9/11 Anniversary: Survivor Reflects on Escaping Death

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There are hundreds of stories from those who, one way or another, narrowly escaped death on 9/11.

Missed trains, buses or ferries; doctors appointments and phone calls. One woman was held up nearly being run over by actress Gwyneth Paltrow's car.

But few came quite as close as Keating Crown.

Nearly 2,000 people were at or above the points of impact at the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001. Only 18 survived. Crown was one of them.

Crown was working for the financial services group of AON Insurance on the 100th floor of the South Tower when the North Tower was hit.

After watching in horror as a fireball engulfed several floors of the North Tower, Crown and hundreds of others streamed down 22 flights of stairs to the 78th floor sky lobby, where express elevators would speed them to the ground floor. At that point no one knew what had hit the North Tower, or why.

Just before 9 a.m., an announcement on the building's public address system told workers the South Tower was "secure," that they could return to their desks.

Many decided to go back up, but hundreds of others decided to evacuate regardless of instructions, and remained waiting for the elevators. They had no idea a second jet was roaring directly toward them. The explosion ripped through the 78th floor sky lobby. Of the people there, the only survivors were those standing in alcoves, or farthest from where the plane hit.

"There were over 200 people on the 78th floor," Crown said, "and I was fortunate to be in one square foot where I was able to survive the impact."

One minute he was standing in a room with 200 people. In the blink of an eye, it was just 14.

Crown suffered lacerations and a broken leg, but was able to get to a stairwell, and run down the remaining 78 floors. Separated from his colleagues, Crown encountered a friend on the first floor who helped him to the triage area and into an ambulance. Minutes after the ambulance pulled away, Crown said, the building came crashing down.

Structural engineer Gene Corley, vice president of Skokie, Ill.-based CTL Group, wrote a U.S. government report on how the World Trade Center performed after being attacked. He explained how it was possible for a very few to survive the extreme impact.

"He was at or just below the location where the plane came in," Corley said of survivor Crown. "There was a tremendous explosion there, a big fireball that engulfed that area and he would have been in it and the only way that anyone really could survive that is really be very lucky or have some kind of protection."

Not only that, Corley said, but if Crown had breathed in at the wrong time, the searing hot gases from the explosion could have burned his lungs too badly to survive.

Of the three potential stairwells he could have used, two were too badly damaged to use. The third suffered impassable damage above the 78th floor.

"The plane got two of the stairs," Corley said. "So the third one was missed because the plane didn't hit the tower exactly in the center."

By chance, it was that stairwell that Crown took.

Crown, 33, credits family and friends' support in the weeks that followed for his ability to cope with the tragedy he'd experienced. Many of his thoughts at first were with the first responders who helped him.

"There were a number of paramedics, first responders, doctors that had run down to the site that were taking care of me and didn't survive when our building fell," he said. "People from all over the city descended on the site ... and I was one of the lucky ones."

The Guilt of 9/11

No one above the impact zone of the North Tower survived. Of those who died in the South Tower, only seven were below where the plane entered, and 619 were either in or above the point of impact.

Those in or above the point of impact in the South Tower weigh particularly heavily on George Tabeek, the Port Authority second in command for the World Trade Center's security. Tabeek made the call not to evacuate the South Tower after the North Tower was hit, to issue instructions telling people to go back.

"People were overwhelmed as to what was going on," Tabeek said. "I've been criticized for the orders I gave that day."

Tabeek worried about the debris raining down from the crippled North Tower onto the plaza below. Tabeek described "things coming down as big as refrigerators."

He saw a man decapitated in front of his eyes. "I saw the [north] building/tower twisting so violently," he said, "and then rainbows." Rainbows caused by glass shattering, people falling.

Tabeek was afraid that if he evacuated people who he thought were safe in the South Tower, he said, they'd be in grave danger from the falling debris.

"We never took into consideration a dual attack, and we never anticipated planes. I always thought it could be a corporate jet and nothing more," he said. "In our wildest dreams, we never thought it would be a fully loaded commercial airliner with full tanks of fuel."

When the plane hit the South Tower, Tabeek happened to be standing behind a recently installed bomb-proof pane. "My knuckles were touching the glass," he said. "That glass saved nine of our lives."

Tabeek lost 34 employees and helpers that day. A year after 9/11, he had a nervous breakdown. Now, he said, he needs pills to stay calm.

Giving Back

As for survivor Crown, "From the very beginning, I knew how lucky I really was and I wasn't sure what I was going to do to give back or pay back."

But he knew he wanted to do something.

The opportunity came in the form of the 9/11 Memorial, which invited Crown to be on its board. He is one of the youngest people on it, and the only 9/11 survivor.

"I think I bring a different perspective to the board," he said. "There are parts of the day that I remember that can add to what we're doing on the site. At the beginning of the year, we planted the survivor tree and it serves as a symbol of remembrance for those of us that were lucky, alongside the nearly 3,000 names on the site that were not as lucky."

Along with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Crown and the rest of the board have helped raise $400 million to date to pay for the memorial. While most of the memorial will open on 9/11/11, he said, they still need more donations to help pay for the yet-to-be-finished museum, as well as to fund the whole project for many years to come.

Memorial Helps Healing Process

Crown disagrees with critics who say the memorial has taken too long to build, particularly for grieving families looking to mourn those whose lives were lost. "This site is unlike any other," he said. "It's unique and there's shared infrastructure and the fact that we did build it and are delivering it 10 years later, I think is a major feat."

For him, too, working with the memorial team has been part of his own healing process, as well as a way of doing something for victims' families.

"The memorial will serve as a place for us to remember the victims of Sept. 11 and we should never forget them," he say. "We should never forget what happened."

Tabeek won't be going to the memorial on the 10th anniversary.

"Every anniversary I run away," he said. "I can't go down to the area of the World Trade Center since a year after my breakdown. Memorial? No."

"I can't shake it," he said, his voice breaking. "I still have bad nightmares and grieve for all those I lost that day. When there's a loud noise I still jump. I was always calm before."

Shying away for a long time, from anyone affiliated with the World Trade Center, for fear of further blame, Tabeek went to the annual WTC picnic in 2008 for family and friends for the first time since 9/11. "It took me seven years before I had enough courage to go," he said. "I was scared to go because I felt so guilty that I lost so many and I lived."

Now he attends every year. "Everyone greeted me with such warm hearts," he said. "It was such a good feeling, even though I had this guilt feeling in my own heart."

Meanwhile, Crown is looking forward to unveiling the memorial Sunday. "I'm very excited for it to deliver on Sunday and for the victims family members to be on site and experience it," he said.

"I think it's really important as we remember and reflect on 9/11, we also think about how New York came together and the country came together ... how people came together around the world," he said. "Sept .11 didn't just impact New York. It impacted people from all over the world, people from almost 100 countries died on Sept.11."

Ten years on, Crown is also excited that his first baby is due this weekend. Although he and his wife have since moved to Chicago, they made plans to have the baby in New York for the anniversary.

"The timing we'll be having a baby is pretty unique when you think about relative to 10 years ago on the 11th," he said. "But we're really looking forward to it and being able to have the baby here in New York is really special. We hope someday to bring my children down to the memorial site and let them know what people went through and the loss and how lucky I was."

To donate to the memorial.