Feature writing

Special feature

9/11 Ten Years On: The Survivors – Ed Fine

The Times

September 2, 2011


Ten years have passed since September 11, 2001, but what has happened to some of the people caught up in that momentous day? In this special feature, we meet the survivors, such as the dust-covered bank teller and the businessman whose images came to symbolise New York’s remarkable spirit.

We speak to the retired fireman who went to the site to help and ended up standing next to President Bush, and to an injured young woman and the marshal who carried her from the ruins of the twin towers. Brian Clark and Stanley Praimnath recount their escape from the southern tower, two of only four survivors from above the point of impact. Howard W. Lutnick, CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, reveals the emotional cost of losing 658 employees, including his brother, and four widows describe grieving for their husbands.

Vivid, shocking, upsetting, inspiring: their stories embody a day that remains impossible to forget. 


Ed Fine, 68, became known as “the dust man” after his photograph appeared on the cover of Fortune magazine. Fine lives in Watchung, New Jersey, with Ingrid, his wife of 47 years. They have two children, Stuart, 44, and Heidi, 42. 

“I have the suit, briefcase, shoes, ferry ticket and World Trade Centre pass from that day. I still wear the shoes and use the briefcase. The ferry ticket says, ‘Enjoy your trip’. Well, the trip there was very enjoyable; the trip back not so much. When researchers said the image of me from the day was ‘inspiring’, I told them, ‘You can hear my story, as long as you pay me $911.’ I didn’t think they would. Many did.

“That day, I shouldn’t have been anywhere near the Towers. I had recently started an investment banking business with my son, Stuart. He called the night before to tell me he was too sick to go to a morning meeting on the 87th floor of the northern tower. He asked me to go instead.

“My meeting finished early. I took the elevator down to the 79th floor where you caught express elevators to the lobby. I needed to go to the bathroom but figured I could hold it in. An elevator arrived. I ran for it, but was two seconds late. I believe if I had gotten it I wouldn’t be talking to you today. Those elevators took a minute and a half to go down. Twenty seconds later the first plane hit and I heard jet fuel went straight into the lift shafts. I don’t think it reached the bottom.

“I looked down the hallway and coming towards me was a cloud of glass, smoke and fire. I heard screaming. I ducked into an adjoining hallway. I saw people covered in dust, their faces cut and bleeding. Eventually I found the right exit staircase and led a small group of people. We ran down about 25 flights until it started to get crowded. There was very little talking. At the 45th floor a woman was handing out wet paper towels. I took one. It probably saved my life.

“As we got lower, I thought, ‘I’m definitely not going to make my next appointment.’ On the 3rd and 4th floors the sprinkler system had activated and we waded through 4 inches of water. Outside I looked up and saw fire and smoke coming out of the windows. I walked a block or so and sat down on a wall beside a church. My knees were killing me having walked down all those flights. I got up two minutes later and heard this resounding boom. I turned around and saw what I later knew to be the southern tower falling. I was mesmerised. I felt someone run past me; they slapped me on the back and screamed, ‘Run!’ I turned left to go uptown when I saw a priest and emergency worker standing staring downtown. I looked at what they were watching and saw a mountain of smoke and debris coming towards us on Broadway. I thought, ‘Oh s***, how ironic. God saved me, took me out of that building. Now I’m going to be killed on the street.’

“All three of us got down on the ground, the priest praying like crazy. A couple of seconds later we were covered in this very warm cloud. I was thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to hold my breath. I’m going to die here.’ I remembered the wet towel I’d been given and put it over my mouth and nose and breathed – I don’t know for how long, it seemed like for ever. I felt people walking on me and thought, ‘I should get out of here.’ The moment I opened my eyes, I was hit with a burning sensation.

“A few minutes later it was still pitch black above me but around me was grey. I found a bus, but I was the only one on it that was covered in dust and soot. There must have been around 15,000 people waiting for the ferry. People looked at me and said, ‘Were you downtown?’ I wasn’t aware how bad I looked. These emergency teams offered medical attention and water. I said I just wanted to get on the ferry and go home. Ambulance workers wanted to brush me down, which I said yes to, figuring I didn’t want to get dust all over the car. When I got home Ingrid told me I should see the doctor, who told me my blood pressure was perfect, my lungs clear, but my legs would be stiff like iron rods the next day.

“I didn’t watch television immediately: I didn’t want to see footage of people jumping from the buildings. I realised four or five times I could have died had I made different decisions: if I’d gone to the bathroom, if I’d gotten into that elevator; I thought I might just sit and wait for it all to calm down but didn’t; then lying in the debris and remembering I had the wet paper towel.

“Six months later, I was called by Alan Shortall, CEO of Unilife [then called Unitract and now listed on Nasdaq as ‘Unis’]. He talked to me about the company’s product, an automatically retractable syringe that becomes disabled after use, and its potential for preventing needlestick injuries and syringe sharing. Most of the past nine years have been devoted to getting it commercialised. For me, it was the purpose for which I was saved.

“I didn’t have therapy. I’m not a big boo-hoo guy. Oprah’s team called looking for people who’d been traumatised by the event and I told them that wasn’t me. People said I was a symbol of the defiant American businessman, but I didn’t want to be that. When I see my picture, it makes me realise our lives hang by a thread: you could be doing what you’re doing and then in the next instant – bam – you’re dead. Before 9/11 I was a workaholic. I always said, ‘Next year I’ll change,’ but never did. Now Ingrid and I spend time enjoying life: we’re more in love today than when we got married. I’m focused on work, but it doesn’t consume me. There’s no computer in my holiday luggage.”