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Man Alters Course After 2nd Brush With Death

Lifestyle: Survivor of World Trade Center attack, who also lived through the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, takes step toward simpler life.


ESSEX, N.Y. — Bruce Stephan dodged death during the 1989 San Francisco earthquake when part of the Bay Bridge collapsed beneath his car.

He resolved to change his life. Instead, he stayed on a frenetic career track that led to New York City -- and the World Trade Center.

There, on Sept. 11, Stephan was working in one tower and his wife in the other when the hijacked planes struck.

He escaped death again that day, as did his wife. This time, at 46, Stephan is trying to make the most of his second chance, the second time around.

Bruce and Joan Stephan left Manhattan last fall for a one-stoplight Upstate New York hamlet a hefty drive from the nearest Starbucks. Nights once dominated by work are taken up by reading clubs and a local theater production. Stephan is determined, in his own small way, to make the world a better place.

"I don't believe this is just dumb luck, in a way," he said. "There's some message, some purpose.... You do start to feel that this can't happen twice unless there's something."

The Stephans lived in San Francisco in 1989 as they worked their way through law school. Bruce Stephan was driving across the upper deck of the Bay Bridge with a co-worker when the earthquake hit. The bridge's upper deck collapsed onto the lower deck, taking Stephan's Mazda with it.

"The last thing I remember is screaming, 'We're gonna die!' then blacking out," he said.

He came to with his car wedged perilously in a yawning gap in a section of the bridge, hundreds of feet above the water. He climbed out the window and helped pull his co-worker out.

His back was hurt, but he was alive. And his wife, who had been working in an office, was unhurt. The couple moved from city to city through the 1990s, eventually settling back in their hometown, New York City. They commuted downtown together to the World Trade Center. Stephan did consulting work for the Port Authority in the north tower. His wife did contract work in the south tower.

On Sept. 11, Stephan was booting up his laptop on the 65th floor when he heard what sounded like a bomb. Then the building swayed. Shattered glass and flaming debris rained outside the window. Stephan told his co-workers to evacuate and started his slow descent down the stairs.

Only when he got to the bottom did he hear that planes had struck each tower. A rescue worker broke the news before borrowing Stephan's cell phone to call his own family. The worker couldn't get through.

"He looked at me super intensely and he held his badge out to me and he said, 'Look at my badge. Remember my name. If I don't make it out of here alive, tell my family where I was, how I died.' And that's when I said, 'Oh my God!' "

Stephan tried to call his wife -- but couldn't get through.

Although he hadn't attended Mass regularly for 20 years, he wandered into a church where it was cool and peaceful. He knelt down and promised to be a better person and to help people. He asked God to help Joan if she was still alive.

She was. A massive fireball had shot by her window when the first plane struck the north tower. She recalls thinking: "Somebody got sucked out, and it's not going to be me." And she left the south tower as quickly as possible.

The rescue worker who told Stephan about the airliners also survived.

In the anxious weeks after the attack, the Stephans decided to get away from Manhattan. They said they felt like they were living in the middle of a big bull's-eye and they wanted a better life. And Stephan knew that the change needed to be dramatic to avoid a repeat of the fizzled resolution after the 1989 earthquake.

"I was on TV all over the place [in 1989] saying this is my second life and I'm going to change my life, and I'm going to do things differently," he recalled. "And they interviewed me a year later ... and it was really embarrassing because I hadn't."

They settled on Essex, a Norman Rockwell-like town of about 700 on Lake Champlain about an hour south of the Canadian border. They rent a house so close to the lake that you can hear water lapping on the shore from the wraparound porch. People wave on the street and toss snowballs at your window in the winter to say hello.

The couple still spend about a quarter of their work hours in Manhattan -- 250 miles away -- but are able to work mostly from home. They still work long hours, but now try to knock off at 6 p.m. instead of late at night.

He said he is changing his life step by small step. He tries to be more community-minded. He goes to zoning meetings, historic preservation meetings and church. He works with peace groups. Both he and his wife have parts in the local production of "Harvey," the old chestnut about a man whose best friend is a giant invisible rabbit.

Stephan tells his survivor's tale to church groups and anyone else who will listen. His talk includes a plea for understanding to avoid a repeat of Sept. 11.

"We should be working to do better diplomacy, to change the way the rest of the world looks at us," he said.

He isn't sure what's next. He might write a book or teach. Fate has gotten him this far, and he wants to see where it takes him.

"It's kind of like when you sail. You feel the wind and if the wind shifts, you change your course and go with it," he said. "I'm just trying to take everything as fate."

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