Nineteen years ago I wrote on this website about Daniel L. Smith, who was one of my best buddies in life and died in the South Tower at the World Trade Center.
I’ve wondered, from time to time, all these years since, exactly how Danny, a college friend whose eulogy I delivered on Long Island, died that fateful day. He was on the 84th floor working for Euro Brokers when the second terrorist plane hit.
I knew a few things. I knew that after the first attack on the North Tower, he’d called his wife, Mary, to tell her not to worry — it wasn’t his building they were showing on the news — and then joined thousands of others in evacuating Tower 2 as a precaution.
I found one recounting after that first strike from a woman who said, “I just grabbed my bag and ran. I ran right and into the small bond dealing area where I saw Brian Clark, Dan Smith, and Domenick Mircovich. I vaguely remember smelling what I now know to be airline fuel as I ran, and asking if I should stay or go…Brian told me that whatever I was doing that I needed to stay away from the windows, I remember Dan turning, walking towards me, and smiling.”
That was Smith, not the type to panic.
When they got to ground level, a siren sounded and an “all-clear” was given on the intercom.
Workers were even urged to go back up, so as not to clog the streets. And while a coworker of Danny’s who had evacuated with him decided to go home, Danny went back up to the 84th and was never heard from again, leaving his wife, who is a devout Catholic, a young son, and a young daughter (prayer need please). No one knows exactly what happened to Dan. His body was not recovered. Big guy, 6’5″, weight-lifter, vanished from this earth.
A tragedy for certain. Dan had started just weeks before, returning to the city after working out on the island. When he called to tell me he was returning to Manhattan, I urged him not to. It wasn’t that I had any premonition of demise. I just didn’t like the spiritual feeling in Manhattan, where I myself had lived and left years before.
At any rate, several weeks ago we were watching a television show about unusual stories from 9/11 and they were focusing on a fellow named Brian Clark, originally of Toronto, now of New Jersey. When the narrator said Clark [below] had worked for Euro Brokers — on the 84th, Danny’s floor — I sat bolt straight. I had to talk to him and find out if he knew anything about Dan’s final moments.
This guy Clark had made it out — and not only that, explained the program, but had done so in a way that seemed miraculous.
The next day I learned that after retirement, Clark had been on the Board of Trustees at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. The president there helped me track Brian down, and he graciously consented to speak with me yesterday.
Clark knew Dan, but, alas, told me Dan worked on the east side of the building while he was on the west. They couldn’t see each other. The center of each acre-sized floor at the Trade Center was where the elevators were, blocking a view across the trading floor.
He didn’t know what happened, but described how the wing of the plane sliced right into Euro Broker’s trading floor on Dan’s side. I have always visualized my old friend dying immediately on impact, and it’s very possible that was the case. Brian says the entire floor just fell apart instantly, the faux ceiling and all the plaster and air conditioning ducts collapsing as the building torqued, swaying toward the Hudson — perhaps six to eight feet — and then literally snapped back as the steel realigned.
They were ten seconds of utter terror, Brian told me. He and a coworker had crouched like football linemen staring at each other as the massive structure moved. Brian grabbed a desk, expecting the entire building to fall — as if a desk would save him.
Anyway, it was at exactly 9:02:59 that Flight 175 crashed nose-first into the southern façade of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, at a speed of approximately 590 miles an hour between floors 77 and 85, with approximately 10,000 U.S. gallons of jet fuel. I’m not sure Dan could have survived such a blast. It’s amazing anyone did. No one knows. There were those, like Clark, who at least made it to stairwells.
But Brian was on the other side of the building. He reached for a flashlight he had put into his pocket just fifteen minutes before, gathered six coworkers, and ventured to the hallway, the air filled with a white-chalk dust.
Clark’s intention was to turn right, toward Stairway “C. ”
“But as I got to that intersection,” he says, “and I can’t explain this, I felt this push on my right shoulder and I don’t know what it was. There was nobody there, but it pushed me around to the left and Stairway ‘A.’
“I went with it,” he says.
Good thing. No one was able to get down Stair “B” or “C.” There are a number of such stories from a day that lives, as they say, in infamy.
Clark describes how a woman who was coming up the stairs blocked their descent and insisted that they had to go up — that there was fire below. Clark was distracted by the sounds of someone calling for help. It ended up being Stanley Praimnath, a man trapped in debris on the 81st. Clark went over and pulled the man out and ignored the woman. He had to help the guy down. Assisting that man saved his own life.
Everyone but Clark and the man he had helped out of debris turned and went back up, and were never seen again.
Throughout it all, Clark says he was preternaturally calm — “felt” told, after that initial terror, everything would be fine. At one point it was like a bubble around him prevented dust from encompassing them. He and Praimnath exited four minutes before the tower collapsed.
He got out to tell the story.
Danny did not.
But for me, there is perhaps a peace, knowing now that while on this earth, I now almost certainly never will know.
Also, knowing that however mysterious, God has a unique destiny for all of us, a mission that is longer on this earth for some than for others.
–Michael H. Brown
[see also: the incredible Thomas Burnett story]
[see also: Dan’s memorial]
[NY Times memorials:
Danny Smith had forgotten something. The plan was for his wife, Mary, to drop him off at the hospital, then return home before the children left for school so it was more like a normal day. It was not a normal day. Mr. Smith was to have a heart bypass operation.
Now, in the car outside the hospital, he asked his wife for paper and pen. He was only 47, but he had been orphaned at 15 when his father, a former New York homicide detective, died of a heart attack; his mother had died of cancer. He did not want his own children to experience what he had, but Mrs. Smith had just regained her health after breast cancer, and now here he was, arteries blocked, about to have heart surgery. So he scribbled notes to his daughter, Elizabeth, 14, and his son, Michael, 12. “I will always be with you,” he told them, underlining always. “Listen to Mommy,” he told them. “I love you,” he told them. Just in case.
But Danny Smith awoke in his hospital bed, his life, his vigor, his humor intact, with a nurse asking him to rate his pain on a scale of 1 to 10. “Thirteen and a half,” he croaked, according to his wife. Off the scale, but then, he was 6- foot-5, so perhaps that was to be expected.
The Smiths met when they were students at Fordham, working at Willie’s College Deli. Mary Smith saw the man she had married — the one who baked her a cake each birthday and vigorously scrubbed fresh fruit for her to prevent infection while she was ill — as larger than life, measured in feet and fervor both.
In July 2001, two months after his operation, Mr. Smith started work at Euro Brokers in the World Trade Center. In late September, Mrs. Smith gave the notes to their children.
Profile published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on September 1, 2002.