The only 9/11 survivor from the impact zone became a pastor

Stanley Praimnath sits in Elmont, N.Y, the Long Island town where he lived in 2001. Photo by Micah Danney.

Stanley Praimnath sits in Elmont, N.Y, the Long Island town where he lived in 2001. Photo by Micah Danney.

NEW YORK — On every anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Stanley Praimnath, 62, stands in a different church and recounts what happened to him that day. It’s how he answers God’s call, he says, in return for God’s answering his 18 years ago, when he cried out and gripped his desk to keep from being sucked out of the gaping hole in the World Trade Center’s South Tower.

“I figured if God is going to hold his side of the bargain, letting me live, well then I’m obligated to hold my side of the bargain,” Praimnath said.

He is the only known survivor from the impact zone where United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the building. He dove under his desk just before the plane struck, and he held on against the air pressure until he was able to stand. He saw a flashlight through the darkness and went toward it, and he and the man holding it began their descent that delivered them from the skyscraper minutes before it collapsed.

The other man was Brian Clark, a bank vice president who was making his way down from the 84th floor and stopped when he heard Praimnath’s cries. They’ve been like brothers ever since. The one shoe Praimnath had on as he walked down those stairs is a treasured keepsake, stored in a box with “deliverance” written all the way around its exterior. Shards of glass are embedded in its thick rubber sole.

It is that man, that shoe and God’s grace that Praimnath credits with saving his life. As the country remembers the attacks this year, Praimnath will speak at Power Church International, in Lake Charles, La. about what he can only understand as divine intervention. He’ll stop at several other churches in the area throughout the week before he returns home to Valley Stream, N.Y.

While the anniversary is difficult for many survivors and relatives of those who died, for Praimnath it is a reminder of God’s grace. He has gotten speaking requests from all over the country in the years since the attacks and tries to grant as many as he can. He’s booked for anniversary talks through 2021. He’ll spend the 20th anniversary at a church in Yuba City, Calif.

Remembering that day is harder for Stephanie, the eldest of Praimnath’s two daughters. She was eight then, at home with her sister Caitlin, then four, and their mother Jennifer, when their father got home. He was bruised and swollen all over, covered in dust and dried blood. 

Caitlin didn’t believe he was her father and asked him not to touch her. Stephanie was holding a butter knife she had been using to make a sandwich. She told him she would have used the knife to kill herself if he had died. Hearing that was one of the most difficult parts of the entire experience, Praimnath said.

His daughters don’t share his willingness to talk about that day. They never have. It’s especially hard for Stephanie. “When 9/11 comes, she’s in a shell,” Praimnath said.

Faith has always been a part of Praimnath’s life. As a child in Guyana, on the eastern border of Venezuela, his parents made him go to church. They weren’t particularly intentional about what tradition they followed. They attended whatever church was nearby.

Praimnath arrived in the U.S. in his mid-20s and kept going to church, but it was only after he met his wife that he landed at his present congregation. He saw her on a subway train on his way to work. His attraction was instant. Like looking for your keys and suddenly finding them, he said.

He asked her father, Pastor Jim Persram, for permission to court her. Her father asked Praimnath if he knew God and had been born again. When Praimnath said he was a churchgoer, Persram said he would allow one phone call per week and one meeting per month for six years before he would give his blessing.

Praimnath and Jennifer followed her father’s instruction and married six years later. Praimnath is now an assistant pastor at Persram’s Pentecostal church, Bethel Assembly of God in Ozone Park, Queens.

Church became a priority for Praimnath after he met Jennifer. His faith was strong when the first World Trade Center bombing happened in 1993, which he was also present for. It wasn’t until 9/11, though, that God really got his attention, he said.

While he survived, his coworkers and other friends in the building did not. Praimnath doesn’t claim to see purpose in anyone else’s fate. “I realized that I may never understand why some people died and some lived,” he said. “I don’t know the answer.”

He recovered in a hospital bed in the days after the attack, traumatized and delirious. He didn’t recognize Jennifer at times. His doctors told her they didn’t know if or how well he would mentally recover. As he lay listening to his own thoughts, wondering about his purpose in the wake of such a miraculous escape, he heard someone say that life’s answers are in the Bible. He asked his wife to hand him his.

He opened it to Psalm 91:1 and started reading: 

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. 

I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’

Surely he will save you from the fowler's snare and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.”

“I snapped out of it right then,” Praimnath said.