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Survivor of 9/11 attacks on World Trade Center reflects 20 years later

Adam Staples was a small-town Arkansas boy starting a future in finance in the World Trade Center when the country's future radically changed on 9/11.
Credit: KTHV

WALNUT RIDGE, Ark. — In 2001, Adam Staples knew two things about his future: he would work in finance and he would continue to pursue distance running. 

The former desire is what placed the self-described small-town boy from Piggot, Arkansas in the World Trade Center on September 11th of that year.

He spent the second half of that fateful day running for his life.

"When the Twin Towers came down I was about six, maybe 10 blocks away," Staples recalled 20 years later. "I had been out of the building about six or 10 minutes."

Staples is in high-demand every year at this time. 

For the past two decades, he has retold his story of survival as the anniversary of the terror attacks is marked across the country, including in his neighborhood in northeast Arkansas.

He is an insurance broker now with a wife and two kids. Medals from his forays into Ironman triathlons adorn his garage and harken to his time as a top runner for Arkansas State.

Twenty years ago, the attacks came on the second day of training to start that financial career with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.

"I had finished a break in a cafeteria on the 29th floor and I wanted to get back upstairs. They were really intense about being on time for these presentations," he said.

The first of four strikes that day came when a passenger jet crashed into the North Tower. 

At first, Staples said voices came over the public address system saying things appeared to be safe in the South Tower and that people could return to their offices.

So Staples went back upstairs.

"I got out of the elevator, back up to the 61st floor and I was standing there looking out the window on the 61st floor when the second plane hit the South Tower," he said.

There are images from that day remain etched in our minds. They are informed by the stories told by survivors like Staples, but 20 years later, despite many times telling his story, his different perspective seems fresh and eye-opening.

"That South Tower shook so violently when the plane hit it," he said. "I don't have any engineering training, but something told me that building was definitely going to come down."

Staples vividly remembered what happened in the minutes after he reached that conclusion and when that conclusion proved correct. He started running down the stairs.

"At some point you could start to see, where I was, you could go as quickly as you wanted, but farther on down you could see that there were a lot of hands on the handrails," he said.

"I can remember specifically at one point while we were going down, meeting a fireman on his way up," Staples said. "There were Port Authority just holding doors for people. Standing there holding a door and saying go this way or go that way. Those things, because...they stood there and held those doors...as long as there were doors there."

For those of us who listen to stories like his, this is when our indelible image of smoke and dust spreading between the buildings. But Staples doesn't remember that cloud or it even getting very dark. 

From his perspective, he remembers the sound.

"The sound of one floor collapsing on the one below it until the building just wasn't there anymore," he said. "I can remember, the rest of the day was just so quiet."

Staples was part of a group from Arkansas staying in the same hotel. They hadn't gone back upstairs when the first plane hit and thus had been much lower in the building. They feared the worst in the hours it took until he caught up with them.

Phones didn't work. He recalled asking a stranger who had lent him a cell phone to relay a message if the call ever went through. Some time later, he ingeniously got a prepaid cell phone and somehow connected to the home office back in Jonesboro. The secretary broke into tears. His boss at the time urged him to call his mother.

He did and then got a surprising revelation from a member of his family as they joyously passed the phone around.

"My grandmother, my mom's mom, is the most saintly person I've ever known, and she picked up the phone and she said, 'Adam, I prayed that you'd be okay and I knew that you would.' And it was complete peace."

RELATED: Arkansas troops who joined the military after 9/11 attacks still serving

From there, Staples' point of view starts to match ours. The outpouring of spirit, support and patriotism.

"There were already flags hanging from everywhere," he said, describing the ad hoc trip back home in a rental van that had to be returned to Little Rock. "If there was an overpass, there was a flag hanging from the road above it."

But 20 years is a long time for that spirit to fade. 

It became easy for Staples to turn away from the news of the day and focus on his family. After all, it's hard to sweat the small stuff when you nearly died on September 11th.

As the country has become divided politically, Staples takes solace that the images of the fireman going up the stairs and the attendants holding open the doors are lasting. He calls that the embodiment of Scripture in Mark 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this, that a person will lay down his life for his friends."

And reflecting on that day now, at age 42, Staples does think his perspective can help reset the focus.

"What I can do is tend to what I perceive to be my responsibilities inside my home. And if I get that right, it should spill out of my house some. If it spills out my house some, it should spill into my neighborhood some. I believe that's a bottom up deal, not a top down," he said.