Sharon Premoli never stopped thinking about the man who came to her aid when she somehow survived the collapse of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
And that good samaritan, New Yorker Fred Hill, never stopped thinking about her.
On the first anniversary of the Al-Qaeda attacks that killed almost 3,000 people, she sent him a small silver tray from Tiffany and Co, on which were engraved some words from the Talmud. “To save a life is to save the world.”
After that, they lost touch, each of them getting on with their lives, and trying like so many to move on, or at least to better handle, those shuddering events.
This anniversary, the 20th, Mr Hill, aided by his partner, Simone Della Valle, made a special effort to track down Ms Premoli. Doing some research online, Ms Della Valle spotted an article Ms Premoli had published about her remarkable story in The Independent.
“At around 8pm on Saturday [September 11 2021] the phone rang,” Ms Premoli said this week. “I asked who it was, and the person said ‘Fred Hill’.”
She added: “He said ‘I’ve been looking for you. My girlfriend found you’. I said to him ‘I cannot remember 9/11 without thinking of you’, and he said he felt the same. It was extraordinary.”
9/11: What bystanders saw
In the account Ms Premoli published of her survival, she recounted clambering down the stairwell of the North Tower from her offices on the 80th floor, as people sang hymns and firefighters climbed up. Then the tower collapsed.
“When I regained consciousness, I was aware, but in total blackness, the kind of complete black that one might imagine being buried alive, and I was,” she wrote.
Her account, part of a memoir she expects to publish once litigation over 9/11 is completed, ended with her limping in a street in Lower Manhattan, bleeding and dazed, her ankle broken, and her lungs scorched. Her body was riddled with fragments of debris.
But her story did not end there. As Ms Premoli limped up Hudson Street, Mr Hill, whose apartment was on that block and who was out on the street, saw her as she tried to hobble north. He did not know her. But he knew she needed help.
“Fred Hill and his wife were my rescuers. They let me take a shower, they gave me some clothes, they let me wait in their apartment for 12 hours while a friend from Boston came to get me,” she said. “Total strangers. They just took me off the street.”
Sharon Premoli published an account of her dramatic escape in ‘The Independent'
(Sharon Premoli )
Crucially, Mr Hill was able to get word to Ms Premoli’s anxious daughter that her mother, who has been on the 80th floor of the North Tower where she worked for Beast Financial Systems, was alive.
While most phone lines out of New York were not working, it was possible to call in. As it was, Mr Hill’s daughter, who lived in Washington DC, was equally worried about him, given how close his apartment was to the Twin Towers.
During one of those calls, Mr Hill gave his daughter the phone number for Ms Premoli’s daughter, Sasha, who at the time lived in Los Angeles, and asked her to let her know what had happened.
Mr Hill, 71, who now lives in Arizona, said the call between the two daughters had been deeply emotional.
He said: “Their conversation went something like ‘Hi, you don’t know me, my name is Adrienne Hill, but your mom is okay. And Sharon’s daughter started screaming ‘How do you know that’? How do you know that?’ My daughter said, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay. She’s with my dad. My dad has an apartment in New York’. And then they both just started crying and sobbing.”
Sharon Premoli was on 80th floor of North Tower when it was struck
Mr Hill, 71, a former police officer, who also has a son, and who works in personal finance, said he did not think he and his ex-wife did anything extraordinary, certainly nothing to warrant being termed “a rescuer” by Ms Premoli.
“It wasn’t a rescue,” he said. “It was one person seeing someone in distress at a time when it looked like the world was turning upside down.”
Yet, both agreed, though they only spent 12 hours in each other’s company, the intensity of the circumstance had left a deep connection.
“When you go through something like that, I believe it sort of puts memory markers on your soul,” he said.
“And [after] experiencing that with her….I feel closer to her than some people I have known all my life. Because we have something that few people can talk about. We went through a horrendous experience, and part of it was together. And we both came out the other end.”
Mr Hill and his partner Simone Della Valle tracked down Ms Premoli after two decades
When he read Ms Premoli’s account and then spoke with her on the 20th anniversary, Mr Hill learned that the woman he helped has spent much of the last 20 years seeking justice for what happened.
She is one of the plaintiffs in a law suit that alleges officials from Saudi Arabia helped the hijackers, 15 of whom were citizens of the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied that claim, and did so again on the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
Both Mr Hill and Ms Premoli, who now lives in Vermont, are also adamant they will not allow themselves to lose touch once again.
“I have a good friend in Vermont, well, actually now I have two,” said Mr Hill, who said he hoped they could meet next year.
“Like I said, it was an amazing experience. People say, ‘Well there’s always something good that comes out of evil’. I guess one good thing was that I go to meet Sharon.”
Mr Hill pictured walking his dog outside his apartment the day after 9/11
He said another positive thing he took from the episode, happened later that day itself.
On the evening of 9/11, Mr Hill walked south towards the site of the downed towers, an area that would rapidly become known as “ground zero”. He said emergency workers had set up a command post and were seeking volunteers to go and try to find any survivors.
“This street was packed, I mean shoulder to shoulder, 10 people across. There were literally hundreds of people, maybe thousands, quietly waiting to sign up, to do whatever they could do to help” he said.
“I thought to myself, okay, it’s going to be hard, but we’re going to make it through this. Because, if you think about it, those people were trying to do, in a bigger way, perhaps, what I had done for Sharon.”