As he stood on a corner in downtown Manhattan photographing United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower, all 110 floors of the building suddenly came tumbling down towards him. Handschuh, who was working for the New York Daily News, was blown off his feet and buried under a crush of glass, concrete, and a huge steel beam. With one leg shattered, the other too damaged to stand on, and dust filling his throat, Handschuh tried to yell for help.
“Don’t worry, brother, we’ll get you out,” Lieutenant Tommy McGoff replied through the haze. A group of firefighters from Engine Co. 217 who were desperately searching for two colleagues separated amid the collapse pulled Handschuh from the rubble. Jeff Borkowski and Phil McArdle, from Fire Department HAZ-MAT 1, then scooped him up and carried him to a deli in Battery Park, placing him on the dusty tiled floor among soft drinks and chip packets.
There, he heard the voice of Charlie Wells, an FDNY paramedic chief he knew, asking if anybody needed something to drink. “Get me a Snapple,” Handschuh replied.
Moments later, as the second tower fell, a police officer named Jim Kelleher lay on top of Handschuh so his helmet and bulletproof vest would protect Handschuh if the deli’s glass window was blown in. After the dust settled, Wells, Kelleher, and a third man carried Handschuh to an ambulance in a frenzied rescue captured by Daily News photographer Todd Maisel.
An NYPD captain named Terri Tobin then held Handschuh’s hand in the ambulance and called his family to tell them he was alive.
But, for 20 years, the identity of that third man, a firefighter with neat grey hair who looks to be in his late 40s or early 50s, has remained a mystery.
“I know seven people who are my guardian angels, but who was that last person?” Handschuh, now 62, told The Daily Beast on Friday, a day before the 20th anniversary of the attacks that changed America.
“I know every other person who helped save my life. We talk regularly, we cry, we laugh, we run into each other on September 11th every year for 19 years. And there’s no reason that one person shouldn’t be part of that.”
In the years after 9/11, Handschuh showed Maisel’s photos to the FDNY, various fire department unions, and other first responders who were nearby that day. Occasionally people thought they recognized the man, but leads fizzled out and life went on.
He has contemplated the possibility that the third man died that day, or perhaps in the years after from the toxic dust. If that’s the case, he wants to be able to thank the man’s family at least.
It’s hard for Handschuh to put into words the feeling of meeting, and thanking, someone who saved your life. Humbling, embarrassing, and grateful don’t seem to cut it. Borkowsky and McArdle have told Handschuh that he saved their lives; if they hadn’t carried him back to the Battery Park deli, they would have been in the North Tower when it collapsed.
Tobin, who was badly injured with a broken ankle, a piece of cement embedded in her crushed helmet, and a shard of glass stuck in her back, joked that she was weirdly comforted to look at Handschuh in the ambulance because “you were way more fucked up than I was.”
“Not one of them look at themselves as heroes,” he said.
Nevertheless, it still nagged at Handschuh that he was a journalist with an incomplete story. So as the 20th anniversary approached, he figured it was time to make one last push to find his eighth guardian angel.
“Help me find one of the firefighters who helped save my life,” he captioned posts on Instagram and Twitter this week, hoping the power of the internet might finally provide the missing link.
“All my rescuers, all my angels get together on September 11,” Handschuh told The Daily Beast. “And this year it’s time to give him a hug and say, Thank you.’”