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Sept. 11: One year after

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Man changing his life after escaping death first in earthquake, then on Sept. 11

By Michael Hill, Associated Press

ESSEX, N.Y. Bruce Stephan dodged death during the 1989 San Francisco earthquake when part of the Bay Bridge collapsed beneath his car.

He resolved to change his life. Instead, he stayed on a frenetic career track that led to New York City -- and to the World Trade Center.

There, on Sept. 11, Stephan was working in one tower and his wife in the other when the hijacked planes struck.

He escaped death again that day. This time, at 46, Stephan is trying to make the most of his second chance, the second time around.

Bruce and Joan Stephan left Manhattan last fall for a one-stoplight upstate hamlet a hefty drive from the nearest Starbucks. Nights once dominated by work are taken up by reading clubs and a local theater production. Stephan is determined, in his own small way, to make the world a better place.

"I don't believe this is just dumb luck, in a way," he said. "There's some message, some purpose ... You do start to feel that this can't happen twice unless there's something."

The Stephans lived in San Francisco in 1989 as they worked their way through law school. Bruce Stephan was driving across the upper deck of the Bay Bridge with a co-worker when the earthquake hit. The bridge's upper deck collapsed onto the lower deck, taking Stephan's Mazda with it.

"The last thing I remember is screaming 'We're gonna die!' then blacking out," he said.

He came to with his car wedged perilously into a yawning gap in a section of the bridge, hundreds of feet above the water. He climbed out the window and helped pull his co-worker out.

His back was hurt, but he was alive. And his wife, who had been working in an office, was unhurt by the quake.

The couple moved from city to city through the '90s, eventually settling back in their hometown, New York City. They commuted downtown together to the World Trade Center. Stephan did consulting work for the Port Authority in the north tower. His wife did contract work in the south tower.

On Sept. 11, Stephan was booting up his laptop on the 65th floor when he heard what sounded like a bomb. Then the building swayed. Shattered glass and flaming debris rained outside the window. Stephan told his co-workers to evacuate and started his slow descent down the stairs.

Only when he got to the bottom did he hear that planes had struck each tower. A rescue worker broke the news before borrowing Stephan's cell phone to call his own family. The worker couldn't get through.

"He looked at me super intensely and he held his badge out to me and he said, 'Look at my badge. Remember my name. If I don't make it out of here alive, tell my family where I was, how I died.' And that's when I said, 'Oh my God!"'

Stephan tried to call his wife -- but couldn't get through.

Though he hadn't attended mass regularly for 20 years, he wandered into a church where it was cool and peaceful. He kneeled down and promised to be a better person and to help people. He asked God to help Joan if she was still alive.

She was. A massive fireball shot by her window when the first plane struck the north tower. She recalls thinking: "Somebody got sucked out, and it's not going to be me." And she left the south tower as quickly as possible.

The rescue worker who told Stephan about the airliners also survived.

In the anxious weeks after the attack, the Stephans decided to get away from Manhattan. They felt like they were living in the middle of a big bull's-eye and they wanted a better life. And Stephan knew the change needed to be dramatic to avoid a repeat of the fizzled resolution after the 1989 earthquake.

"I was on TV all over the place (in 1989) saying this is my second life and I'm going to change my life, and I'm going to do things differently," he recalled. "And they interviewed me a year later ... and it was really embarrassing because I hadn't."

They settled on Essex, a Norman Rockwell-like town of about 700 on Lake Champlain about an hour south of the Canadian border. They rent a house so close to the lake you can hear water lapping the shore from the wraparound porch. People wave on the street and toss snowballs at your window in the winter to say hello.

The couple still spend about a quarter of their work hours in Manhattan -- 250 miles away -- but are able to work mostly from home. They still work long hours, but now try to knock off at 6 p.m. instead of late at night.

He said he is changing his life step by small step. He tries to be more community-minded. He goes to zoning meetings, historic preservation meetings and church. He works with peace groups. Both he and his wife have parts in the local production of "Harvey," the old chestnut about a man who is best friends with a giant invisible rabbit.

Stephan tells his survivor's tale to church groups and anyone else who will listen. His talk includes a plea for understanding to avoid a repeat of Sept. 11.

"We should be working to do better diplomacy, to change the way the rest of the world looks at us," he said.

He isn't sure what's next. He might write a book or teach. Fate has gotten him this far, and he wants to see where it takes him.

"It's kind of like when you sail. You feel the wind and if the wind shifts, you change your course and go with it," he said. "I'm just trying to take everything as fate."

Today's news:
Ceremony at Ground Zero
Mass. remembers victims
Silence, tears mark day at Logan
Under alert, Mass. carries on
Bush faces day with resolve
World remembers attacks in US
Memorial in Shanksville, Pa.
Updated wire coverage

Photo galleries:
Families mourn, remember
Ceremony at Ground Zero
Ceremony at the Pentagon
Ceremony at Pa. crash scene
Remembrances worldwide
Remembrances in Boston

NECN RealVideo:
Moment of silence observed
Ceremony at State House
Gettysburg Address read
Procession at Ground Zero
A somber travel day at Logan
Images of Sept. 11, 2001



Preparing for the worst
Security has become the new norm in Greater Boston.


Fear and children
Children's responses may shed light on human anxiety, resiliency.


Muslim minds
The US effort to win over Muslim hearts and minds is failing.


Science vs. terrorism
New chemical, biological threats spur nation's top minds.


For those deported after Sept. 11, the losses are wrenching.


A special Magazine issue
A Sept. 11 narrative by former Massport chief Virginia Buckingham, plus an essay by Christopher Hitchens.

A special Arts section
How culture has changed since Sept. 11, including a gallery of art inspired by the attacks.

A special Focus section
A look at how the lives of six Americans were altered.

Everywhere USA
Terrorism comes to God's country.


Where is Al Qaeda?
How have bin Laden and his terrorist group eluded US forces?


Two cities
New York and DC one year later.


America remembers
The US looks back at the terrorist attacks.

Victims and survivors
A year later, still hurting.

A time for bells and remembrance
A clash of views on terror
Limited damage to the economy
Families build support system
NYC's healing process
Finding comfort in the kitchen
Bailey: A day of atonement

From the Associated Press:
Tribute paid with tattoos
Charities changed by 9/11
White House calls home
9/11 stole innocence, love
Man escaped earthquake, 9/11
Update on 9/11's famous faces
Firemen still burying dead
A mother's note to a lost son
9/11 created heroes in death
Voice mails bring comfort
Little things hold memories
87th floor survivor copes
Sampling of 9/11 memorials
Pentagon survivors move on
Moments of silence on Sept. 11
Survivors try to move forward
Families cling to chances
Sept. 11 widow trying to forgive
Widow becomes an advocate
Workplace response varies
Graphic: Funds offer relief

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