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In a nightmare, survivor finds rescue and hope

By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff, 9/16/2001

NEW YORK - Four days later, his ankle shattered and his body bruised, Hursley Lever's memory of hell could not suppress a smile.

''Life is beautiful,'' Lever said yesterday.

But, from a Bellevue Hospital bed, Lever also could not stop the tears that rolled from his eyes when he recalled the horror that engulfed his basement workplace in the World Trade Center.

Lever, 58, probably should be dead. The Brooklyn mechanic survived a fireball that blasted down the elevator shaft of the first tower that was hit, roared along a hallway, and slammed Lever across the floor of a sheet metal shop.

He survived an arduous crawl to street level, unable to stand, and groping for exits to lead him above ground. But what he thought was safety became a nightmare.

Lying in the refuge of a Secret Service jeep, Lever said, he watched immobile and awestruck as the world where he had worked for 12 years unraveled in apocalyptic fashion.

''I hear boom,'' Lever said of the second plane attack. ''And when I look, I see people jumping out of the building, one after the other, the building on fire. I put my hand over my face and said, `If it's to happen, it'll happen.' ... I can't run. I can't go anywhere.''

Lever said many workers who had evacuated the World Trade Center ran back into the first tower after the second assault, seeking refuge in a building belching fire from the enormous explosion over their heads.

An aura of security, even after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, remained intact in the North Tower basement after the first assault last Tuesday. When Lever heard a ''poof'' from that crash, he thought that a transformer had blown again.

''I'm still doing what I'm doing,'' Lever recalled of his reaction. ''Then I walk toward the door and heard a big explosion. And when I look, I see a ball of fire coming toward the door.''

After being knocked across the room, with the lights out and black smoke everywhere, Lever heard a co-worker calling him by his nickname from across the shop. ''`Chino, Chino, are you all right?''' Lever recalled.

Lever answered that he could not walk, but that they would escape together. He told his co-worker: ''You stay low. You stay on your hands and knees. And you stay behind me.''

Crawling and hopping from door to door, Lever prayed that the doors would not be locked. Lever said he never panicked, crediting his Army combat training for clear thinking in the crisis.

When they emerged from the World Trade Center, Lever recalled, a police officer shouted at them to hit the ground. The pair made their way to a Secret Service-owned Bronco, where Lever was placed on his back.

A two-way radio in the vehicle delivered even more unbelievable news: A second plane was about to strike the World Trade Center. On his back, Lever could only watch as the warning became reality. Several people left the Bronco and fled for their lives, Lever said, as flame, smoke, and debris rained around them.

Somehow, Lever said, he was transported to Bellevue Hospital Center in midtown Manhattan, where he joined 287 other people for treatment. There he entered the limbo of the missing, as disabled telephone lines prevented him from contacting his wife and two daughters for two days.

''They were happy to hear my voice,'' Lever said.

He said that he can put the hell he saw behind him. If that proves true, Lever will be among the fortunate witnesses of the destruction.

Dr. Luis R. Marcos, the city's chief of health and hospitals, said that post-traumatic stress disorder will torment many New Yorkers who were affected directly or peripherally by the calamity.

''For a while, we're all going to be anxious and hyperalert, perhaps,'' said Marcos, who narrowly escaped death when the towers collapsed. ''At the same time, you're going to see solidarity.

''We all have an anonymous angel that takes us out of a difficult situation,'' said Marcos, who credited an anonymous police lieutenant with leading him and nine others to safety.

For Lever, the angel is harder to identify. If he had been working next door in the small pump room, Lever said, he would have been killed by the rushing ball of flame. If his ankle had not been broken, Lever said, he would have been searching for injured co-workers and most likely would have died when the tower collapsed.

When asked whether he felt lucky to be alive, Lever responded: ''I feel blessed that I'm alive, not lucky.''

This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 9/16/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.