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Small Choices And Lucky Breaks That Saved 13 Lives On 9/11

Eva Rinaldi - Flickr / Denise Gould - U.S. Air Force

Years later, we can all still remember where we were as news of the 9/11 attacks broke.

For the families of the nearly 3,000 victims, the pain of that fateful day will never end.

But for everyone in America, September 11 is a day to remember and mourn the World Trade Center victims.

What you might not know is that many people survived the attacks because of what could be called a twist of fate - or even divine intervention.

Whether somebody was looking out for these people, or they just caught a lucky break, they avoided being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

1. The Smoke Break

Unlike many fortunate people on this list, Greer Epstein was actually in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

She arrived at work at 7:30 a.m., and was sitting in the cafeteria at 8:40."

"I received a call from a co-worker who suggested we prep for a later meeting over a cigarette," she remembered.

"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."

But as she entered the lobby, Epstein realized it wasn't just the elevator that was damaged.

"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," she said.

"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."

Epstein and her coworker were standing outside, watching the scene as the second plane hit. While they "felt like the world was ending," they both survived.

2. Missed Connection

911 survivors
The airplane that would be hijacked during Flight 93, seen days before its final voyage.MaxMac- Wikimedia

Daniel Belardinelli is one of the few lucky people who can say they missed a doomed flight on 9/11.

He had planned to join his uncle on a trip to Yosemite National Park, and bought a ticket with him on United Airlines Flight 93.

But work forced Belardinelli to cancel his plans just a week before the flight.

His uncle, and the rest of the passengers onboard Flight 93, died after trying to take the plane back from hijackers as it crashed in Pennsylvania.

While many 9/11 survivors are haunted by guilt, Belardinelli tries to keep things in perspective.

"You gotta live your life," he explained. "Disasters have happened in the past. I went on with my life."

3. "I missed it by five minutes."

A simple errand before work may have saved Robert Herzog's life on 9/11

Before heading to his office in the North Tower that day, Herzog visited the post office by his apartment to drop off a package.

The detour meant his morning express train was unusually busy.

"It was so crowded," he said, "and I'm claustrophobic. I got back into the local train."

The first plane crashed into the North Tower just five minutes before Herzog arrived at the scene, and almost 300 of his coworkers were killed.

His stroke of good luck inspired Herzog to start an intermural sports company that supports charity - his way of making the world a better place.

4. Seth McFarlane's Big Break

The comedian who created Family Guy and starred in the movie A Million Ways To Die In The West almost met his own unfortunate end on 9/11.

McFarlane was meant to fly from Boston to Los Angeles on the hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, but arrived late because he had been up drinking the night before.

Along with the hangover, McFarlane's travel agent may have saved his life.

His itinerary showed that McFarlane had an extra 10 minutes, but the door to Flight 11 was actually closed when he arrived at his gate.

"I missed it by 10 minutes," McFarlane said. "It was very, very fortunate."

The comedian decided to sleep off his rough night in the passenger lounge, and realized how lucky he was when he watched news about the attacks soon after.

5. A Mother's Intuition

Holly Winter lived in Denver, but was supposed to meet her friends inside the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks.

Winter and a friend from college planned to surprise another friend of theirs at his office.

"It was the only date that worked for both of us," she remembered.

"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."

That would have been less than an hour before the first plane hit the buildings.

In the end, Winter's mother - and her stubbornness - may have saved her life.

"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," Winter said.

"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."

It definitely was, although Winter's friend still went through with her plan. "I lost them both," Winter said.

6. A Good Day To Sleep In

James Stefurak didn't work in the Twin Towers, but he visited them every day.

He would buy a coffee and newspaper at the World Trade Center's newstand each day, before heading to his office about a block away.

"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," he explained.

"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."

His slow start that morning saved Stefurak's life. He saw the attacks unfold on TV, and watched the towers collapse from the rooftop deck of his apartment.

"Had I taken the subway down at my normal time, around 8:30, I may not have been so lucky," he said.

"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."

7. Car Trouble

The next time you have to wait to get your car fixed, think of George Keith's story and be thankful.

The day before the attacks, Keith was driving his car through Central Park, and noticed some trouble with his gear shift.

He stopped at the dealership the next morning, still hoping to arrive for work at the World Trade Center for his 8 a.m. meeting.

"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," Keith remembered.

"I left the shop and raced down the expressway to get to my meeting," but thankfully he was too late.

Keith was still in traffic when he noticed smoke rising out of the North Tower.

"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."

Keith admits he was "fortunate" to have the car trouble, but his friends weren't so lucky. "It’s still an emotional thing."

8. A Flight Attendant's Fateful Error

It's easy to forget that along with innocent office workers, airline passengers, and emergency workers, four airline crews were also killed in the 9/11 attacks.

United Airlines flight attendant Elise O'Kane barely avoided being on one of the doomed flights.

Kane mixed up a pair of numbers in the company's online scheduling system, which gave her all the wrong shifts for September, 2001.

She managed to trade away most of them, but could not get back Flight 175, a cushy trip from Boston to Los Angeles.

O'Kane had even tried to switch to the flight the night before, but her computer froze, leaving her on a different flight to Denver.

"I was not happy that I was not on that flight," O'Kane said. "I was driving to work steamed."

She met the man who would fly on Flight 175, reserve attendant Robert Fangman, at the airport, and they chatted before saying their goodbyes.

"I'm just so excited," Fangman had told her. "This is a great trip."

O'Kane's flight took off between American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, both of which would hit the towers.

9. Mark Wahlberg's Change Of Plans

Like Seth McFarlane, the Ted actor very nearly lost his life on American Airlines Flight 11.

Just a few days before September 11, Wahlberg agreed to see his friend's movie at the Toronto International Film Festival, which forced him to take a chartered jet instead.

While Walhberg should be thankful for his stroke of luck, he famously boasted that he could have prevented the terrorist attacks.

"If I was on that plane with my kids, it wouldn’t have went down like it did," Walhberg said.

Maybe he was just channeling one of his many action movie roles.

"To suggest I would have done anything differently than the passengers on that plane was irresponsible," Wahlberg later apologized.

10. His Lucky Tie

Joe Lott
Joe Lott, seen at his daughter's wedding with his lucky tie.Lott Family

The day of the attacks, Joe Lott was scheduled to attend a conference at the Windows on the World venue on the top floors of the North Tower.

During a breakfast meeting that day, one of his employees handed Lott a gift-wrapped tie.

Lott offered to wear the tie at the conference that day, but his employee was not having it.

"You've better not wear it with that shirt," she told him, because they would clash.

Lott took her word for it, and went back to his hotel room to iron a new shirt while she left for the World Trade Center.

He was still in the hotel as the first plane hit, and wound up being the only person on his team to survive that day.

Lott still wears the tie on special occasions, as a tribute to his employees.

11. The Perfect Getaway

911 survivors
Bourbon Street, New Orleans.Lars Plougmann - Flickr

Each year, Brenda Christensen spent a week working out of the Twin Towers for her PR business.

Her annual trip would have put her in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But Christensen made a fateful choice that year.

"The one year I decided to go on vacation instead was 2001," she said.

She spent the day in New Orleans, and remembers waking up "in the French Quarter to the horrific news."

Thankfully, Christensen's coworkers also survived the attacks.

"I felt I had missed a lightning bolt," she said.

12. Lucky Breakup

Not many women can say a breakup saved their life, but Crystal Brown Tatum can.

"In 2001, I was engaged to be married and planned to relocate to New York City in June," she remembered.

"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."

Tatum remembers feeling "numb" seeing the news of the attacks.

"Going through a broken engagement was painful, but it was a twist of fate that possibly saved my life."

13. Tough Break, Lucky Break

Laura Gelman actually avoided being at the World Trade Center twice on 9/11, first because she was laid off just four days before the attack.

"I would have been there if I weren’t laid off four days before," she remembered.

"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."

May the victims of the 9/11 attacks rest in peace. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families. Never forget.

I write about all sorts of things for Shared, especially weird facts, celebrity news, and viral stories. CONTACT: zachary@shared.com