Decade later, trauma haunts 9/11 survivors

From left, Kaydi McMillan, 7, Genelle Guzman-McMillan, Kellie

From left, Kaydi McMillan, 7, Genelle Guzman-McMillan, Kellie McMillan, 5, and Kimberly Yip Ying, 22, of Valley Steam, spend time together at their home. (Aug. 11, 2011) (Credit: Chris Ware)

Almost a decade after her rescue from the rubble of the World Trade Center, Genelle Guzman-McMillan is still looking for Paul.

The then-30-year-old secretary at the Port Authority was the last person to be pulled alive from the jagged mountains of smoking debris, surviving 27 hours after the towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001.

On the 10th anniversary of the attack, none of the more than 15,000 people who, like Guzman-McMillan, of Valley Stream, survived, will have his or her name read aloud at Ground Zero. Chronicles of their escapes and survival are often overlooked, lost among the stories of grieving victims' families or reports of heroic and now ailing first responders.


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"We seem to be the forgotten people," said Scott Diamond, 60, of Levittown, an IT professional who worked for a subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan and escaped from the 50th floor of the south tower.

Many of the survivors suffer residual psychological effects from their ordeal of fleeing a burning building. Many who were trapped and rescued live with survivor's guilt. Those interviewed all said they are grateful they are alive and strive to make the best of their second chance.

 

Mysterious helper

For Guzman-McMillan, the events of that day changed her life in ways she said she could never have imagined. And for her, there is another reason to push on.

"I have spent 10 years looking for Paul," she said.

Guzman-McMillan said she and 15 other Port Authority employees were making their way down the stairs from the 64th floor of the north tower when, at the 13th floor, she paused to take off her high heels, resting her arm on her friend Rosa Gonzalez of Jersey City. Just then, at 10:28 a.m., the landing shook, the stairs began to crumble beneath them and the walls burst open. Guzman-McMillan lost her hold on Gonzalez, fell to her knees and covered her head with her arms while the floors above her collapsed.

With her head wedged between concrete pillars, her legs painfully pinned under a steel beam, she found herself trapped in darkness and complete silence. Hour after hour, she fervently prayed for God to spare her, to give her a chance to live a more meaningful life.

Then, close to losing strength after almost a day underground, a man who identified himself as Paul thrust his hand into the hole where she was buried. He grabbed her left hand -- her only free limb -- reassuring her that help was on the way.

Four hours later, she was extricated from the pile and raced to the hospital. Only one other of her group -- not her friend Rosa -- had survived. Later she met face-to-face with her rescuers to thank them. She asked about Paul. There was no one there that day by that name, she was told.

 

Finding ways to cope

The survivors interviewed have their own unique stories of fear, hardship, and trying to move on.

Michael Lettera, 41, of Westbury, who worked on the 28th floor of the north tower for Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, said that every Sept. 11 he tries to write a memo at work so that he can say, "I'm still here -- and it's recorded."

"I think about it every day," said John Sarle, 54, of Babylon, who worked as a bond broker for Inter-Capital Group on the 25th floor of the north tower. He got out, but his brother Paul, 38, who lived next door to him and worked on the 105th floor, was killed.

Like Sarle, many still mourn lost friends and relatives. Every day Myron Finegold, 59, of Plainview, reads Newsday's daily profiles of 9/11 victims to see if it is someone he knows, he said. The former manager of office spaces for the Port Authority lost 84 fellow employees that day.

Many wonder why they were spared when so many others died. For some, like Guzman-McMillan, that has led to a religious awakening and commitment to share her memories to help others.

"Being able to share my story is a part of the answer to 'Why me?' " she wrote in her book "Angel in the Rubble," published this year by Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

Others have simply tried to live a purposeful life. Sarle, for instance, has remained close to his brother's widow and three children.

 

PTSD haunts some

Many still suffer some lingering psychological effects, such as fear of low-flying planes or of the sound of revving engines. Compared with returning war veterans or some first responders, the reaction of these civilians -- exposed to terrible traumas but usually for less time -- has tended "to be more muted, but it's there," said Thomas Demaria, a psychologist and director of the C.W. Post 9/11 Families Center.

Dr. Sandro Galea, chair of the department of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, was an author of a study published in February that looked at symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder among 3,271 civilian survivors at the World Trade Center two to three years after the attacks. The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that close to 96 percent reported at least one symptom of PTSD, and the researchers estimated the probable rate of full-blown PTSD as 15 percent.

Although most survivors said they didn't consider this anniversary more important than any other, Demaria said he has been getting calls recently from some survivors who want to talk about it.

"I think it's a benchmark," Demaria said. "There's a lot of soul-searching."

 

'Don't look left'

When American Airlines Flight 11 struck the north tower at 8:46 a.m., David Donovan, 38, of Lynbrook, then a retail stockbroker with the May Davis Group, was checking emails at his desk on the 87th floor. The jet tore a gash in the building between the 92nd and 98th floors, its impact so colossal, the tower swayed left about 20 feet, Donovan said.

"We were literally holding on to our desks," he said.

Part of the ceiling collapsed, and within minutes smoke poured in. Donovan said the 14 employees there quickly decided to leave, but the floor in front of the back exit was gone and the door to the front exit had been knocked off its hinges and couldn't be budged. Forming a human chain, they went to a third exit and filed quickly down the stairs.

As they made their descent, they passed a man who was having a hard time keeping up. One of their colleagues, head trader Harry Ramos, 41, of Newark, stayed behind to help him. Last seen with the man somewhere between the 30th and 40th floors, Ramos was the only one from May Davis to perish.

As they left the debris-filled lobby, Donovan said an FBI agent was yelling at them: "Don't look left! Don't look left!" To the left, bodies were crashing into the ground.

Outside, Donovan made his way to Church Street. Then the south tower came down. He ducked into the overhang of a Borders book store. "I crawled in a corner, got in a ball and started praying," he said.

It was so black and so silent for minutes after the collapse that he thought he was dead.

Eventually he made his way home.

Guilt the 'hardest'

Within weeks, the company had opened a temporary office across the street from Ground Zero. It was hard to see the smoking pile every day, but therapeutic, too, Donovan said. "I didn't want them [the terrorists] to win. I wanted to keep on fighting."

For about a year afterward he had nightmares and little appetite. The company hired psychiatrists, but he said he felt more comfortable talking with his colleagues who had been through the same experience. For a year and a half, he couldn't fly and found being in a subway difficult. He said he still looks for the emergency exit when he's in a large crowd.

But "the hardest," he said, "was the survivor's guilt."

Even now he think of Ramos. "I think about it every day," he said. "I don't want to forget the sacrifice of Harry and all those firefighters. I try to keep it fresh in a positive way. I know I'm fortunate to be here."

Donovan said he got out of the brokerage business and now works as a branch manager for JPMorgan Chase in Merrick. As a broker, he said, "I felt I was living off of others. Now I feel as though I'm helping clients more. I'm helping my team of employees. I'm doing more with a second chance."

Diamond, the IT professional, said he, too, is plagued with thoughts that he should have done more. "There's always this nagging guilt," he said. "Should I have stayed to help? What could I have done? The rational part of me knows I did the right thing. I'm not trained to rescue . . . but there's always going to be a piece in the back of my mind: Could I have done something?"

Diamond still gets nervous when he hears a low-flying plane. But he, like many, has refused to let 9/11 derail him. "I have just managed to deal with it so it doesn't ruin my life," he said.

 

Finding peace in Pa.

For Jean and Dan Potter, that meant leaving New York City altogether.

When the jet hit the north tower, Jean, 55, an executive assistant at Bank of America on the 81st floor, was debating whether to go downstairs to do some quick errands. There was a "thunderous explosion" and she was thrown out of her chair. The building swayed and the room quickly filled with smoke and the smell of jet fuel.

Her husband Dan, 54, who grew up in Brentwood, was a New York City firefighter. Dispatched to the scene, he was frantic to find his wife, even as he searched for people in the rubble, including his fellow firefighters.

Eventually the couple were reunited, but there were "too many ghosts" for them to return to their apartment in Battery Park City, she said. They now live in Lords Valley, Pa., "a peaceful place that has helped us heal," said Jean Potter, who has just self-published an account of their ordeal, "By the Grace of God."

 

Overcoming trauma

For Mark Goldberg, healing has also been a trial.

After Sept. 11, Goldberg, 54, of Middle Village, Queens, decided to work at home. Then an investment adviser at an investment company, he had escaped with three other colleagues from the 22nd floor of the north tower, at first trying to block the incoming smoke by putting Scotch tape up around the doors and then crawling to the stairwell holding on to each others' ankles.

But he found he couldn't function. He started not shaving and staying in his bathrobe all day. "I went into a total funk," he said. His wife, a teacher, heard Demaria give a talk on trauma and asked the psychologist to speak with her husband. "He saved my life," Goldberg said.

Diagnosed with PTSD, Goldberg said he has learned, with Demaria's help, how to handle the triggers that could prompt a panic attack -- a car making a certain noise, for instance.

He had a setback recently when he consented to go to Ground Zero for an interview after the killing of Osama bin Laden. It was his first time visiting the site, and he felt overwhelmed by the experience.

Despite his struggle, he has regained his professional standing and remains determinedly upbeat. "All I want is to let people know there is a life out there, that it is what you make of it," he said. Echoing Donovan, he added: "Letting the horrible memories overtake you is letting them [the terrorists] win."

The Port Authority's Finegold believes the same. He also is determined to remain watchful in the event of another attack. When the plane struck the north tower, Finegold and a colleague -- both of whom knew the towers better than almost anyone else -- were able to lead about 60 others to safety.

 

Prepared for disaster

Four years later, Finegold, his wife and his son, then a freshman at Tulane University in New Orleans, survived Hurricane Katrina. They were locked for days inside a hotel, first against rising waters from broken levees and then against the unrest in the streets.

He now keeps a knapsack with him that contains water, a flashlight and face mask. He and his family have discussed their escape plan in case of emergency, and he installed a generator in his home. Although he never lost electricity during Hurricane Irene, he said the generator came in handy to power his tools to clean up a fallen tree.

"I have been in the dark twice," he said. "Not again."

Lettera also keeps a "go bag" at home with a crank radio, water and flashlights. He, too, tries to appreciate the second chance at life he was given. "The other day I was by the Trade Center site. I posted on Facebook. I put my status as 'grateful.' "

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