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A story of survival: 27 hours trapped under the World Trade Center

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It was the event that defined the decade – a nation brought to its knees as two skyscrapers, formerly a proud landmark of the NYC skyline, were cut to theirs.

For 27 hours in September 2001, Genelle Guzman-McMillan was trapped under the rubble of the 110-storey North Tower. Pinned underneath concrete and debris, she had limited movement, exhausted air supply, no light, and little reason to believe she was still alive other than the pain from her broken legs.

“I couldn’t believe that I was actually in the building,” she says. “To actually see how that building just crumbled, just collapsed, I would not believe that anybody could survive it.

“For me to actually be in there and experience that, I’m forever grateful for life, for that second chance. It just seems so surreal to me, looking at it on television. It just blows my mind sometimes.”

8.46am, 11 September, 2001

Guzman-McMillan had been working as a secretary for the Port Authority of New York, the offices of which were located on the 64th floor of 1 WTC.

“One hundred ten floors of rugged steel and solid concrete, with thousands of human lives in its bosom, gently rocked,” she writes in her memoir Angel in the Rubble. “Skyscrapers were not supposed to move.”

These moments are branded into our memory – the dark plumes of smoke, images of hopelessness as workers jumped from the blistering heat to their death, the blackened faces of citizens escaping the streets. What Guzman-McMillan had initially believed was an earthquake was a commercial jet driven into their building, only floors above them. The office inhabitants had experienced fire drills before but none alerted them of any danger – so they waited for more than an hour before smoke began to filter in.

Led by Pasquale Buzzelli, one of her colleagues, the group made their way down the fire escape, reaching the 13th level before the building came down upon them.

“The walls surrounding us burst open like a couple of semi-trucks had smashed through them,” she writes. “I dropped hard to my knees while the north tower of the World Trade Center fell on top of me.”

Trapped under the rubble for 27 hours, Guzman-McMillan was the final victim found and rescued alive.

“Having the moniker ‘The Last Survivor’ has always been bittersweet for me. Every time I hear those words, they are a stark reminder that nobody after me was found alive,” she writes. “The courageous rescuers … worked tirelessly for days to find as many survivors as they could, always hoping for one more. Just one more. But somebody had to be the last.”

Putting it in words

While the events of that day were branded into her memory, putting it on paper was a task which proved heart-wrenching for Guzman-McMillan when she was approached to write her story last year.

“I wanted it to be exactly what I experienced. It was really hard to put everything in there but somehow I got the strength to do it.

“I tried the book once before and it just wasn’t coming over the right way for me,” she says.

“Writing this book all through it I remembered my friend Rosa who passed that day. That was hard to put in writing because I was there, she was the last person I saw.”

Rosa, and more than 2600 others, didn’t make it out alive, and while it is a day of incredible tragedy, Guzman-McMillan believes her story can bring hope to a nation still mourning.

“I think a lot of other people out there needed to hear the story,” she says. “I really wanted to just put hope in people’s lives… It changed my life and I wanted to share it with the world as I know it’s going to touch a lot of lives.”

Telling her story, writing down her experiences, has proved a cathartic experience for Guzman-McMillan.

“It helps me every time I tell my story. I feel such joy. I feel such relief,” she says. “I was scared to tell my story. I would always breakdown, I would cry, but for the past couple of years, I have really gotten stronger because the mere fact that I am alive and I’m so grateful to be alive.

“People have been through other places in their life and they come to me and say, ‘your story really opened my eyes to a lot of things’,” she says. “That really brings joy to me and I know I’m doing something positive. That’s what I want. That’s the outcome I want to see.”

Her story has hit a chord with so many not only because it shares in the tragedy close to the heart of all Americans, but also because hers is a story of redemption, one of realisation that this day, right now, could be the last.

“I had set a goal for my life,” she says. “When I’m 40, 50, 60, whatever, that’s the time that I wanted to settle down.”

Now, having escaped death so narrowly, Guzman-McMillan says she’s focused on changing her life for the better.

“It’s taken me so many ways – my faith, facing my fears, just living my life, just accepting it, just overcoming adversity in my life,” she says. “I’m not afraid of living in fear of what might be. I just live life to the fullest and enjoy being alive because it’s no guarantee to me.

“By my strength and my faith that I have grown for the past 10 years, I want to be a positive impact to the world, to the people, and I want to touch lives.”

Finding courage in the ruins

Since that day, 10 years ago, tales of heroism, bravery and leadership have surfaced. Guzman-McMillan saw these acts first-hand and owes her life to their bravery and leadership.

“[Buzzelli] was a leader,” she says of her colleague who spearheaded the decision to leave the building. “If it wasn’t for [Buzzelli], we all probably would have died in that building… He was a leader in that he took that leadership role and just said ‘let’s go’. He survived, I survived, and unfortunately the others didn’t but I don’t have the answer for that.”

The people who excavated the concrete around her, pulling up debris and freeing her from the stones which almost certainly would have formed her tomb: those people she champions as her heroes.

“If it wasn’t for these people, I don’t know. I don’t know if I would have been found,” she says. “They’re my heroes.”

While she is quick to admit she is no leader – simply a survivor – in 2002, Guzman-McMillan received the Port Authority Civilian Medal of Honor in recognition of her bravery, an honour also bestowed upon Buzzelli.

“I really don’t know why they blessed me with this award,” she says. “I was just a survivor… some people say I’m a leader but I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do.

“The courage and strength that I found is far beyond my strength,” she says. “What struck me most of all trying to survive is knowing that my daughter was going to grow up without a mother… I wanted to change and I wanted to be there for my daughter. I wanted to make a difference for her.

Recounting the moments she was rescued, she says it was an awe-inspiring moment to experience. After being freed from the rubble, Guzman-McMillan was placed on a stretcher, and due to the treacherous conditions, two lines of volunteers formed an aisle to pass her down to the waiting ambulance.

“Everybody commented while they passed me along. I heard ‘hang in there’ and ‘way to go’ and ‘God bless you’ and dozens of other such phrases of encouragement,” she writes.

Once safely inside the ambulance, she heard cheers, clapping, applause.

“It was an amazing, beautiful sound. But were those cheers for me? I hoped it was for all of them – the brave men and women who left their spouses and children and jobs to risk their lives to find lose souls such as me. I will forever be indebted to them,” she writes.

“Everybody is a hero to me that day, everybody who helped in the process of saving lives and helping others,” she says. “All those people were heroes that day.

Ten years on…

Ten years on, Guzman-McMillan admits New York, and the world, is a different place.

“Everything has changed, everything is different, people aren’t the same,” she says. “People still have that togetherness and that’s amazing.”

However, while it’s important we always remember that day, the worst foreign attack on American soil, it’s essential we come to peace with what happened, learn from it and move on.

“It’s a tragedy, it’s a huge tragedy, it made history. But we cannot live our life in fear for the rest of our lives. We have an option. We either live in fear or we overcome fear with faith.”

This faith, she says, whether it be a faith in God or the faith in bravery and generosity, was what helped everyone cope that day and since.

“It’s not going to go away. We’re going to have memories of bad things that have happened in our life for the rest of our lives but we can’t live that way,” she says. “It’s tough sometimes but we’ve got to believe that we can overcome this.”

Published on: Friday, September 09, 2011

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