September 11: A survivor’s tale (Fortune, 2001)

This two-photo combo shows financial adv
This two-photo combo shows financial advisor Edward Fine (at left) on 11 September 2001 walking through the debris after he escaped from the World Trade Center Towers moments before they collapsed and (at right) walking in the driveway at his son's home in Watchung, New Jersey 26 September 2001. Fine was on the 78th floor of 1 World Trade Center when it was hit by a hijacked plane 11 September. When the photo at left appeared on the cover of Fortune Magazine, Fine contacted the magazine to identify himself. Fine poses at right in the same suit and carrying the same briefcase he had on the day of the attack.US-WTC-THEN AND NOW-EDWARD FINE AFP PHOTO / Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Photographs by Stan Honda — AFP/Getty Images

A version of this article originally appeared in the October 15, 2001 issue of Fortune magazine.

Edward Fine called a few days ago. I’d really been hoping to hear from him.

Ed is the man I put on Fortune‘s post-WTC attack cover, “Up From the Ashes.” At the time none of us knew his name. He was simply a deeply moving image plucked from a photographic charnelhouse: an Everybusinessman, battered but unbowed, striding out of the rubble and—this was the detail that caused hand to rise to mouth—still carrying his briefcase! Stan Honda of Agence France-Presse had captured this sublimely human moment on film. But who was this guy? What was his story?

Now I can tell you. Ed, it turns out, is a 58-old-year entrepreneur who nine months ago launched EIF Capital Services, a two-man venture capital and consulting firm he runs with his younger son out of his home in North Plainfield, N.J. At 8:45 A.M. on Sept. 11, he was standing outside the 78th-floor elevator bank in Tower One of the World Trade Center, having just concluded a meeting nine floors above with the COO of the May Davis investment bank. “Suddenly I heard an explosion, turned to my left, and saw a wall of debris and smoke heading for me,” he says. “My first thought was that a bomb had gone off.” In the mass confusion that followed, Ed found an emergency exit and urged a number of office workers who were milling about in panic to follow him immediately. “Maybe that was why I had to be there that day,” Ed says, reflecting on the infinite possibilities—a missed elevator, a forgone stop for a cup of coffee—that could have put him somewhere else at that moment. “I am no hero, a hero would have made sure everyone followed, but maybe some were saved because I was there.” This edited passage from a long e-mail he sent me captures the hellishness of that endless descent: “Time was our enemy. You could smell smoke. Was there a fire? Must be. Focus on moving, don’t look back, ignore the pain. Need fresh air. Encounter serious traffic. Why are we stopped? Have to keep moving, smoky smell, bad feeling. One or two start to yell, a brief panic, calm restored. Stopped again. Sweating. Lady handing out wet paper towels. Getting warmer. Come on, get going. Legs hurting. Where are we? 25th floor. Everybody to the right, injured coming down, emergency personnel coming up, the real heroes.” Minutes after Ed emerged, death arrived for those still inside as the tower collapsed in a giant black cloud. But alongside the fear, Ed recalls small acts of kindness—the priest who held his arm and prayed as they lay on the street covered in blinding ash, the employees in a nearby Au Bon Pain, who handed out water and washed people off.

See also: Features on 9/11—Here’s How Much Lower Manhattan Has Changed Since the 9/11 Attacks (2016)

He’s back at work now, as are we all—the lucky ones, the survivors. And despite the uncertainty ahead, Ed remains confident, in part, because, as he puts it, amid the devastation of that day he witnessed innumerable people rising to impossible circumstances, “a melting pot of the extraordinary.”

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