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.
“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