"I remember having a real fall, flying through the air," Edward Ruettgers said yesterday through a tube as his wife gently tucked blankets around him. "I remember falling, then I passed out. I woke up stuck in the duct."

Ruettgers, who is in the intensive care unit at Fairfax Hospital, was describing his 14-story plunge in the air duct of an office building under construction in Tysons Corner.

The accident occurred Tuesday morning when Ruettgers, a 51-year-old steam fitter, slipped on some plywood covering the duct and tumbled backward, falling from the penthouse level to the fourth floor. His fall was broken when the air duct narrowed to about 18-by-18 inches.

"Miracles do happen, and this is one of them," Ruettgers' wife, Lianetta, said yesterday as she visited her husband.

"Sir, I have a pain shot for you," a nurse interrupted cheerily.

"Give it to me, please," said Ruettgers, who remains in serious condition.

As his wife lifted his oxygen mask, Ruettgers said most of the pain is in his fractured back. He cannot move his legs, and his doctor said it may be a while before it is known if the paralysis is permanent.

Lianetta Ruettgers said she could not believe that her husband had fallen 14 stories, so she drove to the site, the First American Bank building at 1970 Chain Bridge Rd., to see for herself.

She said she examined the air duct, which runs the height of the building, one of the tallest in Fairfax County. At its top, the sheet metal duct is about 2-by-4 feet wide.

Had Ruettgers' body not been crumpled in a ball when he fell, his wife believes he would have fallen all the way to the building's cement floor.

Lianetta Ruettgers, a soft-spoken woman with soft gray curls, said she is thankful to be spending the holiday with her husband, even if it is in the intensive care unit. "I'd rather be spending Christmas here than at the side of a grave," she said, adding that she will wait to give him his Christmas present, a set of cookware.

The couple, who have lived in Manassas for 20 years, had planned to spend the holiday with two of their grandchildren, ages 6 and 4.

Lianetta Ruettgers said she has drawn much comfort from the hospital's nurses, who yesterday whizzed busily in and out of her husband's room, which had Christmas decorations on the door. She said her husband is expected to remain in intensive care at least a week, and then will spend about a month elsewhere in the hospital.

While the future is uncertain, Ruettgers, an executive secretary at the BDM Corp. at Tysons Corner, not far from where her husband was injured, is nevertheless planning ahead.

"I think I'm going to make him go to community college," she said. "He's too young to retire."