Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

This year, I finally found the mystery man who helped me on 9/11

I ran blindly, trying to flee. My mind screamed at me to escape, to jump into the bay. Then there was David...

Holly Rizzuto Palker
New York
Saturday 11 September 2021 12:51 BST
Thousands of terrified New Yorkers swarmed around me, their horrified expressions mirrored in each other’s, but I felt like I was all alone
Thousands of terrified New Yorkers swarmed around me, their horrified expressions mirrored in each other’s, but I felt like I was all alone (Getty)

“I won’t let go of your hand. I promise,” David said as the first building roared and imploded, encasing us in a cloud of debris. The stranger’s steady grip guided my wobbly legs to standing, enabling me to breathe.

For 20 years, I’ve wished I could’ve been a 9/11 hero, like David. That day, I’d yearned to carry the panicked young mother’s diaper bag as she ran for cover, her infant strapped to her chest. I’d longed to console the grief-stricken woman murmuring about the horror she saw when exiting the building. But I didn’t. I couldn’t do any of those things. Instead, I went to pieces and sheltered behind a dumpster, incapable of being anyone’s hero. When the pandemic presented an impossible situation, I prayed for the same strength that evaded me on 9/11.

“Pilot must’ve had a heart attack,” the college student across the aisle from me conjectured while cops halted traffic at the approach to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. It was 9am and I was a reverse commuter, so I’d taken the train from the Upper West Side apartment that I shared with my fiancé and transferred to a Staten Island-bound bus. Then it happened.

Menacing black smoke and flames poured from the gaping hole in the building above us. I couldn’t imagine how a plane could fly low enough to plough into a skyscraper, even if the pilot fell ill.

“Another plane!” the student shrieked.

I looked up as another speeding bullet collided with the second tower. Heaving, I made my way off the bus. Thousands of terrified New Yorkers swarmed around me, their horrified expressions mirrored in each other’s, but I felt like I was all alone. Sucked into downtown Manhattan’s freaky upside-down world, running blindly, all I could think to do was flee. So, I clawed my way up from the tunnel’s mouth, traversed guard rails, and ran south, away from the next kamikaze plane aimed at whichever building that was to be.

I made it to the Staten Island Ferry’s entrance, gutted to learn the MTA had closed down transportation. When the water entered my periphery, my inner voice screamed at me to jump into the bay to save myself from another explosion and crashing rubble.

There are theories about why some people plunged to their deaths in efforts to escape the severed upper floors of the North Tower. I have a clue as to why they did it. When you believe you’re in death’s grip, you’ll make a nonsensical choice if it promises a sliver of hope that you might live. I think jumping felt safest.

Lucky for me, a chain-link fence, impossible to climb in my platforms, tight jeans and backpack, stood as a barrier to the gulf. I hadn’t contemplated how I’d stay afloat without a life vest anyway. Breathless and lightheaded, I cowered behind a dumpster. That’s when David offered me his hand, and I took it. As crowds ran from the hellish infernos towards us, David comforted me. “I don’t think we’ll die today,” he said, leading me onto the ferry.

“The Lord is my shepherd.” He created a prayer circle where a motley group of us had banded together once we set sail. A Jewish guy from Scarsdale, who’d never been to Staten Island and was unfamiliar with the prayers, joined hands with us. As we emerged from the dust cloud, mid-waterway, we watched the second building collapse. David stuck to his promise, keeping his hand clasped in mine. ”There is nothing I shall want,” we chanted, comforted, united, like when I was a kid and my mom hugged me after a nightmare.

When we reached the harbour, David’s colleague offered our terrorised tribe of refugees solace in her home. We trekked there, relief flooding my body, and cried together until our phones worked again. But I don’t remember the others vividly the way I recall David.

“We’re safe, and we’re lucky,” David said once we crossed the threshold. That’s when he finally let go of my hand.

David gave me his information so I could call him in the aftermath if I needed to, but I failed to connect with him. When I thought about that day, panic enveloped me, so I pushed him and the events surrounding him to the back of my mind. When I finally summoned the courage to reach out 12 years ago, I discovered that I’d lost a scrap of paper with his number, so I couldn’t. Sometimes I wonder if I lost it on purpose because I wasn’t ready to face him.

Eight more years lapsed, punctuated by poorly executed internet searches that turned up nothing because of my limited information. I had a babysitter who might’ve attended David’s church, but she couldn’t find him. I didn’t press too hard.

I wasn’t inside the buildings on 9/11, just very close. I still acquired PTSD, survivor’s guilt, and asthma. I was robbed of the freedom to feel invincible. Because I witnessed the worst thing happen, the knowledge that mortality could lurk just steps away welled again during the pandemic.

This year I allowed myself to think about David. I still wished we could be in each other’s lives, minus the mayhem. With some encouragement, I sleuthed in earnest.

I contacted the wrong church and posted callouts on Facebook groups. No luck. Online, I located a 9/11 survivor named David who worked at Bank of America and had black hair. Convinced he was my David, I emailed him, but when he denied it, I deflated. “You probably don’t remember me,” I said. I was wrong.

I’d saved the most uncomfortable outreach for last, a call to the church whose name I still was sure I remembered him mentioning. I recounted my story to the receptionist. “I think I know him,” she said.

A few minutes later, ‘WIRELESS CALLER’ appeared on my phone screen. Adrenaline caused goosebumps. I knew who was calling.

“Is this my David?” Twenty years later, it was.

As we recounted memories, his calming voice was just like relaxation recordings I’d listened to in PTSD therapy. David filled in the memories that I’d lost – like when he found a woman with a working cellphone who passed a message of safety along to my mom. I cried.

“Thank you,” I said, composing myself. “For so long, I’ve wanted to apologise for never connecting and say that you’ve impacted my life.”

“But you connected,” he replied. “Don’t you remember?”

“No.” I was stunned; my brain was scrubbed clean of this significant act.

“The church passed along a message from you a few days after 9/11, thanking me. But you didn’t include contact information.”

Trauma blurs the lens enough to protect its victims, allowing you to memorialise what you can handle. First, I hid behind a dumpster, then for 20 years behind repressed 9/11 memories. No wonder David loitered in the recesses of my mind. He reminded me that Marianne was the name of the woman who welcomed us into her home; that the prayer he recited on the boat was different; that he worked for another bank, not the Bank of America; and that the paper I’d lost had had his church’s name written on it, not his number.

I admitted to David why I’d been afraid to face him. Not only was I tortured by terrifying memories, but I was also ashamed of my weakness that day.

“I knew I needed to rise to the challenge and get you home safely,” he said. “But you insisted we get onto the ferry. You helped me too.” Another revelation.

That day left me with empathy and tenacity, even if it took a while to see. It showed me someone who modelled strength during despair. In the few hours that our paths intersected, David demonstrated you could achieve peace when you help another person, even in the very worst of times.

I like to think David’s strength bled into me through our clenched hands and helped mould who I became, a mother to three beautiful children, now married to the fiancé I was with on the day the planes hit the towers. David’s strong hand forced me to be better, more capable throughout my life. Years later, he gave me the emotional tools to weather a pandemic with resilience. “We’re safe, and we’re lucky,” I tell my kids, even though they’ve lost innocence and freedom, too, due to Covid.

I owe David a debt of gratitude for helping the rest of my life happen. I’d also like to offer him my hand to hold, should he ever need it – especially now.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in