Final survivor of south tower collapse struggles with scars of 9/11

Ron DiFrancesco, his wife Mary and their children Julia and Toby.
Ron DiFrancesco, his wife Mary and their children Julia and Toby.

Ron DiFrancesco's voice softens and trails off. He barely finishes his sentences as he recalls his experience on Sept. 11, 2001. He speaks as if it happened yesterday.

"It was a living hell," he says. "I was mere seconds from death. ... I didn't know I was going to get out."

DiFrancesco is believed to be the last person out of the South Tower of the World Trade Center before it collapsed. According to some reports, he was one of only four people to escape from above the 81st floor.

A decade later, survivor's guilt still weighs heavily on him.

"I will carry with me to my grave whether I should have taken somebody with me," he says, "I still harbor a lot of guilt.

"Time does heal a bit, but it doesn't make you forget what happened. And I think, for our generation, it's our marking point in history. It changed the world that day," he says.

DiFrancesco prefers not to go into detail about his horrifying experience on 9/11. He says it forces him to relive the nightmare. In the past 10 years, he has given only a few interviews, including one for John Geiger's book The Third Man Factor and another for an article in the Ottawa Citizen. Based on those accounts, this is what happened to DiFrancesco:

The first plane had just struck the North Tower, and from his office on the 84th floor of the South Tower, DiFrancesco, a 37-year-old Canadian money-market broker for Euro Brokers, could see smoke billowing from the building. Moments after he left his office to evacuate, the second plane smashed into the South Tower, hitting the building between the 77th and 85th floors.

DiFrancesco was thrown against a wall by the force of the impact, and then he rushed to the nearest stairwell and headed down. On the way, he ran into a group of people trying to escape; they told him to go up the stairs instead, because the flames were too bad below.

As they debated which way to go, they heard someone calling for help. DiFrancesco and his colleague Brian Clark, an executive vice president at Euro Brokers, went to rescue the man, but DiFrancesco became overwhelmed by smoke and had to turn back.

He began to go up the stairs to find clear air, but the doors on each landing were locked, a safety mechanism to keep smoke from filling the whole building in the event of a fire. Panic set in as it became harder to breathe, so he turned around and started back down.

He reached a landing in the impact zone and joined others lying on the floor, gasping for air. But a voice told him to get up and keep going. He ran down the stairs, covering his face with his forearms as he fought through the flames.

Finally he reached the ground floor, where a security guard directed him to a different exit. As he reached it, he heard a giant roar as the building began to collapse. He turned and saw a fireball heading right at him. Days later, he woke up in the hospital with lacerations on his head, burns all over his body, and a broken bone in his back.

Ten years later, DiFrancesco, who is now 47 and living in Toronto, Canada, says the memories and the aftermath of 9/11 permeate his everyday life.

[ Photos: DiFrancesco shares his 9/11 mementos ]

"The scars on my head and my arms remind me every day how fortunate I am," he says. "There are mementos throughout the house. In our living room, we have quite a few pictures of New York and a picture of the World Trade Center. We have a couple of albums of cards that people had sent, and there are some memorial books we look at [too]. They actually gave my wife the watch that was on my wrist on 9/11. It was broken, but it stopped at the exact time the building came down."

But the effects of his experience that day go much deeper than his scars and mementos. DiFrancesco's near-death experience changed his entire outlook on life.

"For me, being so close to death, I don't fear dying or moving on," he says. "When I was almost down and out, I did see the light, and I was prepared to go, but I'm here. … If I was to die tomorrow I would hate leaving my wife and kids, but I don't fear dying now."

DiFrancesco's whole mentality changed, too. He's constantly on alert, even when there's no imminent threat.

"I'm very aware of my surroundings and what's going on, what I'm doing, and what other people are doing," he says. "Whenever I go into a building or a room, I need to know where the exit is, because that day I wasn't in control, and I almost didn't make it out. It's a bit obsessive I think, but it's changed the way I think and the way I act."

Even seemingly normal occurrences cause terrifying flashbacks.

"When I see tall buildings and planes, it jogs my memory," he says. "Loud noises [and chaos] really bother me. I'm a little claustrophobic, so when [I'm] in a big crowd, it gets to me a lot. I also find screaming and yelling really gets to me."

But out of the pain and chaos came compassion, hope, and a deeper meaning to the idea of paying it forward. DiFrancesco and his family have always been religious and involved in community service, but the overwhelming outreach from their friends and neighbors after 9/11 moved them to make it a bigger part of their lives.

[ Photos: Images of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero ]

"When I was in the hospital, people were taking care of meals for the family, and that went on for months," he says. His community went out of its way to help get the DiFrancesco family back on their feet.

"My car was left at the train station, and my wife didn't know where it was. A neighbor came and found my car and brought it back to us," he explains. "And I only had the one key that was melted in the World Trade Center, so he went and got new keys made for my car."

The lengths to which his community went to support them inspired DiFrancesco and his wife more than ever to pay it forward and to teach their kids to do the same. Now, DiFrancesco is on the board of two charities: Villa Colombo, a home for Italian seniors, and Camp Trillium, a charity that promotes and offers recreational experiences for children with cancer and their families.

[ Donate: Help Ron's charity, Camp Trillium ]

For the DiFrancescos, volunteering for Camp Trillium is a family event.

"I participate in this cancer bike ride ... we ride basically 60 miles a day for four days," he says. "My children and my wife are actively involved [too]. My two older children ride with me, and my two younger [kids] and my wife volunteer for the four days."

DiFrancesco has always enjoyed cycling, especially for a good cause, but ever since 9/11, his riding has taken on a different meaning, and he rides for an hour or two almost daily.

"I love the peacefulness of the road, riding my bike, and riding in a pack ... [it's] a bit of healing for me," he says. "I find it cathartic."

The healing process is an ongoing one for his family. Over the years, DiFrancesco and his wife have been collecting friends' and families' stories of how 9/11 affected them -- and may even consider putting them into a book.

"We both find it fascinating what you were doing that day ... people went home, picked up their kids from school, and hugged them and kept them close," he says. "Just hearing [their] stories ... it's interesting to find out what everyone was doing on that day."

There are still questions that may never be answered, and survivor's guilt is ever-present.

"I don't understand all of it," he says. "Why did I survive and 61 of my colleagues didn't?"

For DiFrancesco, though, one message is clear.

"When your number is up, He will call you. Coming so close to death, I believe you can't change destiny," he says. "Be happy with every day we have here."

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