The last 9/11 survivor to be pulled from the wreckage of the Twin Towers says her life was completely transformed during the 27 hours she spent alone and afraid buried beneath the rubble.
Genelle Guzman-McMillan, now 51, was working on the 64th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower on the morning of September 11, 2001, when she felt the building shake.
Mistaking the fierce rumble for an earthquake, she raced over to a window to look down at the street below but glanced out to see a thick plume of smoke emanating from a higher floor and burning paper and other debris raining down from above.
Less than 20 minutes later the building shook again, but this time Genelle felt it physically sway under the strain of an unknown force.
Concerned, she decided to call her cousin to inform her something had happened at work although she wasn’t yet quite sure what.
Two planes had hit the Twin Towers, her cousin frantically told her through tears, and she needed to get out immediately.
Genelle and a group of around 15 colleagues then decided to attempt to escape the building via an emergency stairwell, counting the floors aloud together as they descended.
Holding the hand of her friend Rosa, Genelle got all the way down to the 13th floor when she stopped to take her shoes off, unable to bear walking in her heels any longer.
She was still bending down when all 110 stories of the North Tower collapsed around her at 10.28am.
In the flash of an eye, Genelle was separated from her colleagues and plunged into darkness.
Trapped in a concrete sarcophagus and pinned down unable to move or even scream, Genelle stared out in the surrounding blackness and readied herself for death.
“I was preparing myself to die because I just wanted to fall asleep and no longer feel any pain,” Genelle told The U.S. Sun.
“I knew the building had just collapsed – all 110 stories – and with the magnitude of what had just happened, I didn’t think anyone was going to find me under there before it was too late.
“But as I was preparing myself to die, I started thinking about my life, my mom, and my daughter, and I realized I wasn’t ready to go.
“That is when I started praying to God, begging for a second chance.
“I told him I wanted to live, to see my daughter, I was begging and pleading, promising to change my ways and my lifestyle.
“Then someone grabbed me by the hand.”
‘A PLANE HAS HIT THE BUILDING’
A 30-year-old mom of one and self-described party girl by the time the late summer of 2001 rolled around, Genelle supplemented her lifestyle by working as an office temp for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center.
“The reason I came to the US is really to have a bright future, a glamorous life … I just wanted to live that American dream,” she said.
“Before 9/11 I was living a party life. It was fun. I loved to party, hang out, and go drinking in clubs and bars.
“I was just enjoying life, being young and innocent, and I was having a great time.”
My life was changed under that rubble. It impacted my life in a very positive way and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Genelle Guzman-McMillan9/11 survivor
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Genelle remembers being excited as she headed to work.
It was a beautiful, warm and clear sunny day, and she was only a few weeks away from jetting off to Miami with a group of her girlfriends.
She got into the office just after 8am, set up her computer, and had been chatting with her co-worker at her desk when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north side of the building 29 floors above them at 8.46am.
Genelle and her friend stared at one another in silence as the building shook. Her friend eventually broke the deadlock to ask, “what the hell was that?”
Seeking to investigate the source of the unsettling rumble, Genelle walked over to her boss’s office to look out of the window.
There she saw smoke and debris floating in the sky before her – but still she had no idea what was going on.
‘YOU’VE GOT TO GET OUT’
Eventually, she decided to call her cousin back in Trinidad to alert her that something strange had happened at her work.
By chance, Genelle’s cousin happened to be watching the news as she picked up the phone. Though she knew Genelle worked in Manhattan she had no idea she worked at the World Trade Center.
“I told her something had happened but I didn’t know what it was, but I couldn’t really get her attention, I could tell she was distracted by something on the television and she wasn’t listening to what I was saying,” remembered Genelle.
“I said I think I have to leave and she was on the other end repeating, ‘oh my gosh’ and ‘oh my god’ over and over.
“I kept asking her ‘what’s happened? What’s happened?’, and finally she told me a plane has hit the World Trade Center.
“I then told her I’m in the building, I work there, and she started to scream and cry, telling me to get out.
“So I said okay, I told them I loved them and promised I’d make it out and be okay.
“At the same time, someone came over to us to say a plane had hit the building and we needed to evacuate.
“That’s when my heart really started racing and my life kind of flashed before my eyes.
“I just started thinking the worst; a plane had hit the building, how am I going to get out?”
FATEFUL ESCAPE ATTEMPT
Ginelle and 15 of her colleagues gathered in the center of their floor to discuss their best course of action.
They held a vote to determine whether they should leave immediately or wait for emergency responders to come and rescue them.
Most of the group voted to leave immediately; the rest voted to stay, sure that help was just around the corner.
Then the building shook for a second time.
The reason, they’d soon learn, was because another plane – United Airlines Flight 175 – had crashed into floors 75-85 of the World Trade Center’s neighboring South Tower.
The North Tower swayed under the force of the blast, Genelle says, sending her and her colleagues into a state of quiet panic.
“We felt the whole building actually sway, and though everyone was trying to stay calm it was hard not to panic,” she remembered.
“Someone decided to turn on a TV and put on the news.
“I remember the broadcaster speaking and she said the words that it was ‘possibly a terror attack’ – and with that my heart just sunk.
“Everyone was crying and we realized nobody was coming to get us, so we had to try and get ourselves out.
“But unfortunately we didn’t make it out in time.”
27 HOURS TRAPPED
Genelle and her co-workers began their slow descent on foot through an emergency exit staircase in a long procession.
She held her friend Rosa’s hand as they made their way down, comforting themselves by counting out the number of a floor each time they made it passed another.
When they reached the 30th floor, Genelle says she was hit with a wave of relief when she saw a group of firefighters racing up the staircase to help others that might’ve been trapped.
The group had made it down to the 13th floor when Genelle stopped to take her heels off, something she’d debated doing several flights earlier.
The decision would end up saving her life.
Genelle recounted: “I held on to my friend’s shoulder as I bent down to take my shoes off, and then before I can even get back to a standing position I just heard this deafening rumble and felt the walls cave in.
“Everything was crashing and slamming to the ground. My friend Rosa pulled away or was pulled away from me and I never saw her again.
“It all went quiet, dark, and dusty.
“Honestly it happened so fast and then it was dead silent.”
The North Tower was hit first but was the second to collapse.
By 10.28am, both of the Twin Towers had fallen and Genelle was trapped between blocks of concrete and rubble.
She was laying on her right side, with her right arm and leg pinned underneath her, and a large slab of concrete pressed against her head.
Her right leg had been crushed and her face had been burned but remarkably she was still alive and conscious.
She began feeling around with her left hand to see if there was a way to free herself but she was completely trapped.
This had to be a dream, Genelle told herself. She thought she was going to wake up any minute and be back in the office as if nothing had happened.
“But I knew I was a wake and I realized this was not a dream, I’m actually stuck, I can’t move, and I couldn’t do anything,” said Genelle.
“I then heard someone calling out for help in a very faint voice but I couldn’t even speak to call out back to them.
“All I could do was think, think about my life, my boyfriend, my daughter, and then I decided to pray.”
REINVENTION IN THE RUBBLE
For 27 agonizing hours, Genelle lay alone in the darkness, certain that she was never going to be found.
But desperate to live, she started praying in her mind, begging to live to see her 12-year-old daughter again, and pleading for a miracle.
“My parents were religious but I had kind of rejected that lifestyle up until that time,” she said.
“But I just started to have a conversation and begged for a second chance.
“I promised I would change my ways and my lifestyle completely if he just pulled me out of the rubble.”
I just started thinking the worst; a plane had hit the building, how am I going to get out?
Genelle had all but given up hope, believing nobody was coming to get her, when she says she heard someone call out to her and grab her by the hand.
“My name is Paul,” the man told her. “Just hang on. I’ve got you. They’re going to get you out of there.
“He told me I was going to be fine and that he wasn’t going to let me go,” added Genelle.
Moments later, a rescue team pulled her from the rubble and she was hospitalized for the next three months.
Tragically, none of Genelle’s colleagues survived.
A ‘GUARDIAN ANGEL’
One of the first things Genelle did after arriving at hospital was instructing her boyfriend to write down the name of her rescuer, Paul, who she was determined to meet once she was back on her feet.
But in the 21 years since 9/11, she’s never been able to find him.
She says the rescue team that pulled her out from the wreck also assured her that there was “definitely” nobody called Paul in their crew.
It’s Genell’s belief that Paul was a guardian angel, sent by a divine force to save her and remind her of her faith.
In keeping with the promises she made in her prayers, in the months after the attacks, Genelle got baptized, stopped partying, and started going to church.
Less than a month after she was discharged from the hospital, she also decided to marry her boyfriend, Roger.
They married at New York City Hall on November 7, started a family, and moved out to Long Island where they still reside today.
Though acknowledging her experience during 9/11 was nothing short of a nightmare, Genelle also says it’s also one that she wouldn’t change.
“It truly was a blessing,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish this one anyone but this was my wake-up call.
“If I’d gotten out of the building without being trapped for as long as I was I would’ve still been the same person, I would’ve been chasing that dream of becoming famous and I have no idea where I would’ve ended up.
“But my life was changed under that rubble,” added Genelle.
“It impacted my life in a very positive way and I wouldn’t change it for the world, despite the injuries I suffered. I wouldn’t change it for who am I today.”
“I found Jesus under there and I was willing, ready, and able to start living a new life from September 12, 2001.”
A SECOND CHANCE
Each year, when the anniversary of the attacks rolls around, Genelle thinks about her friend Rosa, who would’ve been the same age as her today had she survived.
In memory of Rosa and the 2,900 others who perished in the attacks that fateful day, Genelle has vowed to never take her second chance at life for granted.
“God has given me 21 years of extension on my life and that’s amazing.
“I’m still here and I’m very blessed but I wish my other workers were here as well.
“At first I really struggled with survivors guilty because they didn’t make it out with me.
“I wish that everyone who was there would’ve survived and were fortunate enough to be given a second chance like me.
“I don’t know why it was me that was saved but I just try to do what is right and encourage people in order to try to move forward despite the adversity in life.”