TORMENTED FIRE HERO'S LAST HOPE

By WILLIAM NEUMAN
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July 15, 2002 -- EXCLUSIVE

Lt. Girard Owens was one of the last firefighters to leave the World Trade Center's north tower alive - and he brought out with him a mystery he is aching to solve.

Owens and another firefighter, John Morabito, helped a small group of people find their way through the north tower's lobby and out onto West Street just moments before the building collapsed.

He never saw the people again. He doesn't know if they ran to safety or if they were crushed in the rubble.

And now he wants to find them.

"I'd hate to see they didn't make it. I just want to see that they survived," said Owens, 49, a 23-year FDNY veteran.

"These are the only people who know what we went through. We thought we were going to die."

When the towers crumbled and fell, Owens found that something had broken inside him as well. He sleeps only two or three hours a night. He hasn't returned to work at Engine Co. 5, but instead is preparing to retire from the job he's always loved.

He's recovered from the broken bones and bruises of Sept. 11, but not from the human losses of that day.

"I had a positive attitude," he says of life before Sept. 11. And now? "Nothing. I've got to get better."

Counseling has helped, and last fall, a Fire Department psychiatrist suggested he try to find the people he brought out of the trade center.

Owens enlisted the help of FDNY paramedic Marianne Pizzitola, who watched dozens of hours of videotaped news programs before spotting an image of Owens leaving the building. He was leading a woman, who is seen gasping for breath, and a man covered in ash.

The image is brief and gives no clue to what happened after the collapse.

Now, Owens hopes someone comes forward to help identify the mystery pair.

He fears they died. He hopes they lived. He wants to feel his own survival meant something against the overwhelming nihilism of that awful day.

Owens was in the basement of the north tower when the south tower collapsed. He was thrown about in the darkness, breaking several ribs, and then slowly groped his way to the lobby, where he found five civilians panicked and disoriented.

Then he saw a flashlight and encountered Morabito, who worked at Ladder Co. 10 on Liberty Street and knew the trade center well.

Owens credits Morabito with saving his life by leading him and the civilians through the black chaos of the lobby and out to West Street.

"I think Gerry and I were the last two guys out of the building," Morabito said. "After I got out, nobody came out."

He hopes Owens' search helps him mend inside.

"I think it's going to give him some kind of closure, that he did something that day that helped people out," Morabito said. "I've explained to him,