N E W Y O R K, Oct. 3, 2001 -- On Sept. 11, Manu Dhingra stepped off the elevator on the 83rd floor of World Trade Center Tower One and walked into a ball of fire.
His first thought was, "Please, God, just make it quick." But his ordeal wasn't over quickly — in fact, it was just beginning. Dhingra survived the fireball and managed to walk down 82 flights for help.
On Tuesday, Dhingra became the first victim of the World Trade Center attacks to be released from the New York Weill Cornell Burn Center, where 14 other burn patients are still recovering from the attack.
Dhingra suffered second and third-degree burns over 35 percent of his body, including his face, hands, arms, ankle, back and chest. He underwent skin grafts and still has to undergo intensive physical therapy on his hands and arms to keep them from stiffening.
He told Good Morning America that the intense pain he felt at first has faded to discomfort.
"Where I had the grafts, it doesn't really hurt anymore," Dhingra said. "The back and the face is more like a bad sunburn now — to the stage where it fries out and you have to keep lotioning it all of the time."
'Make it Quick'
Dhingra, a 27-year-old securities trader at Andover Brokerage, worked on the 83rd floor of World Trade Center Tower One. He still remembers the beautiful view of the city from his office. Tower One was the first building hit and the second to collapse.
Dhingra was late to work that morning. He was just stepping off the elevator when American Airlines Flight 11 struck the building.
"It was rather brief, but I thought it was pretty much over for me at that time," Dhingra said.
Dhingra ran into an office a couple of doors down. His friends and coworkers Brian Chen and Jason Chen (not related) helped him down the stairs, thinking that no one would come up 83 floors to save him.
Because his burns were intensely painful to the touch, Dhingra walked down by himself, with his two colleagues in front and behind him to shield him from others who might accidentally rub against his burned body.
His buddies kept telling him there were only 10 flights to go. But Dhingra realized later that they were telling him that even though they were still on the 61st floor. Adrenaline kept him going down the stairs, he said.
"They lied about the floor that I was on," Dhingra said. "They were really great."
Dr. Roger Yurt, who treated Dhingra, said the intensity of the heat he experienced must have been tremendous — thousands of degrees. "But also, he didn't catch on fire," Yurt said. "He was actually burned from the intense heat he was exposed to. How he made it, I'm not sure ... I think it was what we call the adrenaline rush, and maybe the lying helped too," he said.
Dhingra, who was born in India, moved to the United States as a young child. He plans on spending a lot of time with his family in the New York area, rather than rushing back to work.
He said he's not sure how he will get back to a normal life. "I just want to basically now do something with the people of New York to help other people who are suffering through this tragedy," he said.