Fact Check

Did a Man Safely 'Surf' Down from the Upper Levels of the WTC on 9/11?

Rumor holds that a man survived a multi-story fall from the World Trade Center, riding down on the explosion like a surfer.

Published Sep 25, 2001

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 11:  The south tower of the World Trade Center collapses September 11, 2001 in New York City.  (Photo by Thomas Nilsson/ Getty Images) (Thomas Nilsson/ Getty Images)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 11: The south tower of the World Trade Center collapses September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo by Thomas Nilsson/ Getty Images)
A man caught in the explosion of one of the World Trade Center towers rode bits of the falling building down to safety.
What's True

Pasquale Buzzelli, a survivor who claims to have been on the 22nd floor of one of the collapsing towers, lived through the fall with only minor injuries. Genelle Guzman-McMillan, another survivor who was with Buzzelli when the tower collapsed, claimed to have been on the 13th floor.

What's False

Possibly by using a piece of debris as a makeshift boogie board to surf the air currents, a man who fell some 80 stories or more in the collapsing WTC survived relatively unharmed.

Not all rumors hurriedly spread in the wake of a tragedy are exaggerations of the horror that was or vocalizations of fears of things potentially to come — some are expressions of hope.
The "building surfer" is one such rumor in that it celebrates the miraculous survival of an otherwise doomed man and thus by implication imparts hope that others too will have been found to have lived through the destruction. In a larger sense, such rumors reaffirm belief that man will always pull through no matter what disaster is visited upon him.

According to widely dispersed bit of gossip, a man trapped high in one of the falling World Trade Towers managed to ride parts of the collapsing building down to safety. In some accounts, he is said to have "curled himself into a ball," in others, to have ridden the swirling air currents and cascade of debris like a surfer, a piece of wood his boogie board to survival. Shaken but proud, he emerges from his wild ride with only minor injuries amounting to no more than scratches and a broken ankle.

Often the rumor specifies the floor the man fell from, placing it as the 71st, 82nd, 92nd, or some other so high that no one could reasonably have lived through a fall from it.

Many accounts assert the mystery man was a firefighter, one of the countless brave souls who deliberately risked their lives to help others. Because this is a rumor of man triumphing over mayhem, lore remakes one of the cherished but doomed heroes of the day into a survivor, changing his real fate into one that not only spares his life, but leaves him triumphant in the face of utter devastation. Our sense of justice is thus appeased.

Sadly, there isn't any credible evidence of the existence of such a man, firefighter or otherwise. He's a figment of our wishful imaginations, a fictional icon of indomitability we are quick to turn to in times of disaster. We picture his incredible ride down the side of collapsing building and delight in this confirmation that man will always find a way. In our minds, we see his ride as a giant thumbing-off to the destruction raining down about him.

Needed icon or not, could he be real? Is there at least some small shred of truth to this story?

There is — and there is even a true tale of actual miraculous survival — but there are also confusion, misinformation, and exaggeration.

Some news outlets have reported tales from the scene involving interviews with those who've rescued victims from the fallen building. One such report came from two members of the Passaic County Sheriff's Department who pulled a trapped Port Authority police officer from a crater a day after the disaster. "He must have just rode the building as it came down," one of them said.

The rescued officer goes unnamed even at this late date, leading us to believe he's a conflation of rumor with hope or just a garden variety misremembering of things read and heard with things experienced. Or he could have been Sgt. John McLoughlin, and in the manner of all gossip, his story widened to make him two men instead of just one.

McLoughlin is a 21-year veteran of the Port Authority police force who was pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center on 12 September 2001. He sustained kidney damage and was in critical condition, but his prognosis was good. Confusion over his story has fueled the rumor. According to a New York Times article written the day he was found:

No one knows how Sergeant McLoughlin survived Tuesday's collapse, or even where he was when the buildings fell. His colleagues said he was probably outside the south tower when it came down, but a battalion chief at the rescue said that Sergeant McLoughlin was on the 82nd floor of the building when it came down.

McLoughlin's whereabouts at the time of the building's collapse were in dispute — his boss (who would have been interviewed by the press and whose comments would have been taken as definitive) thought he was one place, and his colleagues knew him to be another.

The injured man and his family have been refusing to talk to the press, but after close to two weeks of being battered with inquiries, a senior press officer for the Port Authority spoke up about what he knew. Sgt. McLoughlin's brother said the officers were on the ground floor when the tower fell. This version was confirmed by another hospital visitor to the injured officer.

Further complicating the matter, some recall seeing an interview with David Lim, another Port Authority worker who was pulled from the rubble. Lim's story could lead those who listened less than carefully to believe he'd fallen from a great height, because he was on the 44th floor of the first damaged tower where he was aiding in the rescue efforts when he saw United Airlines Flight 175 hit the second tower. But he did not come down with the collapsing building — he and others with him turned back at that point. Lim had made it back to the fourth floor when the building gave way. He was pulled from the wreckage on 11 September about five hours after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, making him one of the last people to be rescued alive.

Adding to the belief in this tale was a lengthy article titled "Ground Zero" which ran in the 24 September 2001 issue of Newsweek. In it, the story of rescue workers hearing from an unnamed detective about a Port Authority police officer fell with the building from above the 80th floor and survived with just a broken leg was aired. Also, Dr. Kenneth Tesla, a surgeon who had treated two Port Authority workers, was quoted as saying both of these men had survived falls from the 86th floor.

Newsweek has retracted this part of the story. A correction that ran on 1 October 2001, reads:

In "Ground Zero," we reported that two Port Authority police officers fell more than 80 floors and survived in the World Trade Center collapse. The Port Authority now believes that the officers reached the ground floor by foot before the towers fell.

Yet with all the misinformation and confusion surrounding rumors about miraculous survival, some stories do appear to hold up, such as that of Pasquale Buzzelli. This 34-year-old Port Authority worker had begun the descent from his office on the 64th floor of the North Tower via Stairwell B and had reached what he believed was the 22nd floor when the building collapsed. (Genelle Guzman-McMillan, a clerk who was with him when the building went down, recalled they were on the 13th floor when everything came apart, so there still remains controversy as to where they were in the building at that critical moment, and thus how far they fell.)
Buzzelli was knocked unconscious but came to a few hours later, was discovered atop a high pile of rubble by firemen, and rescued. His right foot was fractured and he had suffered a few scrapes and bruises, but was otherwise unharmed. Guzman-McMillan suffered a crushed right leg and was not pulled from the wreckage until a day after the disaster.

Sixteen people in all survived the collapse of the North Tower. Even among this handful who lived, folks standing immediately to the right or left of them at that critical moment died, leaving many of the survivors haunted with unanswerable questions of "Why me?"


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