ALBANY -- The day started out well, proverbial blue skies and the chance to share a joke at work. It ended in black smoke and debris with about 3,000 dead.
Sunel Merchant worked on the 49th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower on September 11, 2001. He survived the terrorist attacks to find his belief in God affirmed and he also discovered the meaning of courage.
"I came to America as an Indian Muslim in 1997," Merchant said. "I began working in the first tower, the north tower, as a computer consultant to a Japanese bank."
Roughly 60 Muslim victims -- cooks, businessmen, emergency responders and a New York City Police Officer -- were reported killed in the attack by The New York Times.
Merchant and his family left New York to follow a dream of restaurant ownership. He opened a Philly Connection in Auburn, Ala., followed by opening another store in the chain in Albany in November.
"I have not had any bad reactions here in Albany or in Auburn," Merchant said. "No issues at all about being a Muslim."
At 8:40 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration notified the military about the suspected hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11. Merchant began a conversation with a colleague.
Merchant was getting to a punch line when out of the corner of his eye he saw something go by a window.
"I don't remember the joke. I turned around and something happened," Merchant said. "I had a black out and the whole building moved. It felt like we were moving on a flat escalator and the building was moving too. It was the most helpless I have ever found myself."
Flight 11, a Boeing 767 with 92 people on board moving at 440 mph, smashed into the 96th floor above Merchant at 8:46 a.m.
The plane's impact gave Merchant a flash of insight, a spark of stronger belief in what he called, "a superior being" or God.
Then, against the rules for emergencies that stated everyone should be seated and await instructions from a public address system, a woman screamed, "Let's evacuate the building."
Merchant and his cohorts immediately made their way to a stairwell to begin their descent to the streets. The people from Merchant's office saw others in the stairwell making their way down the steps in a calm orderly fashion.
Merchant's group of more than 20 joined in. By the 40th floor people became comfortable. They joked and said it was probably a Cessna pilot's error. Probably there wasn't much damage.
Reaching the 37th floor brought reality. A panicked woman was running down the steps past the orderly line.
"She was charred black and burned from head to toe," Merchant said. "She went running past us. We got out of her way. Everyone was shaken up. Dangerous reality set in."
The orderly exodus continued down the steps. At 9:03 a.m. the 32nd floor reverberated from the shock wave as United Flight 175's Boeing 767 with 65 passengers smashed into the south tower.
"That really scared us. The plane hit above us but sound came from below us," Merchant said. "The line stopped moving. We believed we were trapped below two explosions. We looked for another stairwell. We saw the smoke and fire on the other tower and coming down from above."
When the line with Merchant reached the 25th floor he said his life changed "totally."
"I saw the first firefighter going up the stairs toward the smoke and fire," Merchant said. "Going down all those flights of stairs was tough. Going up was superhuman. Just seeing someone going up to fight the fire gave a sense of comfort. It was a feeling that the situation was under control."
Merchant remembered that the firefighters heading up the stairs smiled reassuringly at the crowd headed down the stairs to eventual safety.
"In their eyes they knew they were not coming down," Merchant said. "They had smiles on their faces and fear in their eyes and they kept going up."
Merchant and his group made it out the doors on the ground floor to the right of their stairwell. They rushed straight at the Millennium Hotel directly across Church Street from what would eventually be called ground zero.
Emergency personnel stopped them and herded them in a different longer way out of the area. At the time Merchant wondered why he was forced to take the longer way out of danger.
"Later I found out. Later I was thankful we were moved out the way we were," Merchant said. "The side we were running toward would have showed us the killing side -- the side where people were jumping from the buildings and hitting the ground."
Having a head start kept Merchant ahead of the clouds of smoke, dust and debris that rolled across the city from the falling towers. He ran with a crowd for about 40 blocks, turned and watched as the phone towers, what he called the symbol of the World Trade Center's power, bent and fell.
Cell phones didn't work anywhere in the city after the attack. Merchant found a payphone and called home. He was safe.
A couple days later at his home he watched President George W. Bush explaining that the country had lost about 3,000 people in an al-Qaida attack.
"My 5-year-old son asked me which super heroes I liked the best, Spiderman? Superman? Captain America?" Merchant said. "Risking their lives. Laying down their lives for others? Isn't that what police officers and firefighters do? They are not fiction. They are the real superheroes."