A family sits down together for dinner. A husband says “I love you” to his wife. A mother cradles her newborn daughter. For those who somehow lived through the horrors of that Tuesday morning, these everyday rituals have taken on new sweetness. Unlikely survivors, facing the world with a heightened sense of their own blessings, they share their stories.
Isabel Burga, 2
Hours after vanishing in a cloud of debris, a girl reunites with her parents
Isabel Burga began her day on Sept. 11 much like millions of other 2-year-olds across the nation: She watched cartoons in the family apartment in Battery Park City’s Gateway Plaza. Accustomed to the city noises that reach her 33rd-floor home, she kept watching TV when she heard a loud boom less than half an hour after her parents, Terry Grimmig, 38, a bond saleswoman, and Joseph Burga, 40, a bond trader, headed out for their jobs in midtown Manhattan. Her nanny Janet Thomas, 50, was equally nonplussed. “I thought it was a boat backfiring,” she says.
Minutes later, Isabel’s father called and told Thomas to turn on the TV. After a second plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center two blocks away, Thomas called Burga back to deliver startling news: The building was being evacuated. “I said, ‘Get some food. Pack some stuff for Isabel. Go wherever you need to go, and we’ll meet you guys,’ ” says Burga.
Then the world imploded. Thomas and the little girl clutching her hand had just reached the street when the first tower collapsed, sending a multistory wave of debris cascading toward them. As they ran, a firefighter came from behind and scooped up the screaming child. Thomas was steps behind when the cloud hit; when it cleared a minute later, the child and firefighter were gone. “My God, what has happened?” a frightened Thomas thought. Evacuated to New Jersey, she got in touch with Grimmig’s sisters Susan, 37, and Lynn Peoples, 33, who live nearby, and began scouring area shelters for Isabel.
Back in Manhattan, Grimmig and Burga were making their way on foot down the West Side Highway—against a thousands-strong tide of New Yorkers fleeing uptown—when they saw the second tower collapse. Says Grimmig: “We both started crying and running.”
For several hours they vainly searched Manhattan shelters and hospitals. Out of leads, they returned to Grimmig’s office at PaineWebber, where they received a message that Thomas was safe—but Isabel was not with her. Burga recalls, “My wife just screamed, ‘Anyone here who knows anyone—my daughter’s missing—please call anyone you can call!’ ” While Grimmig’s colleagues contacted police stations and triage centers, “the head of PaineWebber communications e-mailed all his reporter friends,” says Burga. “I called the police in Manhattan and with all they had going on, they kept calling me back for more information.”
The networking worked. Late that afternoon NBC ran a ticker at the bottom of its newscast that began, “Isabel Burga is safe.” Though frantic about many missing friends who worked at the WTC-based firm Cantor Fitzgerald, Susan was elated to pick up her clean, happy niece from a New Jersey shelter at 6 p.m. “I gave her a big hug, and she squished my face. It was so nice.”
The couple say their greatest wish would be to contact each person—especially the firefighter—who helped get Isabel to safety. “It doesn’t look like there are going to be too many people walking away from this saying thank you,” Grimmig says. “So I want to say it: Thank you.”
Arturo Griffith, 54, and Carmen Griffith, 45
Bloodied but alive, a husband and wife find each other
He calls her Ma. She calls him Pa. Husband-and-wife elevator operators Arturo and Carmen Griffith have a long history in the World Trade Center. “I’ve known him since 1980,” says Carmen. “He used to flirt with me.”
Married in 1995, the Griffiths, who live in The Bronx and have 12 children between them, were both at their jobs in the north tower Sept. 11—Arturo filling in on the freight elevator for a sick coworker, Carmen shuttling people from the 78th floor to the Windows on the World restaurant up on 106.
Then the first plane hit. “The elevator doors closed, and I heard ‘Bang! Bang!’ ” says Carmen. “We were trying to get the door open.” With the door just half-open, Carmen managed to squeeze out into a smoke-filled corridor. As she looked back to tell her passengers that it was safe to exit, a plume of fire from the elevator shaft seared her face, hands and legs.
At the same time, Arturo was knocked unconscious after his elevator plummeted at least five floors to the lobby, coming to in darkness and covered by debris. A voice asked him if he could walk. “I said yes,” says Griffith. When he tried to move, however, he quickly realized that his left leg was broken. As coworkers carried him to safety on a board, Arthur looked up in horror. “I saw the side of the building, and there was a big hole,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I want to know if my wife is okay. I don’t want to lose my wife.’ ”
Up on the 78th floor, Carmen was in the fight of her life. As she rolled on the carpet to extinguish the flames that threatened to engulf her, coworkers rushed to her assistance, pouring water on her burns and then leading her to the stairway. There, a woman she knows only as Audrey volunteered to help her. “I told her my leg is burning, my leg is burning,” she says. “She told me to put an arm on her and that she would walk me down.” On the stairs, Carmen began to worry about Arturo. “I said, ‘My husband was on the freight elevator. What happened to the freight elevator?’ ” After Audrey got Carmen as far as the 20th floor, strangers took over and carried her the rest of the way. “All I could think of was, My husband’s dead,” she says. “They’re all dead.”
Taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital, Arturo underwent surgery to reset his leg. Despite all the sedatives and painkillers pumped into him, he stayed awake all night. “I said, ‘God, why? You should have taken me and not her.’ ” Carmen, in intensive care at the Long Island College Hospital in Queens, asked a hospital employee to find out if her husband had been brought in. When his name did not show up on a list of hospitalized survivors, says Carmen, “I thought my husband was gone.”
Sometime on Wednesday, though, Arturo finally got through to his mother-in-law. Carmen, she told him, was badly burned, but she was alive. “I said, ‘Thank God,’ ” says Griffith. “It was like being born again.”
On Friday, Arturo and Carmen finally were well enough to talk to each other on the telephone. “Carmen said, ‘Pa, I’m okay,’ ” he reports. “And I said, ‘Ma, I’m okay.’ ”
Martin Kelly, 55
A father prays for—and rejoices in—his family’s deliverance
Nearly every day for 25 years Martin Kelly has left his office in the WTC to attend lunch-hour mass at St. Peter’s Catholic church nearby. “I always pray for the safety of our family,” he says. On the morning of the attack, looking back at the south tower he had just fled, the manager at Verizon feared no amount of prayer would be enough. Daughter Margaret and her husband, Mike Martin, both 25 and employees of Morgan Stanley, were in the south tower; brother-in-law Sean Clarke, 56, an elevator technician at Stuyvesant High School, was five blocks away; and two nephews, executives Edward and Michael Haran, ages 34 and 40, were in offices in the Trade Center’s shadow. “At one point I said, ‘God, I can’t pray no more right now,’ ” Kelly says. ” ‘Please save Margaret.’ ”
Fifty-six floors up, Margaret and colleagues had walked down some 10 floors when a voice on the P.A. assured them that they could safely return to work. Having reached the 16th floor, Mike heard the same call. “And some people went back,” he says sadly. He did not. Nor did Margaret. In the end, while Kelly’s nephew John Sullivan, 31, a doctor at St. Vincent’s Hospital, treated the walking wounded, both good sense and good luck brought the rest of the family to safety. Clarke ended up leading some Israeli tourists out of the danger area. The Harans safely fled their offices. And, amazingly, Mike and Margaret ran into each other on the street. That night, in the couple’s house in Brooklyn, the family reunited. Says Kelly: “We were thankful to be alive and together.”
Alessandra Fremura, 37
A tardy babysitter keeps her from work
“We work worldwide, so with the time differences, every minute is important,” says Alessandra Fremura, CEO of Shipping Services Italia, on the 46th floor of Tower 1, who had planned to leave her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at 8 a.m. But the caregiver for Fremura’s 8-month-old son Alex arrived 20 minutes late. “I was upset,” says Fremura. “I like to be at work on time.” Her subway arrived downtown just after the first plane hit. Fremura saw smoke and immediately backtracked home, where she and her three employees—Carrie Graham, who was trapped in a tower elevator for 20 minutes; Max Bessi, who had just entered the building as it began evacuating; and Roberto Poggiali, who was renewing his identification card at the lobby’s reception desk—quickly set up temporary quarters and got back to work. “We are lucky to be alive,” Fremura says. “For once, I was very thankful that my babysitter was late.”
Michael Lomonaco, 46
A stop at the optometrist’s saves his life
“Five minutes more and I would have been in the elevator,” says Michael Lomonaco, executive chef of Windows on the World, the restaurant on Floors 106 and 107 of Tower 1, where about 75 of his colleagues were preparing breakfast. Instead Lomonaco stopped off at an optometrist’s in the Trade Center’s shopping concourse to order reading glasses. During his eye exam Lomonaco heard a muffled rumble, as the first plane slammed into the building, and fled the shop with the optometrist. “I could only think of all my coworkers,” says the chef. “I imagined [they] would be saved, and I wanted to be there to help comfort them.” But they all remain missing. “There’s a deep sadness,” says Lomonaco. “It feels bottomless.” But he began pitching in by doing what he does best: joining other chefs to prepare meals for the weary rescue workers.
Louis Lesce, 64
Escaping the 86th floor, he takes a long and winding road home
For three hours after the first plane hit, Louis Lesce found himself on an obstacle course starting at the 86th floor of Tower 1—veering from near-death to near-salvation and back several times over—until he reached safety.
A career-transition specialist, Lesce, who lives in Queens, was preparing to teach a 9 a.m. class when he felt the building shake. The ceiling caved in; thick smoke followed. He called his wife, Karen. “I thought this was it,” he says. “I told her I loved her and said goodbye. I hung up real quick because I didn’t want her to get emotional. I thought it might make me lose my resolve somehow.”
The call seemed too unreal to believe—and at first she didn’t. “I thought he was joking,” says Karen, 58, an administrative sales assistant for an office-supply company. Televised images quickly changed her mind. She frantically tried to call her husband back, but he was already headed for the stairwell. Strangers aided Lesce—who has had a quadruple bypass—down the 86 flights. An hour later, when he reached the mall beneath the World Trade Center, Tower 2 collapsed. In the darkness, someone grabbed him and led him through the rubble. “All of a sudden,” he says, “I was outside.”
Lesce found a pay phone and called Karen to tell her he was heading to her office in midtown. As he hung up, Tower 1 was crumbling. Once again, he ran. Finding refuge in a cell-phone store, he called his wife again, telling her that he was going to the hospital.
Around 11:30 Lesce finally reached Beth Israel Medical Center. Remarkably, his only injury was a scratched cornea. For the fourth time, he called Karen—to tell her that this time he really was, inarguably, safe.
Sheila Moody, 42, accountant
Brand new on the job, she counts her blessings
It was only her second day of work as a civilian accountant at the Pentagon, and Sheila Moody had brought two items to personalize her cubicle: a Bible and a Palm Pilot. “I was really excited” about the job, she recalls. Then, suddenly, “I heard a whistle and then a rumble and a big whoosh,” says Moody, a native of Severn, Md. “The building was vibrating and shaking. And then the fireball came through. I realized I was engulfed in flames. And then just as quickly as the flames came, they went out.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to see my kids anymore,’ ” says Moody, the married mother of three, who managed to stay in contact with a co-worker. ” ‘I’m not going to be a grandmother.’ ” She started to pray. “It was God who kept me calm. I told Him, ‘I can’t believe you brought me here to die.’ And he didn’t.” Within seconds, a man’s voice cut through the blackness. Choking on fumes and unable to call back, Moody clapped her hands. “I clapped as loud as I could and hoped he could hear the sound and follow it to where we were. Then I heard the fire extinguisher. He grabbed my arm and led me outside.”
Emerging from the flames, Moody lay down on the cool grass. “I remember thinking, ‘God, I’m alive. Jesus, you saved me,’ ” she says. After 15 minutes, “I looked back at the building and was just amazed that I was able to get out of there.”
Later, as she waited to be treated, a stranger approached and asked if she was okay. “I said, ‘yeah,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m the one who got you out of there.’ My eyeglasses were dirty and I was coughing, so I still couldn’t get a good look at him. I just remember thanking him.”
Now recovering from second-and third-degree burns on her hands and other burns on her face, arms and back, Moody has yet to learn the identity of her savior. But she is eternally grateful for what he did. Other victims, she notes, “won’t get a chance to hug their families and tell them that they love each other. I was blessed to have another day to see my husband and children.”
Jun Lee, 37
After a brave escape, she delivered new life in the face of death
As the sky began to rain down glass and concrete, Jun Lee, 10 days past her Sept. 1 due date, was looking for a way out of the concourse beneath the World Trade Center. “I didn’t worry that I would go into labor,” says Lee, a United Nations lawyer. “I just thought, ‘I’m nine months pregnant, I’m going to die.’ ”
Taking to the street in her flip-flops (“the only things that fit my swollen feet”), Lee fled as quickly as she could. “People were crying, screaming,” she recalls. “Cars were going against the light.” She soon tired and needed to rest, but she knew she had to keep moving. “There was no place to stop.”
About 10 blocks away at the South Street Seaport, Lee found shelter at a Best Western hotel. There she was joined at about 4 p.m. by her husband, Thomas Letsou, 41, whom she had contacted by cell phone at his midtown law office. The couple booked a room at the hotel, but by early evening it had neither electricity nor phone service. As Letsou tried to doze, Lee began to feel cramps. At midnight she poked her husband awake. “I’m having serious contractions,” she told him. “This is it.” Says Letsou: “I was very scared of a delivery in the dark with no doctor.”
So through the blacked-out nightmare streets of lower Manhattan, the two began a gritty two-mile, smoke-filled trek to Beth Israel Hospital, where the delivery had been scheduled. Lee’s pain increased with her contractions, but, Letsou says, “she just hung in there.”
After 90 minutes they made it to the hospital. Eight hours later, at 1:05 p.m. on Sept. 12, Lee gave birth to 7-lb. 1-oz. Elizabeth Letsou. “She waited so long,” says Lee, “and then came into this world at the worst possible time.” And the best. Says Lee: “I never thought I’d be so happy to see this baby.”