In a story we first published in May 2002, this survivor credits God with her miraculous rescue from the rubble following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
My friend Rosa and I talked about the weekend as I settled into work in the Port Authority offices on the sixty-fourth floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center. Rosa was the same age as me, 31, and we loved catching each other up on our lives. My boyfriend, Roger, and I planned to get married…someday. But there would be plenty of time for that.
I was born and raised in Trinidad and had come to New York to make a better life for myself and my loved ones. If things like marriage had to wait, so be it. I left behind a lot of my old ways of thinking in Trinidad, especially when it came to God. “God” was something I’d always said I believed in—more to make my mother happy than anything else.
Was God more than that? Maybe. But when Mom died of cancer in 1999, I wondered where God was. He was certainly nothing I could see or touch—nothing that had anything real to do with my life or my feelings.
All that was about to change. As Rosa and I talked, there was a massive explosion somewhere above us. The entire building rocked from side to side. “What was that?” Rosa asked. “An earthquake?” We rushed to join a group of people over by the windows. Papers and bits of debris drifted down from above, like a weird kind of confetti.
An announcement came over the PA telling us to stay put, not to panic. But most of the people ignored it. They rushed toward the elevators. In minutes, the office was empty except for 15 of us who had decided to heed the announcement and stay. We assembled around the television in the conference room and stared in disbelief at the picture of thick, black smoke coming from the top of our building.
The news people were saying “terrorist attack.” The PA came on again. Same message. Stay put. Help will come. I called Roger. “Get out of there,” he said. Too late. The elevators had stopped.
Then came the second explosion. Tower Two had been hit. All 15 of us started down the stairs. Rosa grabbed my hand and held it tight. “Genelle, I don’t think we’re going to make it out of here,” she said, her voice wavering. I’d never heard my friend sound so frightened.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said. My own voice sounded surprisingly calm. Inside, I felt anything but. The stairwell was clogged with firemen working their way up. I was afraid to stop.
Rosa and I counted each floor as we passed—47, 46, 40, 35. I thought we might be out of danger. My feet ached. When we reached the landing on the thirteenth floor, I let go of Rosa’s hand to yank off my heels. As I did, there was another loud explosion. The force of it knocked us backward. We heard a rumbling noise that grew louder and louder. Suddenly, everything went dark.
The floor buckled. Pieces of the walls and ceiling rained down. Dust was everywhere. Rosa struggled to her feet. I tried to get up. Something hit me on my back, hard. I fell down flat on my face. In a flash, the deafening rumble gave way to silence as eerie and terrible in its own way as the roar had been. I was still lying facedown. It felt as if the entire building had fallen on me. I could hear my breath. I was alive. Was anyone else?
“Rosa? Hello! Can anyone hear me?”
No answer. Finally, I heard a man call out faintly from somewhere nearby. “Help. Help.” Then there was silence. The voice was gone. Get up, I told myself. Try. You’ll die if you just keep lying here. But I couldn’t budge. I wasn’t able to move my head. I tried to raise my hand to my temple, and it bumped against what felt like two massive concrete pillars. My head was sandwiched between them.
My right leg was buried up to the thigh in rubble. My toes were numb and the rest of the leg felt as if it were on fire. How long could I stay alive like this, pinned like an animal in a trap? An hour passed, maybe more.
I began to panic about not being able to move my head. I’ve got to get free. Bracing against the pain I knew would come, I wrenched my neck as hard as I could. I heard the hair ripping out of my scalp. My head broke free. I could feel blood streaming from where my head had scraped against the concrete.
Trapped in the darkness, buried in pulverized cement and glass, I wondered what was happening outside. Was help coming? Had the whole city been hit? The country? I drifted off, snapped awake, then fell asleep. When I woke, I tried to get a handle on my situation. Things seemed unimaginably hopeless.
I found myself missing my mom from a place deep inside. She would have known how to comfort me. What would she have done? Prayed. Mom would have prayed, not as a last resort but as the first. Closing my eyes, i focused hard on my prayer. Lord, I know you are there. I haven’t always trusted you. I blamed you. Now I am asking you to help me. That’s what Mom would have prayed for.
When I opened my eyes, I could see that the dust raised by the collapse was finally settling. A thin ray of light drifted down through the wreckage and darkness surrounding me. Somewhere up there, not so far away, was daylight.
But I could hear no sounds—no indication that anyone was up there. Had the building truly collapsed? I couldn’t imagine what the scene above must look like. How would anyone find me?
The little ray of light faded. It was getting dark. Lord, be near me. Stay by my side. I talked to God the way Mom talked to him, as if he were right there with me and knew what it was like to be alone and afraid and hurting. Finally I slept. The return of that faint ray of light told me it was morning. All feeling in my right leg was gone by then. Without food or water, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay alive much longer.
Lord, I might not get out of here. Not without a miracle. But I have found you, and that’s the only miracle that matters. Thy will be done.
At that instant, I heard a noise.
“Hello?” I shouted, my voice so hoarse from dust and lack of water that I didn’t recognize it.
“Hello!” A voice called back. “Is someone down there?”
“My leg is caught,” I shouted as best I could. “I can’t move.”
Other voices came. “I’m shining a light down,” one of them said. “Do you see it?” It sounded as if he were right above me, but still all I could see was that one little ray of daylight that had kept me company for so long. I stretched my hand out into it.
“I can’t see your light,” I yelled. “Can you see my hand?”
Once more, I stretched my hand out into that ray of light, just as I’d stretched out my hand to God in prayer.
As I reached out, I felt a hand close around mine, the grip strong and sure, and I heard a man’s voice. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “My name is Paul. Just hang on. They’re going to get you out of there.”
Paul kept talking to me as the rescue team methodically broke through the wreckage. Every few minutes, fear would surge through me that there would be another collapse. But each time Paul squeezed my hand, I felt peace return. Soon they dug the mass of fallen debris away from my right leg. They climbed down and worked until they got me out.
I was put on a stretcher and threaded through an unbelievable mass of devastation, and a crowd of clearly joyous but shocked rescue workers. In all the confusion, I lost track of Paul. It had been 27 hours since the towers collapsed. No one knew it then, but I would be the last person pulled out alive.
During the weeks I was in the hospital, Roger and my sisters were constantly at my side. The whole time, one thing was clear in my mind: I had reached out to God in my moment of need, and he answered me by reaching back—first as a presence, then in flesh and blood, in the person of Paul, the rescue worker who had held my hand.
My friend Rosa and others I knew had died in the collapse. I could have died too, but I was rescued, thanks to Paul. I wanted to thank him personally. When a news crew came to interview me about my ordeal, they reunited me with some members of the rescue crew who had pulled me out from the rubble. Paul wasn’t there, and I asked why he hadn’t come along with them.
One of the men looked puzzled. “There’s definitely no one on our team named Paul,” he said.
By Thanksgiving, and after four surgeries, my leg was strong enough for me to walk out of the hospital. As soon as I got settled at home, I spoke to a friend about what had happened. That hand reaching out to grab mine, I asked her, Paul’s voice promising they were going to get me out, had they been a dream?
“Genelle, do you really think it was a dream?” my friend asked. I know it was not. I felt that strong grip on my hand; it was the touch of God’s hand on my life. Since September 11, that touch, that hand, has never left me.
* * *
Life After Survival
“I wake up thankful every day,” says Genelle Guzman-McMillan, 19 years after her rescue from the rubble at Ground Zero. Genelle married Roger McMillan in November 2001. “He was by my side in the hospital each day,” she says. “When I got out, he proposed. Even though I was still on crutches, we went to City Hall.”
Roger and Genelle now have two teenage daughters, Kaydi and Kellie. Genelle still works for the Port Authority—she’s the office supervisor at LaGuardia Airport. She also volunteers for the Red Cross. “They gave me so much support during my recovery. I saw how caring they were. I want to help others the way they helped me.”
Anniversaries of 9/11 are days of reflection. “I take it as my personal holiday,” Genelle says. “Roger stays home with me. Sometimes I watch the memorial on TV and wait to hear my friend Rosa’s name; other times it’s too emotional.” Her family has a tradition of forming a circle and holding hands and saying a prayer at the time the towers fell.
This past March, Roger contracted Covid-19. Genelle took care of him at home. “He told me, ‘I know you’re a praying woman, but don’t be stubborn. You have to take care of yourself. Go quarantine.’” But Genelle didn’t leave his side for three weeks until he recovered.
“9/11 will be with me forever. But I can’t stay sad. I have to lift myself and other people up,” Genelle says. “I’m not going around scared. It’s the Holy Spirit in me. I have peace. I love people. I’m grateful. We have to live according to God’s will. I do his will and try to keep on a righteous path to inspire others.”
—Celeste McCauley, Senior Editor
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