NEW YORK — Nearly 3,000 people were killed when hijackers in Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network rammed four commercial jets into the trade center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001. Yet an estimated 33,000 or more people successfully evacuated the stricken buildings.
They navigated mountains of smoky stairs in the World Trade Center’s twin towers or streamed out of a flaming Pentagon. Some fled an otherworldly dust cloud at ground zero. Others willed their way out of pitch-dark rubble.
Sept. 11 survivors bear scars and the weight of unanswerable questions. Some grapple with their place in a tragedy defined by an enormous loss of life. They get told to “get over” 9/11. But they also say they have gained resilience, purpose, appreciation and resolve.
'It's not something
to be gotten over'
A tsunami of dust washed over emergency medical technician Guy Sanders, so thick that it clogged his surgical mask.
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The 47-story building at 7 World Trade Center had just collapsed, about seven hours after the burning towers fell and debris ignited fires in the smaller high-rise.
A part-time EMS supervisor for a private ambulance company in the city, Sanders had scrambled to respond from his day job at a Long Island collections agency. He was en route when the towers collapsed, killing eight EMA workers, including his colleague Yamel Merino. Sanders went to funeral after funeral for EMTs, firefighters and police.
Yet 9/11 only deepened his commitment to EMS. Though it was tricky financially, he soon went full-time.
"I never wanted to be in a situation where people needed me and I couldn't immediately respond," he says.
He still doesn't. But health problems — including a rare cancer that the federal government has linked to trade center dust exposure — forced his 2011 retirement, says Sanders, 62, now living in Branchville, S.C., in Orangeburg County.
"You get people telling you, 'Well, (9/11) happened so long ago. Get over it.' But it is a trauma," says Sanders, who joined a first responders' and survivors' support group. "It's not something to be gotten over. It's something to be addressed."
'It never goes away'
Trapped deep in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, Will Jimeno lived through the unthinkable. Twenty years later, he's still living with it.
A brace and a quarter-sized divot on his left leg reflect the injuries that ended his police career, a lifetime dream. He has post-traumatic stress disorder. He keeps shelves of mementoes, including a cross and miniature twin towers fashioned from trade center steel. He was portrayed in a movie and wrote two books about enduring the ordeal.
"It never goes away, for those of us that were there that day," he says.
"One of the things that I learned," Jimeno says, "is to never give up."
Buried in darkness and 20 feet (6 meters) or more of rubble from both towers, Jimeno was ready to die.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department rookie was in searing pain from a fallen wall pinning his left side. Fellow officer Dominick Pezzulo had died next to him. Flaming debris had fallen on Jimeno's arm and heated the cramped area enough that Pezzulo's gun fired, sending a flurry of bullets past Jimeno's head. He had yelled for help for hours. He was terribly thirsty.
"If I die today," he remembers thinking, "at least I died trying to help people."
Then Jimeno, who is Catholic, had what he describes as a vision of a robed man walking toward him, a bottle of water in his hand.
We're going to get out, he told Sgt. John McLoughlin, who was trapped with him.
It was hours — of pushing back pain, thinking of rescues in past disasters, talking to keep alert — before they were found and gruelingly extricated by former U.S. Marines, NYPD officers, a onetime paramedic and firefighters as blazes flared and debris shifted and fell.
"If you wanted to picture what hell looked like, this was probably it," recalls then-NYPD Officer Ken Winkler.
Jimeno was freed around 11 p.m., McLoughlin the next morning. Jimeno underwent surgeries and lengthy rehabilitation.
But he says his psychological recovery was harder. Trivial things made him lose his temper — fueled, he now realizes, by anger about the deaths of colleagues and people rescuers couldn't help. At times, he says, he thought of suicide. It took three years and multiple therapists before he mastered warding off the outbursts.
It has helped to tell his story in talks, in the 2006 Oliver Stone movie "World Trade Center," and in Jimeno's two newly released books — the illustrated "Immigrant, American, Survivor" for children, and " Sunrise Through the Darkness," about coping with trauma.
The Colombian-born U.S. Navy veteran hopes that people see in his story "the resiliency of the human soul, the American spirit," and the power of good people stepping up in bad times.
Sept. 11 "motivates me to live a better life," says Jimeno, 53, of Chester, New Jersey. "The way I can honor those we lost and those that were injured is to live a fruitful life. To be an example to others that Sept. 11 did not destroy us."
'It's almost like you're reborn'
It wasn't Bruce Stephan's first incredibly close call.
In 1989, his car got perilously wedged on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit and the upper deck collapsed while he was driving across.
Twelve years later, the engineer and lawyer was settling into his workday on the 65th floor of the trade center's north tower when one of the planes crashed about 30 stories above .
Only after his roughly hourlong walk down the crowded stairs did Stephan learn that another plane had hit the south tower — the building where his wife, Joan, also an attorney, worked on the 91st floor. Above the impact zone.
Unable to reach her by cell phone, Bruce Stephan dashed to a payphone and called her relatives, who told him she'd gotten out.
Then the south tower fell, and Stephan's fear spiked anew. Had Joan been caught in the collapse? Hours later, he finally learned that she was OK. (At least one other couple, elevator operators Arturo and Carmen Griffith, also survived; their story inspired a recent film, "Lovebirds of the Twin Towers.")
"My experience from the first disaster was that it's a strangely happy moment when you know that you've survived," Bruce Stephan says. "It's almost like you're reborn... to know that you're alive and that you still have a shot at life, and here's your chance to do something."
"When it happened a second time, it's just like, 'Oh, my God.'"
After the earthquake, the New York City natives resolved to change their workaholic lives. After 9/11, they did.
Within two months, the couple moved to Essex, a northern New York town of roughly 700 people. While telecommuting and sometimes actually commuting, they made time for other things — church, a book club, amateur theater, gardening, zoning meetings, a local newsletter. They cherished a newfound sense of community.
But a work opportunity pulled them back to San Francisco in 2009. They loved it, until the pandemic made them rethink their lives again.
"One of the things that that we discovered as a result of the disasters was that being in a community ... is maybe the biggest reward you can have," Stephan, 65, says from their front porch in Essex. They moved back last year.
"I was a walking zombie'
Désirée Bouchat pauses by one of the inscribed names on the 9/11 memorial: James Patrick Berger. She last saw him on the 101st floor of the trade center's south tower.
"Some days, it feels like it happened yesterday," she says.
At first, people figured the plane crash at the north tower was accidental. There was no immediate evacuation order for the south tower. But Berger ushered Bouchat and other Aon Corp. colleagues to the elevators, then turned back to check for more people.
Just as Bouchat exited the south tower, another plane slammed into it. Nearly 180 Aon workers perished, including Berger.
For a while, Bouchat told everyone, including herself: "I'm fine. I'm alive."
But "I was a walking zombie," she says now.
She couldn't multitask anymore. Remarks that used to bother her stirred no reaction. She was functioning, but through a fog that took more than a year to lift.
Bouchat eventually felt that she needed to talk about 9/11. The Springfield, New Jersey, resident has now led about 500 tours for the 9/11 Tribute Museum (it's separate from the larger National September 11 Memorial & Museum).
Bruce Powers has traveled from Alexandria, Virginia, to lead Tribute Museum tours, too. And every Sept. 11, the 82-year-old repeats his seven-mile (11 km) walk home from the Pentagon after the attack that killed 184 people, 10 of whom he knew.
The walk, the tours and hearing other guides' personal stories "serve well in helping me deal with what happened," says Powers, a now-retired Navy aviation planner.
The public hasn't fully recognized the losses survivors felt, says Mary Fetchet, a social worker who lost her son Brad on 9/11 and founded Voices Center for Resilience, a support and advocacy group for victims' families, first responders and survivors. "Although they are still living, they're living in a very different way."
'I couldn't figure out how how I got out of there alive'
For a time after 9/11, Police Department Officer Mark DeMarco replayed the what-ifs in his mind. If he'd gone right instead of left. A bit earlier. Or later.
"I couldn't figure out how I got out of there alive," he says.
After helping evacuate the north tower, the Emergency Service Unit officer was surrounded by a maze of debris when parts of the skyscraper tumbled onto a smaller building where he'd been directed. Some officers with him were killed.
Barely able to see his own boots with a small flashlight, DeMarco inched through the ruins with two officers behind him.
Then he took a step and felt nothing underfoot. He looked below and saw utter darkness.
Only later — after the officers turned around and eventually clambered through shattered windows to safety — did DeMarco realize he'd nearly tumbled into a crater carved by the collapse.
Now 68 and retired, DeMarco still wears a wristband with the names of the 14 ESU members killed that day. He worries that the public memory of the attacks is fading, that the passage of time has created a false sense of security.
"Have fun with life. Don't be afraid," he says. "But be mindful."
'First piece of the journey'
Breathing through an oxygen mask in a hospital bed, Wendy Lanski told herself: "If Osama bin Laden didn't kill me, I'm not dying of COVID."
Nearly two decades earlier, the health insurance manager escaped the north tower's 29th floor and ran, barefoot, through the dust cloud from the south tower's collapse. Eleven of her Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield colleagues died.
"The only good thing about surviving a tragedy or a catastrophe of any kind is: It definitely makes you more resilient," says Lanski, who was hospitalized with the coronavirus — as was her husband — for two touch-and-go-weeks in spring 2020.
But "surviving is only the first piece of the journey," says Lanski, 51, of West Orange, New Jersey.
She has the twin towers, "9/11/01" and "survivor" tattooed on her ankle. But the attacks also left other marks, ones she didn't choose.
Images and sounds of falling people and panes of glass lodged in her memory. She was diagnosed in 2006 with sarcoidosis, she said; the federal government has concluded the inflammatory disease may be linked to trade center dust. And she has asked herself: "Why am I here and 3,000 people are not?"
Over time, she accepted not knowing.
"But while I'm here, I've got to make it count," says Lanski, who has spoken at schools and traveled to conferences about terror victims. "I've got to make up for 3,000 people who lost their voice."
New York City-based AP reporter Jennifer Peltz has covered the aftermath of 9/11 for more than a decade, including the rebuilding and memorial efforts at ground zero.