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John Pyndus' 9/11 Survivor Tale

First Posted: 09/09/11 12:14 PM ET Updated: 11/09/11 05:12 AM ET

John Pyndus

Moments after the second tower was hit, John Pyndus realized he might die that day. But Pyndus was a man of faith. As a Eucharistic Minister, he'd served mass that morning at St Peter's Catholic Church in lower Manhattan. The former volunteer firefighter and then-Senior Vice President at Morgan Stanley had been through a smoky but silent attack at the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

"I always thought those towers would be there for me," Pyndus now recalls a week before the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.

On the South Tower's 74th floor, only a few rises below the crash site, Pyndus was among three of the 125 employees left on that floor. Aviation fuel seeped through the holes in the floor as flames dropped from above, singing his eyebrows and hair. Pyndus knew he had to get out. Stairway A was impassable and stairway C was locked. But there appeared to be one stairway left. Fighting off the blazes and smoke, he opened two mahogany doors, which led him to the last fire exit. Able to open the door only three inches, he discovered a wall was blocking the passageway.

As his co-workers slipped through the small opening between the wall and the door, he realized there were people trapped under the wall. Urging his colleagues to flee, he attempted to lift it. "God, I gotta lift this wall," he said as he threw his weight behind it. Nothing happened. Pleading again for God's help, the wall shifted slowly by inches. Startled, he began to feel the wall move and knew it wasn't his own strength that was making the wall move. He knew God moved that wall. Three people emerged from underneath, all alive: Among them, a 6-foot-tall security guard, a woman with a bloody gash on her head and finally a shoeless, heavy-set woman who was almost crippled from back pain. Pyndus assisted the impaired woman, two shuffles for every one of his steps, as she clung to the railing.

Unlike in 1993, light and fresh air fed the stairway, but few people were on it. Finally they met firefighters and police officers who asked them information about where assistance was needed. As they struggled down the stairwell, with little hope they'd make it, Pyndus met a man with the name "Jesus" on his shirt. "Look! Look, it's Jesus!" Pyndus exclaimed. The woman laughed and then shed a few tears as the Hispanic security guard hugged her. Pyndus began to apologize for his mispronunciation, which the man took in jest as they went their separate directions.

As Pyndus and the woman reached the bottom and exited the south tower onto Church Street, not a moment passed before they heard the large crack that heralded the building's collapse, and they ran for their lives. In the dust and wreckage, Pyndus looked around him and found himself next to an Arab man in Muslim garb whose tattered clothing suggested that he'd also escaped the towers. After each asking if the other was all right, they embraced and then parted.

In shock, wandering the streets of Manhattan, a woman preaching the gospel approached him. Looking him over from head to toe she exclaimed, "You've seen Jesus!" He smiled knowingly with a nod, "Yes, I have." He turned to a NYU student who was trying to help him find his way and explained his encounter in the stairway with the Hispanic guard who didn't make it.

In search of a phone, he stumbled upon a Verizon store where, after several tries, he finally reached his wife, Rita. When she answered, he yelled into the phone, "I'm alive!" A chorus of voices roared with delight, from those in the store to the friends and family by his wife's side in their cottage home.

"I didn't doubt it," she says. "I know you'd get out."

Almost a decade later, Pyndus reflects on that day and why he escaped death. He thinks back to the communion he served and wonders about those peoples' fate. He's not angry. He has coped. "I used to think about it every day, the first five to six years, but now I don't." And each time he tells the story he feels a little better, he says.

But the attacks have changed him. "I've never had an angry minute. I never hated," he confides. "I don't harbor any resentment. I hugged my Muslim friend downtown, and I would hug him again."

And to this day, he thanks God for moving that wall.

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