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Excerpt: 'The Third Man Factor'

NOTE: The footnotes from this excerpt have been removed.

Chapter One: The Third Man

Ron DiFrancesco was at his desk at Euro Brokers, a financial trading firm, on the eighty-fourth floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York when the plane struck the North Tower opposite him. It was 8:46 A.M. on September 11, 2001. There was a loud boom, and the lights in the South Tower flickered. Gray smoke poured from the North Tower. At impact, all the stairwells in the North Tower became impassable from the ninety-second floor up, trapping 1,356 people. Some waved desperately for help. Most of those who worked at Euro Brokers started to evacuate the building, but DiFrancesco stayed. A few minutes later, a terse announcement was broadcast over the building's public-address system. An incident had occurred in the other building, but "Building Two is secure. There is no need to evacuate Building Two. If you are in the midst of evacuation, you may return to your office by using the reentry doors on the reentry floors and the elevators to return to your office. Repeat, Building Two is secure. . . ." DiFrancesco, a money-market broker originally from Hamilton, Ontario, telephoned his wife, Mary, to tell her that an airplane had hit the other tower, but that he was fine and intended to stay at work. "It was tower one that was hit, I'm in tower two," he told her. He tried to focus his attention on the screens of financial data on his desk. Then a friend from Toronto called. "Get the hell out,"he said. They spoke briefly, then DiFrancesco agreed. He called a few major clients and his wife, Mary, again, to tell them of his change of plans. Then he began walking toward a bank of elevators.

At 9:03 A.M., seventeen minutes after the first impact, the second plane hit. United Airlines Flight 175, traveling at 590 miles an hour, sliced into the South Tower, igniting an intense fire fed by up to 11,000 gallons of jet fuel. The Boeing 767, carrying fifty-six passengers, two pilots, and seven flight attendants, had been commandeered by al-Qaeda terrorists after taking off from Boston's Logan International Airport en route to Los Angeles. It struck the building's south face between floors seventy-seven and eighty-five. The plane banked just before it slammed into the building. The higher wing cut into the Euro Brokers offices, while the fuselage hit the Fuji Bank offices on the seventy-ninth through eighty-second floors.

DiFrancesco was hurled against the wall and showered with ceiling panels and other debris. Brackets, air ducts, and cables sprang from the ceiling. The building swayed. The trading floor he had just left no longer existed. DiFrancesco entered Stairway A.The South Tower had three emergency stairwells. Fortuitously, he had stumbled on the only one that offered hope of escape for people above the zone of impact. The stairwell was shielded from destruction by an enormous elevator machine-room on the eighty-first floor, where the nose of the 767 hit. The elevator equipment covered more than half the floor space, and had forced the tower's architects to route Stairway A from the center of the building toward the northwest cornerthe farthest point from the impact zone. DiFrancesco was joined by others in the stairwell and all began to descend. The stairwell was smoky, lit only by a flashlight carried by Brian Clark, an executive vice-president at Euro Brokers and a volunteer fire marshal on the eighty-fourth floor. Three flights down, they encountered a heavy woman and a male colleague who were coming up. "You've got to go up. You can't go down," the woman insisted. "There's too much smoke and flames below."

They debated whether to ascend, and either wait for firefighters or a rooftop rescue by helicopter, or persist with their descent, risking the smoke and flames. Clark shone his flashlight into his colleagues' faces, asking each, "Up or down?" They heard someone call for help. Brian Clark grabbed DiFrancesco by the sleeve. "Come on, Ron. Let's get this fellow." The two men left the stairwell and fought through debris on the eighty-first floor to locate the person. But DiFrancesco was soon overcome by smoke. He had a backpack, and held it over his face in an attempt to filter the air. But it wasn't helping, and he was forced to retreat. Gasping for air, he decided to ascend, hoping to escape the smoke. He climbed several flights but at each landing, when he tested the fire doors, he discovered they were locked. A mechanism designed to prevent smoke from flooding the building had malfunctioned after the impact, preventing any of the doors, even on designated reentry floors, from being opened. He continued to climb, and eventually caught up with some colleagues from Euro Brokers, several of whom were helping the large woman. She had convinced all of them that the best escape route was up the South Tower. But as DiFrancesco continued up, the stairwell became more crowded. All the fire doors were locked. He guessed he had reached the ninety-first floor of the 110-story building. Ron DiFrancesco is normally unflappable. He is a money-market broker in a highstakes business that demands steel nerves. But he is slightly claustrophobic, and with the intensifying smoke, he began to panic. He thought of his family, that he had to see his wife and children again at all costs. He determined that he was "gonna make it out." DiFrancesco decided to turn around and start back down. This time, the situation was much worse. Thick smoke poured up the narrow stairwell.

He groped his way down, unable to see more than a few feet ahead. He stopped at a landing in the middle of the impact zone, on the seventy-ninth or eightieth floor. Overcome by the smoke, he joined others, about a dozen people in all, some stretched out facedown on the concrete floor, others crouched in the corners, all gasping for air. They were blocked from descending further by a collapsed wall. He could see panic in their eyes, and fear. Some were crying. Several began to slip into unconsciousness. Then, something remarkable happened: "Someone told me to get up." Someone, he said, "called me." The voicewhich was male, but did not belong to one of the people in the stairwellwas insistent: "Get up!" It addressed DiFrancesco by his first name, and gave him encouragement: "It was, 'Hey! You can do this.'" But it was more than a voice; there was also a vivid sense of a physical presence.

A lot of people made split-second decisions that day that determined whether they lived or died. What is different about Ron DiFrancesco is that, at a critical moment, he received help from a seemingly external source. He had the sensation that "somebody lifted me up." He felt that he was being guided: "I was led to the stairs. I don't think something grabbed my hand, but I was definitely led." He resumed his descent, and soon saw a point of light. He followed it, fighting his way through drywall and other debris that had collapsed, obstructing the stairwell. Then he encountered flames. He recoiled from the fire. But still someone helped him. "An angel" urged him along. "There was still danger, so it led me to the stairwell, led me to break through, led me to run through the fire. . . . There was obviously somebody encouraging me. That's not where you go, you don't go toward the fire. . . ." He covered his head with his forearms and continued down, now running. He was singed by the fire. He believed the flames continued for three stories. Finally, he reached a clear, lit stairwell below the fire, on the seventy-sixth floor. Only then did the sense of a benevolent helper, one who had been with him for five minutes, end. Said DiFrancesco: "I think at that point it let me go."

When he was making his way down, he passed three firefighters climbing up the stairs. "I'm having trouble breathing," he said. He was told he would find help at the bottom. DiFrancesco continued down as fast as he could, finally reaching the plaza level. He headed for an exit, but was stopped by a security guard who told him it was too dangerous. He looked out in horror at the falling debris and victims. He was directed to another exit. He walked back through the concourse toward the northeast exit, near Church Street. He was still in extreme danger. Fifty-six minutes had passed since the plane hit. The impact had severed many of the South Tower's vertical support columns. The heat from the explosion and fire had weakened the steel trusses. The floors of the crippled building began to "pancake down" in a floor-by-floor collapse. As he approached the Church Street exit, DiFrancesco heard an "ungodly roar." He saw a fireball as the building compressed. He doesn't know what happened next, and was unconscious for some time after his narrow escape, waking up much later at St. Vincent's hospital in Manhattan.

Ron DiFrancesco was the last person out of the South Tower of the World Trade Center before it came down at 9:59 A.M. The South Tower collapsed in ten seconds, causing a ferocious windstorm and massive debris cloud. According to the official 9/11 Commission report, DiFrancesco was one of only four people to escape the building from above the eighty-first floor, the center of impact for United Airlines Flight 175. Moments before the tower collapsed, New York Police Department officers within the building informed dispatch that they had encountered a stream of people descending a stairwell at the twenties level. None of those people survived, but it is believed they were descending from above the impact zone, in which case they had followed DiFrancesco's lead, but not immediately, and even a few seconds later would have been too late. To this day, DiFrancesco cannot understand why he survived when so many others did not. But he has no doubt about the reason for his escape. A man of deep religious conviction, he attributes it to a divine intervention.

THE EARLY MORNING WAS PERFECTLY STILL and silent. James Sevigny, a twenty-eight-year-old university student originally from Hanover, New Hampshire, and his friend Richard Whitmire set out to climb Deltaform, a mountain in the Canadian Rockies near Lake Louise, Alberta. They ascended an ice gully, or couloir, in bright late-winter light on April 1, 1983, roped together and using ice screws in their climb. Whitmire, a thirty-three-year-old from Bellingham, Washington, was in the lead and at one point cut some ice loose. He yelled a warning"Falling ice!"to Sevigny below. The ice catapulted safely past Sevigny, but was suddenly followed by the collapse of a snowfield above the couloir on the north face. A tremendous roar broke the silence, and the bright light was consumed by instant darkness. An avalanche swept the two men nearly two thousand feet to the base of Deltaform. Sevigny was unconscious almost from the moment the avalanche hit. Whitmire might have escaped had the pair not been roped together.

Sevigny regained consciousness, he guessed, an hour later. He was severely injured. His back was broken in two places. One arm was fractured, the other had severed nerves from a broken scapula and was hanging limply at his side. He had cracked ribs, torn ligaments on both knees, suffered internal bleeding, and his facebroken nose, broken teeth, and open woundswas a mess. He had no idea where he was and what had happened to him. At first he thought he might be in Nepal, where he had spent six months trekking a few years earlier. Sevigny had finished his master's degree and at the time of the accident was basically a "climbing bum," living out of his Volkswagen. It took a while for him to recognize the mountain, but gradually Sevigny remembered the climb, and struggled to his feet to look for his friend. Whitmire lay nearby, and from his misshapen body, it was clear he was dead. Sevigny lay down beside him, certain he would soon follow. "I figured that if I fell asleep, it would be the easiest way to go." He lay there for about twenty minutes. Shivers were gradually replaced by the sensation of warmth brought about by shock and hypothermia, and he began to doze off. He realized there was no vast gulf separating life and death, but rather a fine line, and at that moment, Sevigny thought it would be easier to cross that line than to struggle on.

He then felt a sudden, strange sensation of an invisible being very close at hand. "It was something I couldn't see but it was a physical presence." The presence communicated mentally, and its message was clear: "You can't give up, you have to try."

It told me what to do. The only decision I had made at that point in time was to lie down next to Rick and to fall asleep and to accept death. That's the only decision I made. All decisions made subsequent to that were made by the presence. I was merely taking instructions. . . . I understood what it wanted me to do. It wanted me to live.

The presence urged Sevigny to get up. It dispensed practical advice. It told him, for example, to follow the blood dripping from the tip of his nose as if it were an arrow pointing the way. As he walked, he kept breaking through the crust of the deep snow, and was almost unable to pull his feet back up because of his injuries. Part of the time he crawled. The presence, which stood behind his right shoulder, implored him to continue even when the struggle to survive seemed untenable. And when it fell silent, Sevigny still knew his companion was close at hand. Because of its enormous empathy, he thought of the presence as a woman. She accompanied Sevigny across the Valley of the Ten Peaks, to the camp he and Whitmire had started from earlier that day, a point where he hoped he could find food and warmth, and perhaps help. Such were his injuries that it took all day to make the crossing of about a mile, and his companion was with him every step of the way.

When he reached the camp, Sevigny could not crawl into his sleeping bag because his injuries were too severe, and he could not eat because his teeth were broken and his face was swollen. He could not even light the stove. He sat down and, from the position of the sun, realized it was late afternoon. He believed that in a couple of hours he would be dead, after all. "I recall knowing I was about to die, pathetically, in a fetal position in the snow." He had always felt that he might die while climbing, so it came as no real surprise, but he thought about how devastated his mother would be. Then, at once, he thought he heard some other voices, and called out for help. There was no response. It was at that moment that he felt the presence leave. "It was gone, there was nothing there, there was no presence. There was no one telling me to do anything and I could tell that it had left." For the first time since the avalanche, he was overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness:

What I thought then was I'm hallucinating, the presence knows I'm dead, and it has just given up on me. But as it turns out, those were people, and they did come up. One of them skied out and they flew me out that night in a helicopter. In fact, the presence had left because it knew I was safe.

Allan Derbyshire, who was in a party with two other cross-country skiers, heard a faint cry: "Help! I've been in an avalanche." Had Derbyshire not heard him, Sevigny would have been left for the night, and would almost certainly have died, as there were no other skiers or climbers in the area. Derbyshire found him "staggering around in bad shape. . . . I got the impression that his condition was critical." Despite that, Sevigny was "quite lucid when I asked him what had happened, although he was obviously weak, soaked in blood, and in shock." Sevigny, however, made no mention of his unseen companion. In a newspaper interview, Banff National Park rescue specialist Tim Auger later said Sevigny "was lucky both to survive the fall and then be discovered by cross-country skiers who happened to be in the area." Sevigny understood there was more than luck involved.

THE OPENING TO THE UNDERWATER CAVE was barely wider than her shoulders. When she slipped through, Stephanie Schwabe entered a world few have ever seen, a world of absolute darkness now brilliantly illuminated by her lights. The crystalline walls of the cave glittered like jewels. Bone-white stalactites and stalagmites reached out toward her as she swam deeper and further into the Mermaid's Lair, on the south side of Grand Bahama Island, to her destination, more than 300 yards away and 98 feet deep. For all its strangeness, it was a routine dive for the forty-year-old underwater explorer rated by Diver International magazine as one of the top divers in the worldexcept for the fact she was alone.

Usually, Schwabe dived with her husband, the British cave explorer Rob Palmer. He was an expert on the Blue Holes of the Bahamas, a system of spectacular submarine caves that includes the world's deepest known Blue Hole, a vertical cave given its name because the water of the cave is much darker than the blue of the shallow water around it. It is a world of skeletal calcite appendages and vast hidden cathedrals, inhabited only by small colorless species of sea life, many unknown to science. Even today, most of the caves remain unexplored. The Mermaid's Lair, an extensive horizontal cave, was an exception. It had been explored previously by Palmer and Schwabe together, but not this day. Palmer was dead. He had failed to surface after a dive in the Red Sea earlier that year. Schwabe was left to continue alone their challenging and dangerous work, researching the water-filled Bahamian cave systems.

It was late August 1997, and Schwabe, a geomicrobiologist, was there to collect sediment samples for another scientist who was studying dust from the Sahara Desert that, centuries earlier, had been carried by winds across the Atlantic Ocean and deposited on the floor of the Mermaid's Lair. The day had already been unexpectedly eventful. When she was driving out to the dive site, Schwabe had been forced to stop by a poisonwood tree that had been blown down by a storm the day before and was blocking the road. It took all her strength to push it aside, and in the process she suffered serious skin irritations from alkaloids in the sap. She decided to continue, however, and having reached her destination, climbed into scuba gear and began her dive, focused on collecting the samples and exiting quickly.

Once she reached the floor of the cave, she spent half an hour diligently gathering the red dust samples. When she was finished, Schwabe packed her equipment away and for the first time since she had reached the spot, lifted her eyes. She suddenly realized that she could not see her guideline. She searched for it, at first calmly, but then with increasing anxiety, but could not find it. Cave diving is technically challenging. Unlike other forms of diving, in an emergency, the diver cannot ascend directly to the surface, but often must swim horizontally, sometimes through a maze of narrow passages. The guideline is vital to get safely out of such complex submarine cave systems. It is literally a lifeline. Without it, a diver can quickly become disoriented, eventually run out of air, and be asphyxiated.

Schwabe experienced a growing sense of panic. She immediately realized her mistake. When she dived with Palmer, she often relied on him to serve as her guide. On this dive, she had inadvertently fallen into the same old pattern, and lost sight of the line. "I had based my dive on the unplanned assumption that he was there." But he was not there and had not been for months; she was alone. She checked her tank gauge, and realized that she had only twenty minutes left. Schwabe's panic turned to anger. She flew into a rage, furious at Palmer for his death, her sense of loss as palpable as the terror she felt. Angry, too, at herself for "being so stupid" making an elementary diving mistake that threatened now to claim her own life. "For all intents and purposes, at that moment, I had given up on life. I was ready to leave this world. I was so depressed and I missed Rob so much. I had had enough of the pain."

Then, at the height of the rage and sadness, Schwabe said, "I suddenly felt flushed and it seemed like my field of vision had become brighter." She vividly felt the presence of another being with her. There was no doubt in her mind that someone was with her in the cave. She believed it to be her dead husband. She heard his voice, communicating mentally with her. "All right, Steffi, calm down. Remember, believe you can, believe you can't, either way you are right. Remember?" It is something Palmer used to say to her all the time, acting as an invocation to her inner strength. Schwabe was stunned by the intervention, but it was a help to her, and she did calm down. She sat there on the floor of the cave, "trying to get a handle on why my brain was going this route." About fifteen minutes had passed since she realized she had lost the line. Time was running out.

When she looked up again, she did so with renewed resolve and calm. She methodically scanned the cave. She thought she saw the flash of a white line. Simultaneously, she felt as if the presence had gone. Schwabe was alone again in the cave. She looked up once more to where she caught a glimpse of her guideline, and she saw it again. Schwabe immediately swam up to the line, and followed it out. Eventually she saw the blue entrance, where light filtered into the cave. She thought to herself, "Today was not a good day to die." She felt as if she had been saved by a presence she was sure was her deceased husband.

* * *

RON DIFRANCESCO'S ENCOUNTER IN THE SOUTH Tower of the World Trade Center, James Sevigny's at the foot of Deltaform, and Stephanie Schwabe's in the Mermaid's Lair of Grand Bahama Islandeach may sound like a curiosity, an unusual delusion shared by a few overstressed minds. But the amazing thing is this: over the years, the experience has occurred again and again, not only to 9/11 survivors, mountaineers, and divers, but also to polar explorers, prisoners of war, solo sailors, shipwreck survivors, aviators, and astronauts. All have escaped traumatic events only to tell strikingly similar stories of having experienced the close presence of a companion and helper, and even "of a sort of mighty person." This presence offered a sense of protection, relief, guidance, and hope, and left the person convinced he or she was not alone but that there was some other being at his or her side, when by any normal calculation there was none.

There is, it seems, a common experience that happens to people who confront life at its extremes, and strange as it may sound, given the cruel hardship they endure to reach that place, it is something wonderful. This radical notionthat an unseen presence has played a role in the success or survival of people who have reached the limits of human enduranceis based on the extraordinary testimony of scores of people who have emerged alive from extreme environments. To a man or woman, they report that at a critical point they were joined by an additional, unexplained friend who lent them the power to overcome the most dire circumstances. There is a name for the phenomenon: it's called the Third Man Factor.

Stressed minds are capable of playing some interesting tricks. When I was seven I experienced something I have always wanted to experience again. I was on a field trip with my father, K. W. Geiger, a geologist who was working for the Research Council of Alberta, surveying the bedrock topography of southern Alberta. It was a sweltering summer day, and we were walking along a fringe of unbroken grassland near the top bank of the Oldman River. We climbed up a steep, dry embankment. There was a faint perfume of prairie rose bushes in the still air. I was following my father when I was stopped dead in my tracks by a rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike. The noise was not calming, like a baby's rattle, but had a buzz of urgency about it. The snake was under a protruding rock that might have been a den. Most alarmingly, it was between my father and me. My father had passed by it and was standing above me on the embankment.

I am unsure today exactly what happened next, and how much of my memory is real, and how much is a child's overactive imagination. But I do remember it all very clearly. There was a moment of sheer terror. Then suddenly there was a physiological shift of perspective. I felt detached from my immediate situation, and surveyed the scene from another, impossible angle. I was two people in two places at one time. I saw my father and I saw a child, a child who could only have been me. If not me, then who? Yet I was seeing it all unfold from a distance, as an observer. Time seemed to slow. And yet it was all over in an instant. My father grabbed the boy with one arm and, with what seemed like superhuman strength, pitched him over his shoulder and out of danger. It was an unforgettable experienceone that could not possibly have happened as I remember it. Or could it? All I know is that in my memory of the incident, when I count, there are not two, but three people there.

Then, years later, while reading Sir Ernest Shackleton's narrative South, I came across his strange report of an unseen presence that joined him during his escape from Antarctica after the expedition's ship, Endurance, had been crushed by the ice. This is the most famous of all these encounters. It was Shackleton's experience that gave the phenomenon its name: the Third Man. When I started looking, I soon found other, similar reports. They were different from my own experience. Wilfrid Noyce explained that difference in his book, They Survived: A Study of the Will to Live. Noyce, a brilliant and fearless climber, described how he was struggling over the Geneva Spur of Mount Everest without oxygen when he experienced a "sense of duality": "I was two people, the upper self remaining calm and quite unaffected by the efforts of the panting lower." My own childhood experience, obviously triggered at a much lower threshold, seemed like just such a sense of duality. However, in more fully developed instances, Noyce explained, the phenomenon strengthens and "the second self sometimes puts on the clothing of another human." It has happened, again and again, high in the mountains, in the open sea, in the frozen wastelands of the poles. Noyce considered it a "second self." But there are many other theories. Some say the Third Man is proof of the existence of guardian angels. Some say he's a hallucination. Some say he's real. What is going on here?

It amazed me that these stories had never been collected in a single place, and so I began to assemble them. For five years I contacted survivors, read through old handwritten journals, combed through published exploration narratives and survival stories. Sometimes, all the conditions seemed right for such an experience, but there would be no mention of it in any published account. Then, when I would approach a survivorsuch as the British climber Tony Streather, who narrowly escaped death on Haramosh in the HimalayasI would discover that it had happened again. An unseen being had intervened to help.

The stories only grew more astonishing, and I began to realize that I had a kind of natural history of adventure in the making, a record of all the disasters that can befall man on ice, mountain, sea, land, air, and space, all linked by the mysterious appearance of a Third Man. I came to see not only that I possessed this inventory of human response to extreme peril, but also that I had a record of what it takes to survive. What follows, then, are some of the most remarkable survival stories ever told. We share a vicarious fascination with tales of those who cheat death, but here the stories all add up to something more. Only by reliving such exploits is it possible to answer the question: Who, or what, is the Third Man?

Where possible, I have organized the accounts by the type of endeavor: polar explorers, mountaineers, solo sailors, shipwreck survivors, aviators, and astronauts. I should also say here that these represent only the best of the stories. I have collected many more than this, and have chosen to anthologize the additional stories online. The website,, is not only a repository for these stories, but also will serve as a place where anyone can post either their personal experiences or stories they themselves have read or heard about.

Drawn from all these examples are vital cluesthe five basic rules that govern the Third Man's appearance and invest the experience with meaning. These rules are the pathology of boredom, the principle of multiple triggers, the widow effect, the muse factor, and the power of the savior. Together, they help to explain the onset of the Third Man Factor. But they are causal in nature; they do not explain his origins or where the power comes from. Over the years, various theories have been proposed to explain the Third Man, and running concurrently with these, interspersed among the chapters of the book, are accounts of the search for an explanation. These attempts at understanding are themselves a record of man's changing conception of himself. They begin with the guardian angel, followed by the sensed presence and the shadow person. As clerics and then psychologists, and finally neurologists, theorized about the phenomenon, the trend has been a gradual reduction from the outside in, from God, to the mind, to the brain.

Whether any of these explanations is, finally, enough to account for the Third Man mystery you will have to wait and see. But in compiling these stories, one thing, at least, became clear to me. The Third Man represents a real and potent force for survival, and the ability to access this power is a factor, perhaps the most important factor, in determining who will succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds, and who will not.

Biologists have a term for the boundaries that the physical world imposes on human beings: "limit physiology." At some definable point, as conditions change, humans can no longer succeed, and at a more critical point, they can no longer survive. It is a formula based on a series of scientific measurements. For example, an increase of only nine degrees Fahrenheit to core body temperature causes fatal heatstroke, or at minus fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit bare skin freezes in a minute. "To state it plainly, rarely does one person survive under extreme conditions when another dies simply because the survivor has greater will to live," wrote Claude Piantadosi in his study The Biology of Human Survival.

And yet, in these storiesin situations where success appears to be impossible, or death imminentsomething happens. There, amid the anxiety, fear, blood, sadness, exhaustion, torment, isolation, and fatigue, is an outstretched handanother existence, proffering a "transfusion of energy, encouragement, and instinctual wisdom from a seemingly external source." A presence appears, a Third Man who, in the words of the legendary Italian climber

Reinhold Messner, "leads you out of the impossible."

From The Third Man Factor by John Geiger. Copyright (C) 2009 by John Geiger. Published by Weinstein Books. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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