The Last Survivor
Guideposts|September 2020
Of all the stories we published about September 11, this may have been the most powerful
GENELLE GUZMAN-McMILLAN

MY FRIEND 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?

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