Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the 9/11 terror attacks.
Yet, an estimated 33,000 or more people successfully evacuated the stricken buildings. They navigated mountains of smoky stairs in the World Trade Centre’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.
Twenty years later, September 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.
– The policeman
Former New York policeman Will Jimeno is one such survivor, having been trapped deep in the wreckage of the World Trade Centre. The injuries he sustained ended his police career, and he has post-traumatic stress disorder.
He keeps shelves of mementoes, including a cross and miniature twin towers fashioned from trade centre 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,” Mr Jimeno says, “is to never give up.”
Buried in darkness and 20 feet or more of rubble from both towers, Mr Jimeno said he 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.
He had called out for help for hours and was terribly thirsty. Then Mr 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.
After hours of pain and talking to keep alert, the men were found and extricated by former US 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.
Mr Jimeno was freed around 11pm, and Mr McLoughlin the next morning. Mr Jimeno underwent surgeries and lengthy rehabilitation, but he says his psychological recovery was harder.
It has helped to tell his story in talks, in the 2006 Oliver Stone movie World Trade Centre, and in Mr Jimeno’s two newly released books.
The Colombian-born US 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.
Mr Jimeno, 53, of Chester, New Jersey, adds: “The way I can honour those we lost and those that were injured is to live a fruitful life.”
– The engineer
Engineer and lawyer Bruce Stephan was another of the lucky ones. He previously survived a brush with death when his car became perilously wedged on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989, with the upper deck collapsing while he was driving across.
Twelve years later, the engineer and lawyer was working on the 65th floor of the trade centre’s north tower when one of the planes crashed about 30 storeys above.
Only after his hour-long walk down the crowded stairs did Mr 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.
It would be hours before the two were reunited.
“It’s almost like you’re reborn … to know that you’re alive and that you still have a shot at life,” says Bruce Stephan, 65.
Shortly after 9/11, the couple moved to Essex, a northern New York town, and strove to balance work with other things – church, amateur theatre, gardening. They cherished a newfound sense of community.
A work opportunity pulled them back to San Francisco in 2009. They loved it, until the pandemic made them rethink their lives again. They moved back last year.
– The office worker
Aon Corp worker Desiree Bouchat managed to escape from the 101st floor of the south tower.
“Some days, it feels like it happened yesterday,” she says.
At first, people believed the plane crash at the north tower was accidental. There was no immediate evacuation order for the south tower. But Ms Bouchat’s colleague, James Patrick Berger, ushered her and several other workers to the elevators, then turned back to check for more people.
Just as Ms Bouchat exited the south tower, another plane slammed into it. Nearly 180 Aon workers perished, including Mr Berger.
For a while, she said she told everyone, including herself: “I’m fine. I’m alive.”
But “I was a walking zombie,” she says now.
She could not multi-task any more. Remarks that used to bother her stirred no reaction. She was functioning, but through a fog that took more than a year to lift.
Ms Bouchat eventually felt that she needed to talk about 9/11. The resident of Springfield, New Jersey, now leads tours for the 9/11 Tribute Museum.
So does Bruce Powers, who also annually repeats every year his seven-mile walk home from the Pentagon on 9/11. The walk and tours “serve well in helping me deal with what happened,” says Mr Powers, 82, a now-retired Navy aviation planner.
– The Emergency Service Unit officer
For a time after 9/11, Police Department officer Mark DeMarco replayed the “what-ifs” in his mind. If he had 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 (ESU) officer was surrounded by a maze of debris when parts of the skyscraper tumbled onto a smaller building where he had been directed. Some officers with him were killed.
As he inched his way out in darkness with two other officers, Mr DeMarco nearly tumbled into a crater carved by the collapse.
Now 68 and retired, Mr 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.
“Have fun with life. Don’t be afraid,” he says. “But be mindful.”
– The medical worker
Emergency medical technician Guy Sanders recalls a tsunami of dust so thick that it clogged his surgical mask.
The 47-storey building at 7 World Trade Centre 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, Mr Sanders had scrambled to respond from his day job. He was en route when the towers collapsed, killing eight EMA workers, including his colleague Yamel Merino.
However, 9/11 only deepened his commitment to EMS. He soon went full-time.
“I never wanted to be in a situation where people needed me and I couldn’t immediately respond,” says Mr Sanders, 62, now living near Orangeburg, South Carolina.
However, health problems – including a rare cancer that the federal government has linked to Trade Centre dust exposure – forced his 2011 retirement.
– ‘Why am I here?’
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 Ms Lanski, who was in hospital with the coronavirus – as was her husband – for two weeks in spring 2020.
But “surviving is only the first piece of the journey,” says Ms Lanski, 51, of West Orange, New Jersey.
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,” adds Ms Lanski, who has spoken at schools and travelled to conferences about terror victims.
“I’ve got to make up for 3,000 people who lost their voice.”