I escaped from the 80th floor of the North Tower on 9/11 – then it collapsed on me

In an extract from her memoir ‘Complicity, The United States v. The People of the United States’, Sharon Premoli shares her memory of the day the World Trade Center was attacked

Saturday 11 September 2021 17:04 BST
Man honors victims of 9/11 with nearly 3,000 flags on his front lawn
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You know what happened.

Twenty years ago, on what began as a splendid Tuesday, 11 September, 2001, at 8.46:30am, an American Airlines Boeing 767 passenger jet, Flight 11, travelling from Boston to San Francisco at 500mph, weighing about 12 tonnes, carrying about 24,000 gallons of fuel with 93 people on board, some of whose throats had already been slit by the suicide-terrorists, was hijacked and plunged into the 93rd floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, like a gigantic hurtling meteor from outer space.

It practically tore through the entire width of the building, straight across, from one side to the other. I was on the 80th floor, where I worked for Beast Financial Systems.

In search of eternal martyrdom, the delusional Islamist terrorists methodically planned and successfully executed part one of a gruesome massacre, fuelled by ignorance, abiding hatred of western values and American interventionism.

I had never been the victim of deadly force before, had no military training and could not even watch violence on television or in films. My frame of reference was several levels below where I found myself at that moment. Not that my life had been without pain and struggle, I was keenly aware of the dangers and violence all around us, but that was something that happened to other people, not to me. I was open, privileged and unscathed. Years of global travel for my work without any hint of risk or danger had inured me to a false sense of safety.

The scale of the impact and immediate explosion was unlike anything I could possibly identify. In seconds, my brain took over and did what it was designed to do: prepare me for the first phase of battle, because within that maze of complex circuitry most of us know little about, there is a fail-safe system dedicated to making us fight for our lives, as long as we are breathing.

Adrenaline started pumping through my body and my breath got shorter and faster, but I had to function. Almost immediately after the impact and unknown to us, most of the plane’s 24,000 gallons of fuel rapidly emptied into a freight elevator shaft, coursing down 93 stories, passing us on the way to the basement, where it became a massive fireball, exploding upward into the north tower lobby. The immense power of the impact’s explosion affected most of the upper floors – all the way up to the top at 110, down past 78, where it blew out the very elevator I rode up in just an hour before, igniting everything all the way, past us, setting fire to the 77th floor.

Luckier people waiting for an elevator were blown into the lobby of the Marriott Hotel intact and alive, while others tragically, were instantly incinerated standing at the bank of elevators where I had stood an hour before and where I would have been waiting at that very moment, had I not shown up early for a meeting that was cancelled. The fireball erased our marble lobby in a flash. It disintegrated like tinder in a raging forest fire.

Marriott Hotel guests fled onto the plaza in underwear and bathrobes. One man, struck by the plane’s debris, lost his arm while running away from the hotel. Passengers with their seatbelts still fastened fell from the sky along with body parts. Office papers floated like confetti from the cavernous hole created by the plane’s impact. Anyone on the ground walking too close to the building at that moment was badly injured or crushed by the falling debris and bodies. The carnage was instantaneous, everywhere and would endure for the next one hour and forty-five minutes without pause.

Up on the 80th floor, we mobilised to evacuate, without a leader. No one seemed to have the critical information we needed to escape. I ran to our reception area with a colleague to check the hallway as an exit. The gravity of the situation was ratcheted up when we opened the door to find that the hallway walls had been blown off, forming a cement seal across our front door. The effect was like being stuck in an elevator between floors - the doors open, but to nothing but brick wall. We were now cut off from the company with which we shared the floor. It was reported that the flames down the hall on 80 were “10 feet high” but we didn’t know that we were trapped by fire and destruction from above and below, close to being sealed in a fiery tomb. I still continue to ask why and how did I survive?

We ran to another exit in the back of the office that wasn’t blocked. That stairwell ended at 77 and the door onto that floor was locked. Unknown to us was that 77 was also on fire from the explosion. The raging fire behind it prevented the door from opening. There was no alarm although smoke and fumes were clearly present, the sprinklers didn’t work either. No one spoke to us through the building’s loudspeaker system as they had during drills.

Back up to the 80th floor to get a key that we hoped would open the door to the 77th floor, but that key didn’t work. We were on our own. All building communications had failed. We were without an exit and didn’t know that time was running out, but by now, trauma had closed in on me.

Every inch of my body had been taken over by the chemical cocktail produced deep within my reptilian brain, the one that dominates, registers and quantifies the odds of survival in extreme danger. It calculates, interprets and delivers the possible outcome as soon as it knows, and it knows before your evolved brain can process what is happening. It focuses the mind, pounds the heart and infuses the body with adrenalin strength never experienced before. The will to live overtakes all systems because nothing else matters.

The only thing I can remember about finally leaving the 80th floor is the Port Authority officer who miraculously found us and led us to 64. We had to stoop down to avoid the fire coming through the ceiling, but I have no recollection of how long it took to get all 17 of us to 64 or down which stairwell. I was looking for signs of hope. I wanted to live. My daughter still needed me.

When we reached the 64th floor, a Port Authority office, there was a tinge of relief, but still no clarity as to the cause of this catastrophe or maybe I can’t remember. I had no idea about what was going on above the crash. In my mind, a bomb was the cause. As I walked from room to room, I could see many people trying to use the landlines, desperately calling home but they didn’t work.

Finally, someone told me that a plane had crashed into the building. My immediate assessment was that the pilot must have had a heart attack and lost control of the plane. There was no other information. The second plane slammed into the 80th floor of the South Tower at 9:03am, practically severing the building in two, but I have no recollection of it.

Precious minutes passed while the Port Authority police were trying to find the safest stairwell for us to exit. Next to me sat a man, bleeding from a head wound, who wanted to talk to his wife. I offered him my hand wipes for the wound and tried to find a working phone so he could speak with his wife, but the situation was deteriorating. The fire above would soon make its way down and time was running out before our floor would be enveloped in flames.

The Port Authority officer who brought us to 64 stood up on a desk and announced that he had been talking to someone on his Walkie-Talkie. “Everyone stay put,” he yelled. “We are waiting for instructions about when to descend into the stairwell. As soon as I get those instructions, we will leave.” He was emphatic about waiting for someone to tell us when we could leave and which stairwell was safe. Waiting for instructions was too risky and our CEO instinctively knew it was a bad idea. He acted immediately, corralling all 17 of us. “We’re not waiting – let’s go!” I assumed everyone was leaving because I never heard the Port Authority officer. I was in the other room with the injured fellow sitting next to me “Time to leave” I told him, helping him up. He seemed dazed, but able to walk. We left and some stayed.

As we move toward the exit, I filled up two paper cups with water and wet several paper towels to protect us from the smoke. I was uplifted by the act of leaving and moving down the stairwell. As long as we kept moving, I began to believe we would get out alive. As we started down the stairwell in apprehension, fear replaced naiveté.

A dark, ominous rumble vibrated intermittently like a freight train from somewhere in the building. It was the shudder of the steel infrastructure in its final death throes as it melted away and weakened from the fire’s intensity. It would soon abandon its shell and us. The smell was of fuel, strange and intense.

We had descended into a sombre, surreal atmosphere where a silent but palpable unspoken bond of compassion across age, gender and race had become apparent. No panic, no screaming, just tacit fear and the will to help each other. Perhaps it emerged from the brain’s primitive directive to clear out and marshal every possible means for survival through cooperation.

Perhaps it was rooted in some deeper spiritual knowledge or need for connection in the face of death, as a final human gesture of love. The person next to me was no longer the man from the 64th floor. I never saw him again that day and cannot recall where he was in the stairwell.

I was now next to a woman wearing very high heels, carrying a large backpack on her back and weighed down by two heavy shopping bags full of books. A bizarre and somewhat humorous vision in such a tenuous situation. Like me, her purse was slung around her neck and shoulders, freeing our hands to carry other things. I asked her why she was carrying such heavy bags and she told me that her books were important to her.

It was hard for me to picture someone in our situation going through bookcases in search of favorite books, then carefully placing them in shopping bags after a plane has nearly blown up the building and was immediately enveloped in fire, but she too probably didn’t know that at the time. I fled with just my purse, heart pounding, with labored breath. It did not even occur to me to take a favorite photo sitting on my desk of my daughter. I didn’t know I would never again see that picture of her again.

As we advanced ahead of our CEO’s group by one flight, I approached a very large man in obvious distress sitting on the stairs with an open briefcase on his lap, red-faced and sweating profusely, trying to make a call on his cell phone. I stopped and asked if he was ok. He told me he was not, so I offered him my cup of water, which he accepted and it, threw it on his face, in an attempt to cool down. I then offered to get help, as I was not big or strong enough to assist a man of that size, who appeared disabled at this point. He didn’t want me to help or get help and told me that I should “keep going, don’t stop”.

As I looked back at him while descending, others who stopped and asked if they could do anything for him were also refused. We continued down, walking around him, leaving him behind, but I later learned he was given CPR to no avail. I have often thought about him.

By now, up on the higher floors, a cremation of living souls proceeded as the fire overtook and engulfed the entire upper half of the North Tower. They were at their desks at work, in meetings, at the conference we decided not to attend, or at the Windows on the World restaurant when struck. Doomed on the floors above the fire and with no safe exits, they experienced their final hour and forty-five minutes of life valiantly trying to survive the unspeakable horror about to eclipse them forever, disappearing them into tiny bits of ash and bone that would sit in the Fresh Kills garbage dump on Staten Island for almost 10 years, at times intermingled with household waste, and from which their bereaved families would never get closure.

They would be gone in every sense. Their desperate attempts to reach their loved ones are memorialised in the ether of 2001, in their email and phone messages and in the pictures and films of their silent hands poignantly waving out of broken windows as they valiantly waited for the firefighters whose radios didn’t work and other rescuers who died trying to get to them, to the shock of those helplessly watching from the street below, on TV and the loved ones who held on to them on the phone until the end. Those who hadn’t already been massacred by the suicide terrorists were in the final stages of their own holocaust and for some, their own suicides. Like Masada, but rather than death by immolation, some would choose death by jumping 105 stories into the arms of their god, including Allah.

And for the survivors, the sight of the gruesome carnage on the plate glass windows, in the plaza, the lobby and elsewhere endures in our memories and dreams all these years later, to remind us that we are still here to bear witness and to seek justice.

As we continued our descent, a colleague behind me tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that her cell phone was working and offered it to me. It was about 6.20am for her when I called my still sleeping daughter in Los Angeles. She immediately knew something was not right. As calmly as possible, I asked her not to turn on the television, which she immediately did. I don’t think she had yet processed the gravity of the situation until I told her that the building was on fire and tried to assure her that I was all right, but she knew me too well. She asked if I was afraid, would I get out, was I OK? I answered yes to all questions. She tried to comfort me, assuring me that I would survive.

Sale humo de las torres gemelas del World Trade Center después de que fueran alcanzadas por dos aviones secuestrados en un ataque terrorista el 11 de septiembre de 2001 (Getty)

I wanted her to know how much I loved her and that I would make it out. If I died, she would be left without any parents, grandparents and no siblings and she had been through so much since her first cancer diagnosis. We only had a minute together. Others needed to call, so we said goodbye and “I love you”, again and again before handing back the phone, not knowing if this would be our last conversation.

As we approached the 44th floor landing, a tall, slim African American man, possibly from the Port Authority, was positioned at the doorway. Just as we arrived on the landing close to him, he stopped us to allow the people from 44 to merge into the human flow of traffic in the stairwell so that they could descend as well.

Heart still pounding, I asked him if we were out of danger. Did he think we would be all right? With his kindly face, he smiled and told me that he knew I would be all right because he was going to pray for me, and God was watching over me.

He then asked me if I knew any hymns, but I couldn’t think of any. Just as we started to descend again, he began to sing a hymn in a beautiful alto voice and as we descended, he continued to sing the hymn for all of us. I looked back at him and saw him smiling at me. In spite of all the fear and horror of that day, it was a profoundly touching moment during a continuum of doom. We could still hear his voice two flights down.

At about the 30th floor, we saw the firefighters ascending for the first time. They were dressed in full gear, weighed down by the protective hats, oxygen tanks, axes, hoses and other heavy equipment they must have known could never extinguish the fires that raged above. Flushed and grim-faced in their knowledge of how dire the situation was and how it could unfold, they courageously fulfilled their faithful promise to transcend their fear and subordinate their will to live, steadfast until the very end. Like soldiers facing combat, they passed us, heading directly upward for the floors from which we fled and into the smell of death. Their presence filled us with hope. We thanked them. As long as they were there, we would be safe. They would protect us and make sure we got out alive – all of us. Three hundred and forty-three of them did not. And their deaths did not end on that day.

Immediately after the attacks, they returned to finish the job, unmasked and exposed, lied to and unaware they were again risking their lives to find survivors, the dead or any piece or symbol of life left in the pile of smoldering malignant debris that would also claim their souls in one way or another.

We made several stops on the way down that morning. Brave men and women from the Port Authority and people at work had stationed themselves at the landings of floors to help people exit into the stairwell. They were managing the flow off the floors, stopping the downward movement from time to time, enabling every floor to enter into the long, quiet, final exodus out of Tower One, yielding to the countdown that would end with their own deaths.

As we descended, many prayed, some aloud, some silently, making their own solemn pact with their god. One has to wonder what was relinquished in exchange for life – what promises were made if their lives could be spared? As the differences that separated us dissolved, would the profound connection experienced that morning endure? If we were separate in life, then that morning we would be together and equal in death.

My hopes were lifted the closer we came to the lobby, which is when the stairwell started filling with water. Sprinklers were on full force and in some spots, water was already pooled and shin-deep. The stairs were wet and slippery.

We arrived to a shocking scene in the lobby. Unrecognisable, completely gone and awash in the water from above, the airplane fuel fireball had all but erased it. Debris and water were everywhere. The marble floors were gone. In the distance, I could make out what had been the marble reception desks where visitors had to present themselves for their passes during business hours. Bare light bulbs hung in the air. It was dark, brown and dismal. How many had been killed or injured here? We were quickly led toward what used to be revolving doors that separated our lobby from the concourse.

A police officer (R) and others walk in streets covered in debris following the collapse of the Twin Towers (AFP via Getty Images)

That floor was also covered in water and it was here that I fell and injured my foot. The man standing at that doorway reached out to me and told me to give him my hand. “Let me help you,” he said. He then did the same for all those behind me. He was a civilian there risking his life to make sure we got through the concourse. My foot throbbed with pain and immediately began to swell. Looking ahead, I saw my colleagues about to get on the escalator that would lead to the Plaza level in No. 5 World Trade Center and out to the street and safety, but I couldn’t walk very well or keep up with them anymore.

A colleague came back to help me across the concourse, onto the escalator, which to my amazement, worked. This was truly a lucky break because I couldn’t walk up the stairs on my injured foot. The escalator was carrying me within minutes of escape. I could see the sunlight pouring through the huge windows overlooking the Plaza. That magnificent fall day was still in our sights and we were moving toward it. My spirits were so lifted by this wonderful light and my fear replaced by genuine optimism. We would be outside shortly, walking up Church Street in that glorious sunlight, away from the danger and horror. Behind me on the escalator a long human chain extended downward across the concourse and back up the stairwell.

One by one, my colleagues stepped onto the floor in number 5 World Trade Center, inside, between the Borders Book Store and Citibank’s plate glass windows and the wall of window overlooking the Plaza itself. How many times I had stood outside or passed in front of that very window. As I was transported to the top of the escalator, I put my uninjured foot down first.

Just as I placed my other foot onto the floor, I heard a man yelling, “Run, and don’t look to your left”. Actually, I later found out that he was a firefighter and his left was my right, the side with the view, through enormous, multi-storied, plate glass windows, of those who were jumping from the highest floors. One survivor from the 81st floor reported seeing the head of a young woman and windows splattered with blood. This nightmarish scene of carnage is what the firefighter was trying to protect us from seeing when he told us not to look out on to that Plaza.

What followed immediately was an enormous rumble, nuclear and otherworldly that overtook us. The ground rippled around us, as if a volcanic eruption had exploded from beneath the earth.

In a split second, the light I was optimistically following out of the building was disappearing. In its place, as I stood frozen in that one moment permanently carved into my consciousness, a brown colossus just feet away, advanced toward us and upon us, a wall, stories high, moving with such momentum across the Plaza like a runaway bullet train full of the now infamous toxic stew that was number 2 World Trade Center. It was collapsing, carrying tons of concrete, asbestos, glass, its dead, those on the Plaza and we were next. The plate glass window that separated us from it was swallowed up in the path of the moving wall – gone in a second.

With staggering brute force, it slammed down on us like a tsunami at close range, blowing off the ring on a left hand finger, an earring from a pierced ear and the jacket held tightly in my hands. The last thing I remember is looking down at my feet, with my navy shoes still on them, as I rose up in the air like a piece of debris before I girded myself for a full-frontal collision with the Borders Bookstore or Citibank plate glass window. It was 9:59am. I remember the impact, but I don’t remember the fall.

What happened next has taken me years to recall, validate, process and there is probably more still unknown to me. I was airborne like a rag doll and fell close to the impact, lost consciousness and was covered by debris and dirt.

We had been separated from colleagues in the stairwell as we stopped to allow people from one of the floors to enter. Half of our group was still on 17 when the South Tower came down, but I didn’t know it at the time. The human chain behind me on the escalator was gone. They could no longer get up the escalator because it was blocked, filled with the remains of the South Tower and whatever was brought in with it. They were below in the concourse or still in the stairwell, blown back by the extraordinary force of the collapse.

When I regained consciousness, I was aware, but in total blackness, the kind of complete black that one might imagine being buried alive, and I was. Time dissolved and a strange overwhelming numbness shrouded my body and mind from within in the immediate moments after the collapse. Sound and noise merged with the darkness into total silence. I no longer inhabited myself. I was there, but my senses were switched off. Blind and deaf. Perhaps dead. I couldn’t move and couldn’t breathe. I was face down and my mouth, nose and lungs were full of the pulverised building that had just collapsed. I could not breathe and was choking before I actually knew it. I lay there, trying to feel where I was because without any spatial orientation, it was impossible to know if I was standing up or lying down. I put my hand into my mouth and desperately tried to scrape the pulverized debris from my tongue and mouth with my nails.

As I lay there in the blackness, I placed my hands on what I thought was the ground in an effort to feel my location and orientate myself. I was not on the ground however. It took a few moments for me to realize that I was on top of someone, a body, someone who was motionless, who did not speak or cough or indicate in any way that he or she was alive. The body was completely still. I heard no breathing and felt no struggle from it. My hands felt their way around a corpse. I don’t know if it was a whole body or a torso or where it came from, but I believe it was a man. I know that he had been injured and was bleeding, because my clothes across the middle part of my body and my purse absorbed his blood. I would later find the dark red blood encrusted like wet cement on and inside my purse and my wallet.

As I tried to free myself, I was too numb to feel the terror or revulsion one might experience knowing that I was on top of a dead stranger and gently pushed up, but my legs had no strength and felt detached from the rest of me.

They were like rubber. I tried to get up, but a weakening and warm wave surged through them and my upper body every time I attempted to move.

My lungs were struggling to take in oxygen and the pain in my chest began to intensify as it spread from should to shoulder and down through the middle of my chest. I was alone in the blackness with a dead person, couldn’t breathe, my lungs burned intensely, my windpipe and nose were blocked, I couldn’t move, see or hear and now I had serious chest pain that felt like a heart attack. I had to get up, but each effort produced waves of weakness that kept me from standing.

Blackness gave way to dark gray. I was not blind after all and could turn my head to see a large white light. As it got closer, a tall man carrying a large searchlight and wearing an oxygen mask came toward me. He took off his mask and put it on my face, telling me to breathe so that the oxygen would flow, but I couldn’t take a deep breath. He held me up. My debris-filled lungs could not expand and it felt as though I was choking. I kept trying, and at last, got some precious oxygen, but with short, small breaths.

I tried again to get up, but this time I had help. My rescuer with the light and the oxygen tank on his back later told me he was a New York City detective. I was finally able to rally the strength to slowly get up, using the rescuer’s hands and the dead stranger’s body for stability, but my legs barely held out. I often remember what it felt like to touch this dead stranger, how he didn’t move and how he unknowingly cushioned my fall.

A scene from Dante’s Inferno emerged in the wake of the collapse. Life converged with death. We were enclosed in a dark cave of carnage, suffocation and destruction, as though we had passed through the gates of hell on our way to promised salvation. I was upright, numb and catatonic, eyes caked with glass and dirt, legs like rubber and my chest pain intensifying along with the burning in my lungs.

Breathing was a frightening struggle and consciousness played out in slow motion. I no longer knew that I had a child who still needed me or colleagues who were with me somewhere in this space. I no longer felt any pain from my foot or the other injuries to my arms and legs. I was present, but just barely, a tentative witness in a nightmare spinning out of control. Nothing seemed real and everything, surreal. I didn’t know it but time was running out until the next collapse of the North Tower.

In these initial moments on my feet, only present to the extent that I was standing, I experienced the first separation from my inner knowledge that I was alive or present, a shift or detachment, and then surrender to what I believed was my death. I no longer knew that I was alive, even though I was standing.

I knew I had crossed over with those present in this space. We were all dead. Looking around me, surrounded by a terrible scene, I felt no fear in this timeless muted state, alternating between being alive and being dead. This alternate state is referred to medically as “disassociation”, sometimes occurring during or after a very traumatic event. It marked the death of my former self.

Two firefighters trapped with us repeatedly tried to break through the glass, but with no success. In a final attempt, I am told they removed their oxygen tanks from their backs and threw them against a glass door until it broke. I have no recollection of what that looked like, how big the opening was, how long it took, or even exiting the dark cave of death. Memory allows me only a glimpse of the moments after; perhaps because once outside and surrounded by men in FBI jackets, I experienced another episode of disassociation and again for a brief time, believed I was dead. Minutes would pass before the collapse of the North Tower, but in the meantime, the suicides from the North Tower continued.

A woman in front of us screamed in horror that this was “Armageddon, f**king Armageddon!”. At this point, there were no more ambulances or vehicles to help anyone. I have no recollection of the site after the South Tower collapsed, or what I saw or didn’t see. My rescuer quickly brought me to a building opposite us, on Vesey Street, where he sat me on the lobby stairs, continuing to administer oxygen to me. I thanked him and asked his name which I could barely hear. It was Roy or Ray Tanner or Tanney, perhaps Tierney and to this day, I have not been able to find him.

Injured and frightened people had taken refuge in the lobby of this building, unaware of the approaching cataclysm just feet away about to engulf us within the next minutes. On the floor in the middle of the lobby, a distraught man on his knees cried out in Spanish. He wailed and sobbed, lifted his arms upward, as if to beseech god, and with his anguished voice filled with profound grief, uttered a soulful lamentation transcending language. He was completely understood. I couldn’t tell if he was injured or had witnessed too much from the outside. For those who stood on the street looking up, the trauma from helplessly watching an overwhelming scene of horrific carnage and suicide was compounded by the devastating collapse from which they had narrowly escaped themselves.

With better vision and growing numbness, I walked out of the Vesey Street building looking battered and wretched. My hair was caked in dirt and glass, its brown color completely hidden by the grayness of the building’s debris. My clothing was covered in it. Near my waist were bloodstains belonging to the man who lay under me. I couldn’t see the large hematomas that covered my arms, from my collision with Borders plate glass window nor the blood on my knees and legs. My foot had swelled and was now painful, but I was oblivious to all the signs and symptoms of injury and shock and to the collapse itself. My body was still flooded with fear and cortisol and I was on automatic pilot. At 10.29am, I was almost at the corner of Vesey and Church when the North Tower collapsed.

I don’t remember the moment of the second collapse or the noise, only looking behind me to see a huge gray cloud, a massive wall of toxic dirt, upon us yet again.

Out of nowhere, a young man grabbed my arm, told me to take off my shoes and to run. He thought my shoes were preventing me from running, but it was my injury. Even though we were already down the street from the collapse, the dust cloud was gaining on us, a blinding gale force wind. The young man tried to help me, holding on to me and at the same time, covering his face.

He stayed with me while I hobbled as fast as I could and struggled to breathe, trying to keep pace with him. After a few minutes he apologised and told me that he had to run.

I stood there alone, watching him sprint for his young life up Church Street, a heavy brief case thrashing against his leg as I slowly limped away in the dust cloud, still alive but detached from my shattered body, already a deadened soul.

Sharon Premoli is a plaintiff-activist in the lawsuit In re Terrorist Attacks. As an injured survivor of the World Trade Center North Tower’s 80th floor, she has lobbied for 9/11 legislation and has blogged on the Huffington Post.

Her memoir, Complicit, The United States v The People of the United States chronicles her life following the attacks and her experience in the 19-year legal fight for justice.

It will be published after the conclusion of the litigation.

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