignored it, toiled in shifts of three to four to painstakingly lower him down each flight of stairs, with one of them leading the corps as a scout.

When warned of heavy smoke around the 40th floor, the team cut across to a stairwell on the other side of the building. At the 20th floor, they heard an ear-splitting thunder that emanated from the other tower -- steel and concrete plunging en masse. Another rumble jolted them at the 10th floor but they kept going; nothing was going to stop them.

Eventually they made it to the lobby where Abruzzo had to be heaved over congeries of fallen debris. Since chunks of boulder-sized concrete made their exit impassable, Abruzzo, still harnessed to the rescue device, was hoisted and evacuated through a smashed window and out onto the sidewalk.

They jostled their way with the shoving mass of escapees up the streets away from Lower Manhattan. Then they halted to look back, only to espy raining debris and falling bodies through gargantuan grey clouds of dust. Ground Zero was behind them, they sighed. An ambulance rushed Abruzzo for medical attention. He lived to tell the tale.

Happy-go-lucky Edward Beyea, 42, was a high-level programme analyst working on the 27th floor of WTC one. Abraham Zelmanowitz, 55, another programmer, was this quadriplegic's crony and confrere. The two shared their love of food, books and music, hit it off, and soon they were thick as thieves. Sixty-eight-year-old Irma Morant, Beyea's daytime aide, was in the bathroom by the cafeteria on the 43rd floor when she heard a boom and felt the high-rise quivering. She surmised it was seismical. By the time she and others hustled out of the bathroom, shards, rubble and water had covered the floor, and miasmic fumes had begun invading the storey. She scrambled to Beyea's side by taking the north stairwell to the 27th floor and then crossed over to the south side.

The effluvia Morant inhaled while slaloming down the staircase forced her to cough interminably. So Zelmanowitz told her to skedaddle and he volunteered to be with Beyea. She found a fireman in a landing and told him where Beyea was and that he needed oxygen. And beseeched him to take care of Beyea. The fireman dutifully nodded.

Beyea, a thickset 300-pound man, was fastidious about being carried properly as he had broken his bones once. And he needed at least three firemen to move him down the stairway. Since he did not wish to impede those fleeing, he constantly gave way to them. Mind you, none of them was thinking then that the imposing edifice might cave in.

Zelmanowitz called his family on the cellphone and told them he was alright. Alarmed, his aged mother pleaded with him to bolt, but he was unshakably determined to stay with Beyea disregarding his personal safety. And he would wait with his best friend of 12 years, till the very end. Entombed together in the WTC wreckage, unseparated even in death, they have immortalised a friendship that stood the test of time and adversity.

In keeping with the human drama that unfolded on that dark day, one perished and one escaped by the skin of his teeth, but their touching stories stand as a towering tribute not only to the buddies and colleagues who jeopardised their lives to rescue them but also to the indomitable human spirit.

In his address on the national day of prayer and remembrance, President George W Bush [Images] paid homage to Abe Zelmanowitz by saying, 'One man who could have saved himself stayed until the end at the side of his quadriplegic friend.'

I cannot but doff my hat at the sacrificial devotion of Zelmanowitz. Overall, to know that the force of goodness still inheres in our midst to subdue the unbridled sway of evil is reassuring, especially in these times of swelling cynicism, decaying values and evanescing ties.

M P Anil Kumar is a former MiG-21 pilot. He was discharged from the Indian Air Force due to a serious spinal cord injury resulting in quadriplegia, and now lives in the the Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre, Khadki, Pune. The article has been summarised with the permission of New Mobility magazine.

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