The impact was accompanied by a strong vibration. A shudder that swept the building up and down, like a whiplash over the solid structure. That's the first thing Ron remembers that morning. All his fellow Euro Brokers rose nervously from the seats to peek through the huge window from which each morning enjoyed stunning views of the New York profile. But that was not a normal day: it was September 11, 2001 - next Wednesday 18 years ago. And they were in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
What they saw at first left them baffled . Something had happened in the North Tower, now surrounded by hundreds of papers that emerged from a huge gap in the facade. A black hole that vomited smoke and debris.
Some began to debate whether to leave the building for safety, although they did not know what was happening. They thought one of the elevators could have collapsed. The idea of a terrorist attack did not even cross their minds at that time. They were going to the elevator in the hall when a voice requested to return to their posts. There was no need for evacuation. It was all controlled.
Ron DiFrancesco did not doubt the information received at that first moment. After all, I was Canadian and had only been working in New York for a year. That scene could well be part of the usual chaos of the city. And he returned to his seat.
The calls came later. At first, the clients with whom he spoke asked him, puzzled, why he did not leave as soon as possible. Later he phoned his wife to implore him to return home. And in the end an old friend from Toronto did it. Around him the first scenes of chaos began to form. A partner was screaming in the distance while a group tried to reassure her. He assured, between babbling, that someone had thrown himself into a vacuum from the North Tower. He had seen it with his own eyes.
That was the key moment. When they understood that something serious was happening.
ON THE PLANT 84
Ron headed for the hall with Brian Clarke, the company's executive vice president, when the moment of greatest commotion occurred. A deafening roar flooded everything, accompanied by the effects of a shock wave that launched several people into the air, including Ron. The heat was such that the lenses melted with their eyes. He noticed a horrible sting. Smoke and debris turned diaphanous space into a scene of war. He had wounded wandering around. Others covered their heads, lying on the ground in a fetal position. The screams invaded the space and people ran down the stairs. They were on the 84th floor and using the elevators would be bold in a situation like that. There was no other way out.
-What's going on? - asked some restless voices representing all those present.
No one knew how to respond.
The stairs were full of people descending desperately in search of an exit. Upon reaching the 81st floor, a woman blocked their way.
-It is impossible to cross this plant. There is smoke and fire everywhere. We have to go up to the terrace.
The New York police department had not been rescuing roofs by helicopter for eight years. But that situation did not even arise at that time, because the possibility that the Twin Towers could fall apart did not seem plausible. It would only be necessary to leave and shelter from the smoke while the firemen's equipment arrived.
The group ascended to the 91st floor. There, for the first time, Ron witnessed the death. Hundreds of people crouched against the emergency exit. The door seemed locked and it was impossible to continue. The smoke permeated everything. Breathing was an impossible task. His classmates began to collapse. They fell asleep to the ground and passed out ... Or were they dying?
It was the moment of greatest terror. I knew there was no escape. He thought of his wife and children . In all likelihood I would never see them again. But, among all possible, that was a beautiful memory for an end.
Then he heard the voice. A sound that made its way between fear and despair. Someone who called him by name flatly.
There were no concessions or dread. He turned back and forth. He checked that no one was addressing him when he heard her again.
How weird! Did it come from inside?
-Down again! Go back to the 81st floor! -Told him.
Time was running out. I couldn't waste a second asking questions. I was going to follow the instructions of that stranger. The other option was to lie there and die intoxicated.
He ran down the stairs, obeying the orders of the unexpected claim. Upon reaching the 81st floor, a huge column of fire cut through the stairs. Despite everything, Ron felt accompanied. There was no room for discouragement. The presence was guiding him. Hope had returned.
- Jump! he listened.
And he did. He crossed the fire without thinking of a show of courage that emerged from an unknown corner and never before traveled.
To his surprise he succeeded. The doubts disappeared. The invisible guardian continued to give him precise instructions. I was driving him to the exit.
The road to the 76th floor was not easy, but each message was accurate. And after endless minutes, Ron managed to descend from the impact zone - the American Airlines plane hit between floors 77 and 85 of the South Tower.
The presence - if we can call it that, because our witness only heard it - disappeared when the smoke and fire ceased to be an impediment to keep moving forward. Ron stopped feeling the company near the 70th floor. Nor did the sound return. Now I was alone. Completely alone. And going out alive, from that moment, would depend exclusively on your expertise. At least there was no fire. He ran downstairs as never before until, a few minutes later, he was at the main entrance. There was hardly anyone left. Only the screams of the firemen who seemed to notice that the building was about to collapse. Then he noticed a great tremor and saw that a kind of fireball was heading towards him. Something hit him hard in the head. And he fainted.
PASSED ... AND SAVED
Ron DiFrancesco woke up three days later in the hospital. The firemen managed to take it out at the last moment. He was, in fact, the last survivor. During his early hours he did not know that the Twin Towers no longer existed. Nor that he had been the victim of one of the worst attacks of the 21st century. But he knew that a mysterious voice had saved his life. And that was enough.
Pain, not just physical, accompanied him for years. And he still hasn't abandoned it at all. I perceive it when he tells me his incredible odyssey via Skype.
I speak of neurologists like Oliver Sacks who have investigated in depth that voice that appears when everything is lost. He himself was a direct witness of the phenomenon (he called it "the voice of life").
After several hours of talk, he acknowledges that he is shameful to talk about this for his teammates who did not suffer the same fate . «Why did it help me and not others? And why didn't I take anyone else with me? ”He asks me in the end with tears peeking out of his eyes, repeating that kind of recurring question that haunts you every night before sleep. «Now I have scars all over my body and a lump on my head. But I also have a family. And wonderful people. And they have given me 18 years of life. That is ... Every day is a gift for me ».
Who saved him? Was it the extreme effect of the survival instinct? Something caused by hypoxia, as some scientists venture? Or is there something else?
Ron does not know how to answer me, but he is certain: he cannot miss his second chance. He is currently part of a support fund for childhood cancer research, in addition to other associations in which he does not want to deepen due to modesty. In short, he has also become a guardian. Meat and bone, yes. But no less miraculous.
«The Guardians» (Editorial Planeta), by Javier Pérez Campos, now on sale
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