HARPSWELL – For Jim Ash, the difference between life and death might have been as simple as a lottery ticket.

Ash worked as a senior manager for insurance giant Aon. His World Trade Center office was on the 102nd floor of the south tower.

On the morning of the attacks, he made his routine commute from his home in Connecticut on Metro North to Grand Central Station, and planned to ride the subway into the financial district. But on this Tuesday morning, he decided to test his luck.

Instead of catching the Times Square shuttle, Ash went in search of a lottery vendor. Turns out, the line at the lottery outlet was too long, so Ash made his way back to the shuttle and eventually all the way downtown.

But that small deviation from his routine — really, just a few minutes, tops — probably saved his life. It provided the margin between Ash becoming a Sept. 11 victim and what he calls “a 9/11 escapee.”

Once in the south tower, Ash hopped on an express elevator that whizzed him up to the 78th floor, and walked across the lobby to wait for an elevator to take him to his office 24 floors above.

Just he was about to push the button to summon the elevator, he noticed papers and debris outside the building. He walked to the window for a closer look and smelled gas. He surmised instantly what had happened: A plane must have struck one of the towers somewhere above.

Instinctively, Ash knew to get out. Instead of catching an elevator up to his office, he took the next one down to the ground. When he got there, he asked a security guard what had happened. “But he had no idea,” Ash said.

No one really knew anything at that point. He saw burning metal on the sidewalk, a coating of white ash covering the ground “and large chunks of stuff falling from above.” He looked up and saw a gaping hole in the north tower. His first thought was innocent: “What a horrible accident.” And then he realized that the point of impact was a suite of offices occupied by former colleagues with Marsh & McLennan, an insurance brokerage firm where Ash once worked. He assumed some friends and former co-workers perished in the accident, the scope of which was growing apparent from the ground. He stood in the middle of Church Street and prayed silently.

All the while, debris rained down. He turned his back to the World Trade Center and began moving away from the scene when he heard “the loudest noise I have ever heard in my life.” The second plane hit the south tower just above him — and right where he was standing just a few minutes before. The wing tip of the jet ripped a hole in the 78th floor lobby where he had waited to change elevators.

Any other morning, he would have been at his desk above the point of impact. Of the nearly 1,100 Aon employees at work that morning, 179 died, including one colleague who occupied the office next to his.

Over the next few weeks, Ash was among a team of employees that kept the company running while dealing with the massive and widespread grief. He and his wife, Doris, attended so many memorials, they lost count. Some days, they attended as many as three in three different states.

He cried for three months, his wife said.”Nothing can prepare you for that kind of thing,” he says.

Ash struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt, and ended up going on long-term disability. There were other struggles. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003 and Lyme disease in 2004.

He left Aon in 2004, and the couple moved to Harpswell in 2007.

Doris is a Brunswick native, and the couple planned to retire to Maine all along. But Sept. 11, 2001, hastened their decision.

“You have to stop postponing what you want,” said Ash, 59. “There is no guarantee that you have the time.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be reached at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes