HOBOKEN, N.J. — When Tahir Qureshi phoned home from a North Jersey hospital to say he sustained only a minor injury in the train wreck that left one person dead and scores injured Thursday, his family needed to see him to believe it.
After all, the 42-year-old father of three had walked out of the first tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 without a scratch, an act of divine intervention, plain luck or some universal force that by most people’s reckoning happens just once in this lifetime.
So the extended family of the quiet comptroller filled the small house in New Milford on Thursday night — the parents who live a few blocks away, the brother-in-law from Long Island, the older brother, Zahir, the “bossy one,” from Paramus, and several nieces and nephews — all to lay hands on the man who cheated disaster again.
Tahir’s wife hadn’t believed him at first when he called from Jersey City Medical Center with a stranger’s phone to say — very calmly — that he had been in a derailment. And that, really, he was fine.
“When he said train crash, Oh my God, that is no small thing,’’ said Fatima Qureshi, who immediately switched the Disney Chanel the couple’s toddler was watching to see live news of the wreck in Hoboken.
“He said he was fine but I thought, he’s just telling me he’s OK,’’ she recalled Friday afternoon in the couple’s home where Tahir nursed a bruised knee. Only when he arrived home, driven by another brother, Shahid, was she reassured.
Hours later, the parade of family and the deluge of calls began. Tahir’s mother was “a little hysterical,” he said. His father-in-law, on the phone from Maryland, was sobbing. And the minute Zahir arrived, he “chastised me for sitting in the first car,” Tahir joked — in his view, the most dangerous place in a train. The pizza arrived, while the calls kept coming — from Denver and Denmark, Pakistan and Pennsylvania — all panicked relatives who heard the news but worried that Tahir’s luck had run out.
“Everybody had an image of him during 9/11,’’ Fatima said. “So they were like, that’s the second time he’s been in such a disaster.’’
Qureshi was preparing to get off the NJ Transit train when he heard what he thought was an explosion from a bomb going off. The force threw him to the floor, he recalled. He was on his back, his legs scrunched up under the mangled seats, his hair dusted with flakes of concrete and his body covered in debris because the roof of the train station had collapsed.
“It looked like a tin car,’’ he said.
NJ Transit personnel and first responders helped him off the train – it was a 10-foot drop to the platform from the windows, which had been kicked out and used as emergency exits. He hobbled on his good leg to a triage area where he was identified with a yellow card – injured, but not critical.
It wasn’t until he watched a news video of people being pulled from the train that he realized how lucky he had been. “That’s where I initially thought how much of a miracle this was,’’ he said.
Fatima was relieved, but nervous. Tahir wouldn’t tell her about the emotional pain he endured after 9/11 — before the couple knew each other. But his mother had.
“For so many days he wasn’t able to talk about it,’’ Fatima said. “He wasn’t able to sleep and he wasn’t able to really eat.’’
Qureshi, then 27, lost more than 250 colleagues at Marsh & McLennan that day, people even younger than he was who never had a chance to launch careers or raise families. “I was having lunch with them every single day in the prior three or four years and then they were gone,’’ he said.
A devout Muslim, the experience, he said, reminded him to value life. In the disaster this week, Qureshi said there is even more to be grateful for – that he returned home to his wife and three children.
“Without a doubt, this is a blessing,’’ said Qureshi, who continues to work for Marsh & McLennan, but in Hoboken now.
“I was telling some of my friends at work, you really have to take it one day at a time and be happy with every single day,’’ he said.