Why isn't Genelle Guzman-McMillan dead? Nearly everyone else who had not left the Twin Towers by 10:28 a.m. on Sept. 11 perished. Unlike those stranded on higher floors, Genelle, who worked for the Port Authority on the 64th floor of the north tower, could have left earlier, but she tarried, fearful and uncertain like so many others. She was still walking down stairway B when the building collapsed. Unlike so many others, she lived.
Anyone who watched the avalanche, even from behind the safety of a TV screen, knows how extraordinary it is that someone could survive it. New York City's medical examiners are still trying to identify 19,858 pieces smashed from the bodies of the 2,819 people who were slain. Steel beams weakened to their breaking point; solid concrete was pulverized. But somehow Genelle's tumbling body found an air pocket. She was buried in the rubble for more than 26 hours; on Sept. 12, around 12:30 p.m., she became the last of just four people caught in the debris to be found alive. (An additional 14, mostly fire fighters, survived relatively unscathed in a lower part of stairway B that stayed upright.)
Some victims' families received only a shard of bone to put in a coffin; many got nothing. Genelle's family got her back with a crushed right leg and a few other injuries--but basically whole. Relatives held a joyous 31st-birthday party for her in January, after she had fully recuperated. By May, she was walking without so much as a leg brace, an accomplishment that astonished a doctor who had told her she would walk with one for the rest of her life.
It's difficult to envision how those who were extricated from the fiery heap survived. Like Genelle, two Port Authority cops were buried but not mortally wounded by hurtling chunks of stone and metal--even as people in close proximity were killed. Pasquale Buzzelli--who worked with Genelle on the 64th floor and was also in stairway B at 10:28 a.m.--fell when the stairwell broke under him but somehow landed atop a rickety pile of debris. These four were rescued before they were burned in creeping fires or crushed in mini-collapses in the later hours of Sept. 11 and after. It's not known whether anyone else could have been found alive--just that Genelle was the last.
Was this luck? Was it the hand of God? We are a long way from answers: we scarcely have a vocabulary for these people. They are truly "survivors," but that word has been largely appropriated for the relatives of dead victims. We could call Genelle and the others "escapees," but they didn't really escape--they just dodged fate. After ground-zero workers unearthed Pasquale's soot-encrusted briefcase a few months ago, the New York police department mailed a letter to his wife Louise saying searchers had found an item that belonged either to her or to the deceased. When Pasquale presented himself at One Police Plaza to pick up the case, the clerk wouldn't let him have it; Louise Buzzelli, the addressee on the letter, would have to come. It was a simple misunderstanding--an officer had found bills in Louise's name inside the briefcase and assumed it was hers. But the incident gave Pasquale the uncomfortable sense that the city couldn't quite comprehend that he was alive. "This is me! I'm right here," he said, clutching a newspaper clipping about his survival.