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Canadian last known person to escape World Trade Center on 9/11

Ron DiFrancesco was convinced to leave the trading floor on the 84th storey of the south tower, seconds before a plane tore through his office, leading to the building's collapse.

THUNDER BAY – On Sept. 11, 2001, Ron DiFrancesco went to work like any other day, joining a throng of people racing to their offices in the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan.

He had no idea what was about to unfold.

A few hours later, a plane slammed into the side of the north tower, and he and his colleagues rushed to the window, watching in stunned disbelief at the smoke and flames pouring from the gaping hole in the New York City landmark.

To his horror, panicked people in the doomed building started jumping, dozens of floors above the ground.

Unable to watch, he turned away and returned to his desk and called his wife, assuring her he was OK and encouraging her to turn the television on and watch the incident unfold.

DiFrancesco, his office situated on the 84th floor of the south tower, started taking phone calls from friends around the world, worried for his safety.

Panic had yet to set in.

That would soon change, when the Hamilton-born DiFrancesco took a call from a trader friend in Toronto, who surveyed the situation and advised his friend to get out of the building as soon as possible. He agreed, called his wife again and then asked a few colleagues to join him. His friend Mike agreed.

“Having just left the trading room, heading to the elevator banks, Mike and I were walking when the second plane hit. Flight 175 hit the south tower at an angle, from the 78th to the 85th floors. Its starboard wing cut right through our trading room. I think now many of my associates perished on impact,” DiFrancesco said on Friday, speaking to board staff at Thunder Bay’s St. Ignatius High School as part of the Catholic Board’s professional development day.

“Mike and I were hurled forward, thrown against the walls, and covered in ceiling tiles and wall debris. At the time I didn’t know it was a plane. I thought a generator down below had blown up.”

Catching their bearings, and realizing the scope of the damage, DiFrancesco took to the nearest stairwell, looking to manoeuvre 84 stories down. Only he, and others with him, encountered a stream of people heading up the stairs, saying the way down was impassable.

They decided to go up, his sense of control over the situation rapidly deteriorating.

Not long afterward, they restarted their descent, having manoeuvred their way around the damage to a stairwell that appeared intact.

“All that was left and lucid was my desire to see my wife, Mary, and my four beautiful children,” DiFrancesco said, the thick smoke and lack of oxygen making it tougher and tougher to go on.

“Folks, I honestly thought that we were dying,” he said.

“That’s when I heard it, someone clearly and calmly guiding me to get up and come this way. The faithful, and I count myself among you, by the way, will have very little trouble understanding what that means. The more secular may believe it was my adrenaline-fuelled synapsis. Here’s what I do know. If I ever hear a voice, that clear, that calm and that forceful, telling me to get up, I’ll do it. It made me get up, back on my feet, and I followed the voice back into the thickest of smoke and the fire.”

He ran into a barrier, a sheet of drywall, and pushed it, using it to slide down a gap in the stairwell to the next landing.

“Everything was on fire, but I could see. I ran through a couple more flights of stairs that were on fire, but now I had no sense of the pain. I was moving . . . and if there was any chance of me making it, it was now. Suddenly it was clear and calm and wet.”

DiFrancesco kept moving down, floor after floor, eventually running into three firefighters heading in the opposite direction. They told him to keep going down.

Fifty-four minutes after the plane hit the building, he stumbled out of the south tower and into the courtyard.

“I tell you this with all sincerity folks. The images that I carried with me on that day have no place in man’s imagination,” DiFrancesco said.

“It was a war zone. Worse, it was war on the innocent. It was a landscape of hell here on Earth. There was wreckage and burning debris and there were bodies everywhere – some charred, some crushed . . . Now I just wanted to run and get out of that place.”

Fifty-six minutes after the south tower was struck, the building collapsed on itself.

Seconds before, a security guard redirected DiFrancesco underneath the building toward the Church Street exit, where he met a friend named John.

“The upper floors had begun to pancake with an ungodly roar,” he said. “We ran. We ran for our lives. I looked to the right and saw a huge fireball coming at us. I screamed at John, 'Run!' and ran as fast as I could toward the Church Street exit. I remember being hit hard on the head and began to lose consciousness.”

Once again he thought he was about to die, not knowing he was likely the last person to escape the south tower before it collapsed.

He woke up a few days later in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village.

“I had burns over 60 per cent of my body. I had been intubated. I had a sizable laceration in my head and a broken bone in my back. My contact lenses were melted to my eyes. But I was alive, alive to join the rest of the world to try to make sense of that horrific day,” DiFrancesco said.

“Alive to mourn the loss of all those innocent people, and alive to try to determine why I survived.”

Wracked with survivor’s guilt, DiFrancesco for years said little about that day publicly, not wanting loved ones of those who didn’t make it out to have to live Sept. 11 all over again. However, he has since rethought that decision and is sharing his story as a way to spread a message of hope and perseverance, reminding his audience to cherish every moment they’ve been given.

“What works for some may not work for others, and that’s OK,” he said. “All I want to say is you do what you have to do to propel yourself forward.”

Leith Dunick

About the Author: Leith Dunick

A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith is Dougall Media's director of news, but still likes to tell your stories too. Wants his Expos back and to see Neil Young at least one more time. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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