A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

9/11 Survivor Stories: Twists of Fate That Saved These People’s Lives

These stories will leave you speechless.

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The lower Manhattan skyline featuring the World Trade Center, New York City, USA
Sparwasser/Getty Images

9/11 twists of fate

Twenty-one years ago on September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people lost their lives. These seven people could have been among the casualties had it not been for a twist of fate that kept them out of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in Manhattan on that fateful Tuesday morning. These incredible 9/11 survivor stories are both chilling and mind-blowing—and to really get a feel for how this day changed lives forever, read these powerful lessons surviving the 9/11 terrorist attacks taught one woman.

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Twists of Fate That Saved These People's Lives on 9/11
Courtesy Holly Winter

Her mom’s persistence saved her life

For Holly Winter, September 11, 2001, was going to be the day of a blissful reunion for her and her college friends—but her own mother’s intuition saved her. Winter, who lived in Denver at the time, tells Reader’s Digest, “I was supposed to be at the Twin Towers on September 11 with my two best friends from college, who lived in Chicago and New York City.” Because the NYC-based friend worked non-stop, Winter and her other friend coordinated their calendars for a surprise breakfast picnic on September 11 in New York at his office in the original One World Trade Center. “It was the only date that worked for both of us. Our plan was to fly into the city the night before, then show up at his office at 8:00 a.m. with a breakfast of champagne and caviar—his favorites.”

She continues, “I called my mom who lived in upstate New York to let her know her I was coming to town, and she told me she was coming to visit me instead. I begged her to change her trip, reminding her that she was retired, so her schedule was more flexible. She refused, saying it felt like the right time to visit.”

Winter canceled the trip with her friends. “My Chicago friend decided to make the trip without me. The surprise worked as planned and they called me at 8:00 a.m., and we laughed and talked for a while. I hung up so that they could enjoy the visit without keeping me on the phone. I lost them both.”

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Twists of Fate That Saved These People's Lives on 9/11
Courtesy Brenda Christensen

A rare vacation saved her life

Brenda Christensen, a southern California resident at the time, never missed her annual media tour (a week-long string of appointments held with clients, editors, and reporters) at the Twin Towers in Manhattan for her public relations business except for the one in September 2001. “Every single year I was in New York City for work in the fall. My first appointment was always in the Twin Towers to meet a Wall Street Journal reporter for breakfast at 10 a.m. sharp,” Christensen recalls. “However, the one year I decided to go on vacation instead was 2001.” Instead of being in downtown Manhattan that year, Christensen spent the night at a hotel in New Orleans for a stay-over en route to meet her sister-in-law in Jamaica. “I woke up in the French Quarter to the horrific news, not knowing if any of my colleagues and staff were decimated, as they were near the towers in Lower Manhattan. (Luckily, they weren’t.) I felt I had missed a lightning bolt.” Read the story of the woman that was personally blamed for the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

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Twists of Fate That Saved These People's Lives on 9/11
Courtesy James Stefurak

He was running unusually late

James Stefurak, CFA, had a morning routine in 2001 that took him to the Trade Center on his way to work. “My morning commute involved taking the subway from 14th Street and 7th Avenue into the Trade Center, taking those giant escalators up to the ground floor, grabbing a coffee and paper at one of the newsstands, then walking outside through the big glass doors that a homeless man would hold open for commuters every morning, in the hope of a tip,” recalls Stefurak. “I’d then walk about a block to my office in the Trinity Building.”

He continues, “At the time, I was involved in trading stocks, which typically required me to be in the office before 9 a.m. for calls with associates. I knew that morning of September 11th, I had an unusually slow calendar. Still, even on slow days, I was usually in by 9 or 9:15 but, for whatever reason, I took my sweet time getting ready that morning and was running about 20 minutes behind schedule. When I turned on the TV, I saw what was happening.”

“My apartment had a rooftop deck with views of the Trade Centers so I immediately walked up the stairs and gazed southward down 6th Avenue. I stayed there and eventually watched the two buildings collapse, which is, needless to say, an image I can’t forget. Had I taken the subway down at my normal time, around 8:30, I may not have been so lucky—subway cars were stopped and stuck getting into the Tower after the first plane hit. Today, I am married with four beautiful kids in Florida,” says Stefurak.

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Twists of Fate That Saved These People's Lives on 9/11
Courtesy Crystal Brown Tatum

A broken heart saved her life

Crystal Brown-Tatum, CEO and president of Crystal Clear Communications, says it was her decision to end a relationship that may have saved her life. “In 2001, I was engaged to be married and planned to relocate to New York City in June. I had a job offer from Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, working in Twin Tower Two. Unfortunately, I discovered some things that caused me to call off the wedding and subsequent move. When 9/11 happened, I was numb, because I would have been working in World Trade Tower 2 on that Tuesday. Going through a broken engagement was painful, but it was a twist of fate that possibly saved my life.” Read up on these facts about One World Trade Center.

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Twists of Fate That Saved These People's Lives on 9/11
Courtesy George Keith

He’s never been so thankful for car trouble

On September 10, 2001, George Keith drove his brand-new BMW through Central Park when the vehicle shifted into first gear unexpectedly. He made an appointment at the dealership for seven the following morning with the hopes of making it to an 8 a.m. meeting in downtown Manhattan. Keith tells Reader’s Digest that what happened next was one inconvenience he will never complain about. “I got to the BMW dealership at seven, but the mechanics refused to work before eight, so I waited an hour for a three-minute repair. I left the shop and raced down the expressway to get to my meeting, on the 73rd floor of Tower Two of the World Trade Center,” he recalls.

“I was sitting on the expressway in traffic when I saw smoke coming out of the top of the first tower that was hit, and turned on the radio to hear that a small plane had crashed into it. At that point, I glanced behind me at the Hudson River and saw a jet flying lower than I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, and then it smashed into the second tower. The fireball was enormous—I’ve never seen anything like it. I knew it was a terror attack at that point.” He adds, “I’m fortunate my car broke down, many people I know didn’t make it. It’s still an emotional thing.”

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Twists of Fate That Saved These People's Lives on 9/11
Courtesy Greer Abby Epstein

A cigarette break saved her life

Greer Epstein, at the time an executive director at Morgan Stanley in the second tower, recalls, “I arrived at 7:30 a.m, checked my email, met with some staff members, and had visited the cafeteria on the 43rd floor for my morning coffee and bagel. At 8:40, I received a call from a co-worker who suggested we prep for a later meeting over a cigarette. I grabbed my cigarette case and headed to the elevator,” recalls Epstein.

She continues, “The elevator car jumped and bounced as I reached the ground floor. I remember thinking, ‘I am not taking that car again,’ as I exited and made note of the car number. I turned toward the revolving doors to the street. Through the plate glass windows, I saw people ducking, flaming paper raining down, and a man cowering next to a planter with a briefcase over his head. As I turned toward the revolving door, I noticed that so many people were jammed into it that it couldn’t turn. I remember looking up and seeing a huge hole in the side of the first tower. I heard someone say a plane had hit the building. We watched for a while and saw people holding on to the outside of windows way up on the building. Then they were just letting go, falling all that way. As I stood and watched, I saw a plane coming from the south and flying right toward the second tower.”

Epstein and her coworker witnessed the jet hurdle into the second tower, as well as the building’s horrifying collapse, and ran to the safety of a nearby doorway while the cloud of dust threatened to overtake them. “It felt like the world was ending,” Epstein says.

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Twists of Fate That Saved These People's Lives on 9/11
Courtesy Laura Sorokoff Gelman

She was laid off in the nick of time

Laura Sorokoff Gelman rode the Port Authority subway train through the World Trade Center station on her commute each morning—that was before she was laid off on Friday, September 7, 2001. “I would have been there if I weren’t laid off four days before. And as it happens, I had planned to go to the unemployment office next to the World Trade Center that morning but was waiting till after rush hour, so I never got on the train that day.” Next, learn what young people ask this woman most after she survived the terrorist attack.

Jen Babakhan
Jen Babakhan is an author and credentialed educator living in California. She writes regularly about advice and culture for Reader's Digest. She is also the author of Detoured: The Messy, Grace-Filled Journey From Working Professional to Stay-at-Home Mom (Harvest House Publishers, 2019). She earned her BA in Communication Studies from California State University, Stanislaus. You can follow her on Instagram @JenBabakhan , Twitter @JenBabakhan, and Facebook @JenBabakhanauthor.