- Associated Press - Sunday, February 2, 2014

STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) - After narrowly surviving the Vietnam War, William Thomas never imagined he’d be on a battleground again.

Then, three decades later, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he found himself in the middle of the worst civilian attack on American soil.

“I was in the World Financial Center, right next to the World Trade Center,” Thomas said, recalling that fateful day. “When the first plane hit, I was on the 22nd floor and the window bent in.”

Thomas said he thought a helicopter had crashed into the World Trade Center, then learned it was a plane. He and his co-workers went outside, into a courtyard that adjoined his building with the Twin Towers.

“We watched people jumping out of the building for 20 to 30 minutes, which was a big mistake,” Thomas said, not knowing at the time how the experience would affect him.

Realizing he had to leave the area, Thomas started walking uptown to get back to his home in Darien. As the city was shutting down, he and some co-workers bribed a limousine driver, who took them through Harlem and Westchester County and into Connecticut.

“And then I got home,” Thomas said. “I was very glad to see my family.”

Thomas had escaped death once again, but not without consequence. Following the war, he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and the disturbing events of 9/11 brought it back.

Thomas never returned to his finance job in the city and soon found his marriage crumbling. He subsequently divorced, moved to Pennsylvania and lived in seclusion for about eight years.

Recently, Thomas returned to Fairfield County to spend time with his family, and now resides at Atria Stamford, an assisted living facility on Third Street, where he feels more comfortable. At 64, he’s much younger than the typical resident in the building, where his neighbors mostly need help with the usual effects of aging that make living independently difficult. Thomas‘ needs are different.

“He’s a veteran and he’s been through hell,” explained Frank Mastrone, engage life director at the facility.

But Thomas stays active there, helping to run the sweet shop, Mastrone said.

Sitting in his small, uncluttered room, Thomas agreed to tell his life story.

He was raised in Brooklyn, quit high school, went to work for a steel company and enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

“I followed the war very closely when I was young and personally I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said.

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