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From World Trade Center to last person on last boat leaving Manhattan — My 9/11 story

In ‘On A Wing And A Prayer’, Kushal Choksi writes that he saw birds nose-diving towards him from the North Tower — only they weren’t birds.

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I would later find out that American Airlines Flight 11 had crashed into the North Tower, killing everyone on board and hundreds of others in the building. The fire had started to build now. Plumes of black smoke gushed out of the building.

Just then, I saw birds taking flight and nose diving towards me. A few of us noticed and instinctively started moving backwards, without taking our eyes off them. However, in no time, it became clear that we were not on their trajectory. A few seconds later, to my horror, I realized that they were not birds, but people jumping out of the top floors. They had to make a choice between being asphyxiated inside or ending their lives wilfully. The anguish and pain of that moment was lodged like a splinter of glass in my consciousness.

I stood there thunderstruck, caught in a whirlwind of the perfect storm.

And then, before I could stabilize myself, another aircraft appeared out of nowhere and penetrated the southern façade of the South Tower with an ear-splitting sound. The impact, and the instantaneous combustion of fuel, spit out a massive ball of fire on the other side of the building. My stumped brain was now on the verge  of giving up. A gentleman in front of me fainted and began to stumble in my direction. I caught his arm and eased him to the ground. Pandemonium had peaked inside and outside.

Before I could be consumed by fatalistic thoughts of an apocalypse, I remembered the instructions to run as far away as possible from this bedlam. I began a determined dash towards the east side of the island.

Just as I reached Water Street on the other side of Manhattan, a ghastly rumble was heard in the distance. The rumble turned into an ear-piercing roar, growing more intense every second. An enormous cloud of debris and smog was moving rapidly towards me, engulfing everything and everyone along the way. The North Tower of the World Trade Center was collapsing.

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At a distance, a commuter ferry was pulling out of Pier 11. I ran towards it with all my might. The gangway had already been pulled in. The captain saw me running towards the boat. He paused. My momentum allowed me to leap on board.

The ferry pulled back. The cloud of dust and debris came so close to me and, almost as if disappointed that it missed me, it swirled around and enveloped the entire skyline in its angry grasp. As I stared blankly at the frothy waters that the vessel left behind, it occurred to me that I was the last person on the last boat leaving Manhattan that day.

The boat set-off towards Weehawken, New Jersey. As the vessel turned around the tip of the island, there was a collective gasp of disbelief from the people on board. The North Tower had been razed to the ground and the South Tower was ablaze. An agonizing silence consumed everyone around me. Moments later, the silence was violated by the hair-raising crash of the South Tower. Like a fragile house of cards, the second tower came down right in front of our eyes. This had turned into an endless nightmare that I could not wake up from.

The sequence of events and the speed at which everything happened was mind-numbing. What if I had simply listened to that well-meaning security guard who had pleaded with everyone to stay inside the building, citing safety? I have no idea whether he made it out alive that day. I hope he did. What if I too had perished in that virulent grey haze? What would have happened to my family? My career? All those dreams and aspirations? Suddenly, everything that my life had been based on just a few hours ago appeared trivial and unreal.

A state of nothingness ensued over the next few days. I had become a statistic. A 9/11 survivor.

Kushal M. Choksi is a former Wall Street trader, serial entrepreneur, chocolatier and author of On a Wing and a Prayer. He narrowly escaped death during the 9/11 attacks.

Excerpted from On A Wing and a Prayer: Spirituality for the Reluctant, the Curious and the Seeker by Kushal M. Choksi with permission of Penguin Random House India. Paperback I 320pp I Rs 399

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