When terrorists crashed American Airlines flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, civil engineer Ram Prakash Singhal was at his desk on the 64th floor. “I was looking at my computer screen when we heard this big thud,” he says.
“The entire tower swayed five to six feet one way and then the other. My chair tilted so sharply, I had my hand on the floor. First I thought: an earthquake. Then when the tower stopped shaking, I thought: a small airplane must have crashed into the building. May be the pilot had a heart attack.”
However, others in the New York Port Authority office where he worked as a project manager remembered the building’s 1993 terrorist blast. “They were scared,” remembers Singhal. “Some kept saying, ‘Not again. Not again’.” Of about 25 people in the office, 15 decided to take the emergency stairs. “The rest thought it was safer to stay in the building.” Only two of them were to survive.
Singhal says initially most people were just irritated that their work had been disrupted. None realised the enormity of what had happened or what was about to happen as the building’s steel supports began melting away.
Walking down the first 10 floors was easy. But the stairs became more crowded. Often they had to stop as burn victims were brought down and teams of firefighters headed upwards. At one point some people, presumably having heard it over their cellphones, began shouting, “Another plane! Another plane!” “We told them to shut up,” says Singhal, for fear they would cause panic.
At the 22nd floor, Singhal heard rumbling sounds below. The stand pipes were rattling. Plaster began to fall from the ceiling and walls.
Being an engineer, Singhal concluded the tower had become unstable. By the eighth floor, the stairs were inundated with water and he had to hold the handrails to escape from falling. A few floors later, they were told to shift to a new staircase. "I believe our original staircase had broken underneath, but I am not sure," he says.
They passed through a dark, flooded corridor. "People would turn on and off flashlights, showing dangling electrical wires that we dodged. We kept our hands on the wall and kept walking, step by step," says Singhal. When they emerged in the ground lobby, the air was opaque with dust. His group walked out of the building under a canopy. All around them were flames, shifting violently because of the wind. "We had walked two or three blocks when we heard the ground rumbling. We looked up and saw the tower was coming down. We all began to run," says Singhal.
In the immediate aftermath, Singhal was puzzled at his lack of fear, the calmness he had felt throughout the tragedy. For months afterward, he was repeatedly interviewed on television and asked, "Where you totally scared? Weren't you fearful of dying?" He gave the truthful answer: No.
"I wondered why I hadn't felt anything," says Singhal. "I realised it was because I was focussed on helping others I had not thought about myself. This was a blessing in disguise." He came to another realisation: "In those moments of crisis, no one is there for you. There is only god, you and karma."
Singhal, a graduate of Punjab University in Ludhiana, came to the US as an immigrant sponsored by his brother in 1977. He became a US citizen in 1995.
He had become a votary of the Brahma Kumaris when he had been in college and never strayed far from their centres in the US or from his deep spiritual beliefs. "I teach meditation and stress management during my off hours as a type of volunteer work," says Singhal. At the time of 9/11, he had been doing meditation for 27 years.
Being caught in the middle of the world's worst act of terrorism was a profoundly spiritual experience for Singhal. "Everyone else speaks of 9/11 as an experience of horror. I saw it as a tale of faith, of conviction, of doing well in your life."
Though Port Authority officials urged him to visit a psychologist and seek therapy, Singhal declined. "They were worried I was in a state of denial." His Americans friends urged him file a claim for financial compensation. He declined. "
I said it would not ethical; it would be adharma. My life had been saved, wasn't that enough for me? People would just smile at me. But I believe that to earn money in an unjustified manner would mean something adverse happening to me later. I would say: Ask your wife whether she would have wanted you alive or a lot of money?"
Within hours of the collapse of the twin towers, Singhal had told a senior Brahma Kumari in London about his experience. "She was excited how positive thinking and meditation had helped me in such a crisis. She told me to write down my experiences."
This launched Singhal on what has become almost a second career for him -- albeit a non-paying one. In the year following 9/11, he gave nearly 150 presentations around the world about his experience and how he emerged, mentally and physically unscathed.
Six years later, he still gives about 100 speeches a year. His audience has included the vice-president of Argentina, the senior management of the Bhilai steel works and more Rotary Clubs than he can remember. Singhal has met several families of 9/11 victims and counselled them.
"I told some of the children who had lost their fathers: Remember your father's positive qualities and make them part of you and you will remember him forever." He doesn't bring up the Brahma Kumaris in his talks. "My experience is universal. It is not specific to one religion or group."
Singhal often uses his own money to pay for these travels. At age 55, he is still going strong, speaking wherever and whenever he goes in the world. He has left the Port Authority and works elsewhere, in part because he believed he had to "move forward" and avoid "thinking of the negative side". Singhal has never attended the large-scale commemorative services held every year at Ground Zero. He only attended the funerals of those who died from his World Trade Center office.
Last year on 9/11 he spoke at a firefighter's academy in Los Angeles. He had no specific plans this year. "I know that my experience has energised me. I never feel tired by all this speaking.
Once I did 30 presentations in seven days. It is my conviction that if I keep doing good things in life, good will keep happening to me. There is a totality in all this."