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Video: 9/11 survivor who ‘surfed’ on debris ‘thought I was dead’

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    >> half hour on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a survivor's story that's just now being publicly told for the first time. in a moment we'll talk to pasquale who was in the north tower as he rode down 15 stories of concrete and falling debris to make it out alive. it's the focus of a discovery channel special premiering tonight called "the 9/11 surfer" narrated by nbc's willie geist .

    >> by five past 10:00 on the morning of 9/11, the south tower of the world trade center was gone. up above on the 64th floor of the north tower pasquale was still waiting with his colleagues. he and his colleagues started down one of the three exit stairway, stairway "b." by 10:28 they made it down as far as the 22nd floor.

    >> and then just felt the railing just start to shake and this loud, loud noise from above. i thought of my wife, our unborn child. thoughts went through my head quickly about not -- not ever seeing her, not being able to see her again, and, you know, i just -- just split seconds, just praying, knowing that i was going to die. i've never experienced jumping out of a plane, but i guess falling or jumping out of the plane, that feeling of just riding the air and getting knocked around and riding, you know, that surfing kind of feeling, was what i was experiencing.

    >> according to pasquale , his fall ended here at the pop of what was left the stairway "b."

    >> i didn't feel anything. my body was totally numb. i mean, i felt nothing at all. i just opened my eye and saw blue sky . i really thought i was dead.

    >> fortunately for pasquale there were fire fighters out there who were willing to brave the dangers in the hope of finding survivors.

    >> we had no idea whether he was fire or civilian or what he was. it really didn't matter, but the fact that we saw an individual up there, after what we climbed through and the position that he was, was nothing short of miraculous.

    >> they said we got it from here. don't worry, we're going to get you out of here. you know, at that point i was like thank god, you know.

    >> and pasquale is with us now, along with his wife louise, their daughters 10-year-old hope and 7-year-old mia. good morning to all of you.

    >> good morning.

    >> we have animation to show this harrowing rise. were you on the 64th floor, evacuated down to the 22nd and fell essentially to the 4th floor. the name of the documentary is "the 9/11 surfer." sounds like an odd word.

    >> yes, very odd. i mean, i've heard about the urban legends , always read about it, and my wife was like that's you, that's you, and, you know, it -- they pretty much dub it had that on discovery and the show, and because they did a study on it and said basically how i survived is i was in this pocket of air or uplift of wind, the way i described the fall so i guess 9/11 surfer, yeah.

    >> you said urban legend which it's true. some people are skeptical, and you said if you had heard this story you might have been skeptical as well.

    >> of course. i'm an engineer and believe in science and facts. i mean, i went through it so i know what i went through, and if i hadn't, someone told me the story, i'd be skeptical also.

    >> why now? it's been 11 years. you've never come forward and told this story. why did you decide this is the time to tell what happened publicly?

    >> i mean, hi done certain small local things because we started a foundation trying to raise money for the mothers whose husbands didn't make it at the time who were pregnant. it was very difficult telling the story then. i couldn't. i was going through post-traumatic stress and survivor guilt from that, and it took a long time to heal from that. i just -- i forced myself to -- to do that, to try to give something back. eventually i came to, you know, accept what had happened to me. i was able to go on and mourn and grieve. i lost my friends, pat, steve, others that were with me that day, so i feel now it's an important story to share with others, so my wife and i decided to actually write a book and put it down, and they did this on discovery channel .

    >> we heard you talk in the tape piece about the sensation of falling. can you still remember that to this day?

    >> absolutely, absolutely. every moment of that pre-falling, i -- the final impact , the final flash of when i landed, it was -- that i don't know was either when i actually landed and got knocked unconscious or during the fall i got hit with something, got knocked unconscious, but split second later i opened up my eyes, and i just felt -- like i said, i thought i was dead and then i started to cough and feel pain, and i said i can't -- i couldn't believe at that point, i looked up and there was nothing above me. the building was gone and i couldn't even believe it myself at that point.

    >> louise here you are at home. he had called you a couple of times. you saw that tower fall, and you knew he was inside. you must have thought he didn't make it.

    >> oh, absolutely. i watched the second plane hit and then i watched the second tower fall, and then i watched his building fall, and i was pregnant at the time with hope, and i just -- i knew he didn't get out in time because we spoke on the phone just a few minutes before that, and, you know, for those couple of hours that i didn't hear from him, i was a widow, and i was carrying this baby, and there was nothing i could do, and i just watched the whole thing happen right in front of me. it was just a feeling of just hopeless, you know, helplessness really.

    >> it must still be so hard to see that image of the tower falling knowing that you were inside.

    >> yeah. i've watched it so many times after. i actually became fixated on it, and, you know, it took me a long time to heal from that. i'm better now and things are -- things are good. i'm happy again, and i think it's important that people realize that, you know, some people say, you know, out there, you hear it all the time. 9/11, get over it. that's ridiculous. first of all you shouldn't be telling someone else to get over it. i celebrate each day. my friend pat always said that, enjoy life, and just remember those that tried to save us and didn't make it and remember those that we lost.

    >> and the book you've written is a part of that remembering.

    >> yes.

    >> and i know hope did the illustrations so that's pretty neat. thank you so much for coming here and sharing your story and helping us remember.

By
TODAY contributor
updated 9/11/2012 9:42:48 AM ET 2012-09-11T13:42:48

Eleven years ago, Pasquale Buzzelli somehow survived the attacks of Sept. 11 when he rode a wave of debris while falling nearly 20 stories inside the collapsing North Tower of the World Trade Center.

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For more than a decade, he did not talk in depth about his story publicly, still coming to grips with the events of that day. He has now come forward to detail his tale of survival in a Discovery channel special, “The 9/11 Surfer,” which premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET. Accompanied by his wife and two young daughters, Buzzelli spoke with Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Tuesday about his incredible survival and his decision to detail his story publicly for the first time. (He and his wife, Louise, have also written an e-book, “The True Story of the 9/11 Surfer: We All Fall Down.’’)

“It was very  difficult telling the story then,’’ Buzzelli told Guthrie. “I couldn’t. I was going through post-traumatic stress and survivor guilt from that. It took a long time to heal from that. I forced myself to do that, to try to give something back. Eventually I came to accept what had happened to me. I was able to go on and mourn. I feel now that it’s an important story to share with others.’’

Video: After 9/11, daughter thinks about life if mom lived

‘The building was gone’
A structural engineer for the Port Authority, Buzzelli was being evacuated from his office on the 64th floor of the North Tower after the South Tower had already fallen on Sept. 11, 2001. When he reached the stairs on the 22nd floor at 10:28 a.m., the 110-story building began to collapse, and he somehow rode a blizzard of debris to the rubble of what used to be Stairway B on the fourth floor. He survived after being found by firefighters.

“You just felt the railing just start to shake and this loud, loud noise from above,’’ Buzzelli recounts in the Discovery special. “I thought of my wife, my unborn child, (and) thoughts went through my head quickly about not being able to see her again. Split seconds, just praying and knowing that I was going to die.

10 years after 9/11, a dad triumphs over terror

“I’ve never experienced jumping out of a plane, but I guess falling while jumping out of a plane, that feeling of just riding the air and getting knocked around. That surfing kind of feeling was what I was experiencing.’’

Buzzelli said he briefly lost consciousness during the ordeal and when he revived, he saw nothing but blue sky where the building once stood.

“A split second later, I opened up my eyes and I thought I was dead,’’ he told Guthrie. “Then I started to cough, feel pain, and I couldn’t believe. I looked up and there was nothing above me. The building was gone. I couldn’t believe it myself at that point.’’

Slideshow: Marking the 11th anniversary of 9/11 (on this page)

‘Nothing short of miraculous’
Buzzelli understands that the fact that he has waited more than a decade to tell his story in depth and the unreal nature of it might make some people skeptical.

“I’ve heard about the urban legends,’’ Buzzelli said. “I’ve always read about it, and my wife was like ‘That’s you, that’s you.’ (The Discovery channel) did a study on it, and they said that basically how I survived was in this pocket of air or this uplift of wind, (from) the way I described the fall.

“I’m an engineer. I believe in science and facts. I went through it, so I know what I went through. If I hadn’t and someone told me the story, I would be skeptical also.’’

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“We had no idea whether he was fire or civilian or what he was,’’ New York City firefighter Mike Lyons told NBC News. “I guess (it) really didn’t matter. But the fact that we saw an individual up there after what we had climbed through, in the position that he was, was nothing short of miraculous.’’

While Buzzelli was in the midst of the collapsing North Tower, his wife was watching it unfold on television while pregnant with their daughter, Hope. The couple had spoken on the phone only minutes earlier.

“For those couple of hours that I didn’t hear from him, I was a widow,’’ she told Guthrie. “I was carrying this baby, and there was nothing I could do. I just watched the whole thing happen right in front of me, and it was just a feeling of just hopeless… helplessness.’’

Video: 9/11 survivor who ‘surfed’ on debris ‘thought I was dead’ (on this page)

While the feeling of riding the air and the surreal nature of waking up alive was seared into Buzzelli’s memory in the aftermath, he could not stop watching the video footage of the building collapsing even while still mourning the deaths of several close friends from that day.

“I watched it so many times after that I actually became fixated on it,’’ he said. “It took me a long time to heal from that. I’m better now and things are good. I’m happy again.’’

Pasquale and his wife started a foundation to help women who were pregnant at the time and had husbands who perished in the attacks.

“You hear it all the time, ‘Oh, get over it, 9/11, get over it,’’’ he said. “That’s ridiculous. First of all, you shouldn’t be telling someone else to get over it. The bottom line is that you should celebrate each day. Enjoy life and just remember those that tried to save us and didn’t make it, and remember those that we lost.’’

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Marking the 11th anniversary of 9/11

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  1. The Tribute in Light shines as One World Trade Center rises under construction on the eleventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks on lower Manhattan at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, in New York City. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Tribute in Light illuminates the sky over Lower Manhattan in remembrance of the 9/11 attacks on the 11-year anniversary in New York on Sept. 11. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. People take part in a sunset yoga session as the Tribute in Light shines over the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River on the 11-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York, on Sept. 11. (Brendan McDermid / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Jillian and Eloy Suarez embrace following a ceremony marking the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York City, Sept. 11. Eloy Suarez was a first responder during the 9/11 attacks. New York City and the nation are commemorating the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks which resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people after two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. and one crash landed in Shanksville, Pa. (John Moore / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The pavilion entrance, center, to the National September 11 Museum is nestled between two reflecting pools at the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11 in New York City. An agreement that paves the way for the completion of the Sept. 11 museum at ground zero was reached on the eve of the 11th anniversary of the terror attacks. The memorandum of understanding between the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the foundation that controls the National September 11 Memorial & Museum was announced Monday. (Mark Lennihan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Carrie Bergonia remembers her fiancee firefighter Joseph Ogren after reading his name during observances held on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 in New York City on Sept. 11. (Todd Maisel / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Police officers from the authority pause for a moment of silence marking the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11 near the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J. on Sept. 11. (Hector Eugui / Port Authority of New York & New Jersey via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A runner glides his hand at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J., along the wall of 'Empty Sky,' New Jersey's memorial to the 749 people from the state lost during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, on Sept. 11. The construction of One World Trade Center, now up to 104 floors, is visible in the background. Americans paused again Tuesday to mark the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks with familiar ceremonies, but also with a sense that it's time to move forward after a decade of remembrance. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Julia Rivas cries as she holds a photo of her son Moises N. Rivas during the Commemoration Ceremony of the 11th anniversary of 9/11 by the North Pool at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. (Chang W. Lee / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. John Cassidy pauses outside of the World Trade Center site in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Marshall Rodriguez, of New York, holds a flag at the edge of the South Pool in the September 11 Memorial while visiting the names of friends he lost in the 9/11 attacks, Sept. 11. (Justin Lane / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Firemen pay their respects at the 9/11 memorial during ceremonies for the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 in New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Donn Marshall hugs his son Drake Marshall while visiting his wife Shelley Marshall's memorial bench at the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial after the 11th anniversary ceremony at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., Sept. 11. (Shawn Thew / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A boulder, top center, that represents the final resting place for the 40 passengers and crew of Flight 93 is viewed by visitors to the Flight 93 National Memorial after a memorial service in Shanksville, Pa., Sept. 11. (Gene J. Puskar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A Marine Honor Guard lays a wreath in front of the Wall of Names at the Flight 93 National Memorial during observances commemorating the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, on Sept. 11 in Shanksville, Pa. (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama look at headstones during their visit to Arlington National Cemetery on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks near Washington, D.C., Sept. 11. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. U.S. military platoons operating out of Lindsey-Foward Operating Base stand in formation during a brief ceremony in remembrance of those who perished 11 years ago in the 9/11 attacks, in Kandahar province on Sept. 11. The anniversary was muted in Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO troops organized only small ceremonies to commemorate the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in the worst terror strike on U.S. soil. (Tony Karumba / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. President Barack Obama, center, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey attend an event commemorating the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, at the site of the attack on the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Scott Willens, who joined the U.S. Army three days after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, pauses by the South Pool during memorial ceremonies for the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on lower Manhattan at the World Trade Center site, on Sept. 11 in New York City. New York City and the nation are commemorating the eleventh anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks which resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people after two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. and one crash landed in Shanksville, Pa. (Justin Lane / Pool via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. People observe a moment of silence during ceremonies marking the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center at Ground Zero in New York City on Sept. 11. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Christine Gonda places a picture of firefighter George Kane at the engraving of his name at the South Pool, during anniversary ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 in New York City. (Justin Lane / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Jeremy Hamilton places a U.S. flag next to a memorial bearing two pieces of steel from the World Trade Center in Weehawken, N.J., across from the New York skyline, on Sept. 11. (Gary Hershorn / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A woman cries as she leans on a friend near the name of Thomas Tong, at the South Pool wall of the 9/11 Memorial during observances held on the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, Sept. 11. (Craig Ruttle / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Ava Kathleen Schmoelzer, age 7, from Stamford, Conn., places flowers on the South Tower pool wall in memory of her aunt, during observances held on the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, at the site in New York City, Sept. 11. (Timothy A. Clary / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Workers unfurl a flag hanging from the wall of One World Trade Center as friends and relatives of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center attend a ceremony at the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site in New York City, on Sept. 11. (Jason Decrow / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Peggy Bourke and Susan Friedes listen as names of victims are read during the observances held on the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, on Sept. 11 in New York City. (Mary Altaffer / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Friends and relatives of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks look over a reflecting pool during a ceremony at the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site in New York City, on Sept. 11. (Mark Lennihan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A woman breaks down in tears after reading the name of her father during ceremonies marking the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, in New York City, Sept. 11. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Ava Kathleen Schmoelzer, 7, makes a rubbing of her aunt's name, Kathleen Moran, during the anniversary ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 in New York City. (Justin Lane / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama observe a moment of silence to mark the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11. (Olivier Douliery / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Pilsoon Kang pauses during ceremonies marking the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, Sept. 11. Kang lost her son Joon Koo Kang who worked at World Trade Center. (Chang W. Lee / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A flower and an American flag are placed next to the names inscribed on the edge of the memorial pool during the observances held on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, on Sept. 11 in New York. (Mary Altaffer / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. New York City police bugler Gabe Perdomo warms up while standing next to the South Pool during memorial ceremonies for the eleventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11 in New York City. New York City and the nation are commemorating the eleventh anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks which resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people after two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. and one crash landed in Shanksville, Pa. (Justin Lane / Pool via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. A woman sits on a memorial bench at the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial prior to the 11th Anniversary ceremony of the 9/11 attacks at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. on Sept. 11. President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will deliver remarks at the ceremony. (Shawn Thew / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Port Authority Police Officers carry the American flag that flew over the World Trade Center towers during ceremonies at the National September 11 Memorial in New York City. (Justin Lane / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Maria Rodriguez sits with photos of her son-in-law Emilio Ortiz as friends and relatives of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center gather for a ceremony at the National September 11 Memorial in New York, Sept. 11. (Jason Decrow / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. A small US flag stands at the memorial of the north tower during observances on the eleventh anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, on Sept. 11 in New York City. (Chris Pedota / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. The tower known as 1 World Trade Center, left, the National September 11 Memorial, bottom left, and 4 World Trade Center, right, are bathed in light, Sept. 11 in New York. (Mark Lennihan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Visitors to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., participate in a sunset memorial service on Sept. 10. (Gene J. Puskar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, center, and Patrick White, second left, a representative of victim's families, visit the crash site a day ahead of the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 10. (Mandel Ngan / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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