Angel at Ground Zero

She was the last to be pulled from the rubble on September 11. In this story from September 2011, she shares how, for her, it was a beginning.

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Genelle Guzman-McMillan; photo © Peter LaMastro

Today I still work for The Port Authority as I did when I clocked in at the World Trade Center at 8:05 that Tuesday morning 10 years ago. But now on September 11, I try to take the day off. I want to be in a quiet, peaceful place praying. It is a day I both mourn and celebrate.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had left the 64th floor of the North Tower earlier and escaped unharmed.

What if I hadn’t been buried in debris, the ground falling out beneath me at the 13th floor as I was racing to get out of the building? What if I hadn’t been stuck under rubble for 27 hours before rescuers finally found me? I would have been grateful, but I wouldn’t have looked any deeper at my life.

I would have chalked my survival up to quick thinking or quick moving or plain good luck. I would have gone on with my life avoiding God the way I had ever since I lost my mom to cancer in 1999.

Instead I lay there trapped in the dark after the building collapsed, rethinking my life. I ended up doing what my mom would have done. I prayed.


Well, it was more like pleading, screaming, promising, asking for some sort of miracle until I pushed my hand through a few inches of rubble above my head and felt someone’s warm hand close around mine. Then I heard a male voice say the four sweetest words I have ever heard: “I’ve got you, Genelle.”

I clung as much to his reassuring voice as to his strong hand. “My name is Paul,” he said. “You’re going to be okay. They’re going to get you out soon.”

The ache in my right leg, the throbbing in my head, faded as I held his hand and listened. “Don’t worry, I’ve got you,” Paul said. “They’re almost here. Hang on.”

Finally I saw a glimmer of light and heard other voices and distant sirens. Two volunteers from Massachusetts, Brian Buchanan and Rick Cushman, found me with the help of a police officer from Canada named James Symington and his search-and-rescue dog Trakr.

“They’re here,” Paul said. “You’re in good hands now. I’m going to go and let them do their jobs and get you out.”

I never felt him release me, but soon I was holding someone else’s hand—a firefighter’s—and talking to my rescuers as they painstakingly removed twisted steel and chunks of concrete from around me and lifted me out. Hundreds of helpers handed me down the pile of rubble to an ambulance.

I heard them cheering, and I kept saying Paul’s name to myself so I wouldn’t forget. I wanted to make sure I thanked him. There were three things I promised God I would do as soon as I got out of the hospital: get baptized, marry my boyfriend Roger and find Paul.

On November 7, after six weeks in the hospital, four surgeries and hours of physical therapy and rehabilitation, I kept the first two promises. Roger and I got married at City Hall in Manhattan that very morning and I was baptized that evening at The Brooklyn Tabernacle.

But Paul? I never found him. Even when a CNN reporter brought me together with my other rescuers, Paul’s identity remained a mystery. He wasn’t the firefighter who held my hand.

That was later when I heard sirens and people began digging me out. Somehow Paul had known my name before I even said a word. Who was he?

I talked to friends about it. I called my pastor and asked him. We spoke about another Paul, the one in the Bible who was totally in the dark, like me, and fought against God until he saw the light. Then we talked about my Paul.

“Genelle,” my pastor said, “Paul did not exist in the flesh. You were asking for a miracle and maybe God sent you his angel.”

You can see why I celebrate and mourn every September 11. I mourn the loss of so many lives, my friends from work, people who walked down the stairs with me and didn’t make it.

Yet there is much to be grateful for. My survival—which still fills me with wonder. My health—I walk with a slight limp that most people don’t notice. My family—Roger and I and our four children have a good life. Most of all, I celebrate my relationship with God.

People can debate whether Paul was an angel or whether it was just coincidence that I was rescued. I know, though, the strong hand that reached out for mine when I was buried alive, the reassuring voice I heard when I cried out for help. Someone called me by name and I have never been the same.   

Read Genelle's inspiring story from May 2002, written just months after the events of 9/11

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