Silvion Ramsundar walked slowly down a stairwell in Tower 2 of the World Trade Center, his white dress shirt covered in blood and soot, and his face barely visible beneath the ash that covered him. A fist-sized piece of metal was lodged in the left side of his chest.
Doug Brown, who worked for Morgan Stanley on the 70th floor, and colleague Stan Kapica saw Ramsundar leaning against a wall in pain around the 65th floor. Brown grabbed a handkerchief and held it on Ramsundar's wound.
Each man took an arm of the gravely injured Ramsundar. As they slowly made it down to the ground, Ramsundar and Brown promised to buy each other a beer, and Brown scribbled down Ramsundar's number.
They got out of the tower just minutes before it collapsed, and a few weeks later Ramsundar bought Brown that beer. Over the years they've remained friends through shared family get-togethers and countless phone calls.
Susan Watts/NY Daily News via Getty Doug Brown, left, and Silvion Ramsundar on 9/11
"Because of 9/11, our lives have become intertwined, they'll be intertwined forever," says Ramsundar, 51, one of only 16 people from above the 77th floor to survive the attacks, the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history. "I'll always be thankful for what they did for me."
Courtesy of Nimmi Ramsundar Silvion Ramsundar and daughter Mariah the day he was released from the hospital
An assistant vice president for Mizuho Capital Markets in the World Trade Center, Ramsundar was at the 44th floor cafeteria grabbing breakfast when he heard an announcement that a small commuter plane had hit the other World Trade Center Tower, known as Tower 1, or the North Tower.
"They said, 'Go back to your office,' " recalls Ramsundar.
And so he did, traveling up to the 80th floor, but changed course when colleagues said it wasn't a commuter plane — this was something big. (Islamic extremists had hijacked an American Airlines jet that hit the tower at 8:45 a.m.)
He was on the 78th floor and waiting for the express elevator to the ground when he heard a tremendous boom — at 9:02 a.m. the second hijacked jet struck his building, a wing impacting the floor where Ramsundar, then 31, stood. He slammed to the floor and a fireball of airplane fuel blazed over his head, with heat "coming down like a barbecue, just burning, burning, burning — and then it stopped," he remembers.
Ramsundar felt alone in the darkness, surrounded by people he saw were already dead. He and a co-worker made it to a stairwell as he suffered from that fist-sized piece of the jet lodged near his heart, a collapsed lung and a broken left arm.
Courtesy of Doug Brown Alice Brown (far left), Doug Brown (center) and Silvion Ramsundar (far right)
Still, he somehow made it down to about the 65th floor, where Brown, then an executive director at Morgan Stanley, took one arm as Kapica grabbed the other. Together they made it out.
Brown, now 74, helped Ramsundar to a doctor outside the building.
"I remember him saying to a firefighter, 'You've got to get him out of here, he's fading fast,' " Ramsundar recalls.
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Brown watched as an ambulance took Ramsundar away.
Says Ramsundar: "He helped me a lot and I'm forever indebted to him.''
Weeks later they shared the beer. Their families met and forged an instant bond. After Ramsundar's wife Nimmi quit her teaching job to be with her husband as he recovered, Brown helped her get a job with Morgan Stanley, and Brown's sister raised $1,500 for Ramsundar's family.
Courtesy of Doug Brown Silvion Ramsundar and wife Nimmi (left) with Doug Brown and Alice Brown (right) at the Browns' daughter's wedding in 2006
In December 2001, Ramsundar and Nimmi, of Queens, New York, and their then-5-year-old daughter (their children are now 25, 15 and 13) visited Brown and his wife Alice at their home in Summit, New Jersey.
"We all hugged," Brown's wife, Alice, said at the time. "Lots of hugs, lots of tears."
Over the years that in-person closeness led to calls, texts and Zooms after the Browns moved to California in 2004. (The last time they met in person was at the 2006 wedding of Brown's daughter.)
Courtesy of Doug Brown Silvion Ramsundar at the wedding of Doug Brown's daughter
After retiring in 2009, Brown began "doing things I've always wanted to do" — tutoring elementary and high school students and working part-time for 10,000 Degrees, a non-profit that trains and provides free tutors to low-income school-age children in the San Fransisco area.
"Tutoring has become a big part of my life," says Brown, who was successfully treated for lymphoma discovered almost six years ago. "Best, most enjoyable thing I've ever done."
Ramsundar left Wall Street about a year after the attacks and is now involved with real estate. He still can't lift anything too heavy with his left arm due to ligament damage, and at night he wakes up after a few hours in pain.
Courtesy of Nimmi Ramsundar Doug Brown and Silvion Ramsundar reuniting over Zoom 20 years after 9/11
"The back shoulder muscle and the scapula still hurts if I sleep too long," he says. "That's always a constant reminder when I wake up in the middle of the night — 9/11 is something you're not going to forget."
Soon after the attacks on 9/11, Ramsundar began having nightmares.
"I'm trapped, not in the World Trade Center, but in a building or in a fire and trying to escape," he said back in 2001.
Courtesy of Nimmi Ramsundar Silvion Ramsundar and his family
But with time and the help of therapy soon after the attacks, he's been able to push the memories away. Says Ramsundar today: "I'm not reliving it."
Brown, who developed anxiety days after the attacks, has received therapy and taken medication to treat anxiety and depression since September of 2001. Still, he says, "I don't think too much about what happened. I dream a lot about what, in my mind's imagination, are the new World Trade Center towers."
Prior to the pair speaking via Zoom for this story, the last time Brown and Ramsundar saw each other was a year ago, when the Brown and Ramsundar families connected via Zoom. Their bond forged in such awful circumstances remains strong.
"What's really funny, it's like we saw each other yesterday," says Brown.
Adds Ramsundar: "Even though time has passed, it doesn't feel 20 years different, it doesn't feel like 20 years."