The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)
Sept. 10, 2003 09:40 AM
She remembers a hand.
Then a voice.
His name was Paul. And as he reached through the dusty
darkness of the rubble of the World Trade Center,
wrapping one hand, then another around her outstretched
hand, he asked her name.
"Genelle," she said.
"OK, Genelle, I won't leave you," he replied.
But then, as rescuers reached her and took her to a
hospital, where she spent the next five weeks, Paul
vanished, never to be seen or heard from again.
"An angel," she says.
Genelle Guzman McMillan often thinks of that voice and
those comforting hands, especially now, as she prepares
to give birth to a baby in mid-October. Paul was her
connection to heaven on a hellish day, she says. He kept
her alive, she believes, not just for the baby she
carries, but also for a singular place in history.
McMillan is the last person pulled alive from the
wreckage of the World Trade Center.
It was just after 12:30 p.m. on Sept 12, 2001. The towers
had fallen 27 hours earlier.
From inside a dark, oven-hot tomb atop a ragged ridge of
tangled steel, two firefighters heard a voice.
It was McMillan, then 30, a single mom, and on the job
only nine months as a Port Authority clerk.
"We have a survivor," one of the firefighters
called to a clump of men that included two volunteers who
drove from Massachusetts and a cop from Nova Scotia with
a rescue dog.
McMillan's head was pinned between two pieces of
concrete, her legs sandwiched by pieces of a stairway.
Her toes had gone numb hours ago. Her right hand was
pinned under her leg. Only her left hand was free.
For hours, she had reached upward with that free hand
into the blackness and dust, pushing and twisting her
fingers into the small spaces between steel and concrete.
She listened, too. She could make out rescuers' voices,
emergency sirens, even the beeping of backing-up trucks.
She tried tapping. She tried calling out, but her voice
was barely a whimper.
And so she waited. And while she waited, she had a long
talk with her God.
No one can really explain why Genelle Guzman McMillan
lived and so many others did not.
Authorities estimate that 25,000 workers were inside the
seven buildings of the World Trade Center complex when
the first of two hijacked jetliners struck the 110-story
north tower at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. Thousands
more were strolling through the 75-store underground
mall, milling on the plaza, or arriving on subways,
ferries, buses, and cars.
Thousands escaped - in itself a miracle, not to mention
one of the greatest evacuations ever. But when the towers
fell, about 2,800 people perished. Only 20 who were
trapped in the rubble got out, most within a few hours
after the collapse.
A First Union Bank employee, Tom Canavan, crawled with
another man through 30 feet of twisted steel in the
underground shopping mall after the south tower fell at
9:59 a.m., escaping just before the north tower fell 29
One of McMillan's co-workers, Pasquale Buzzelli of River
Vale, lost consciousness in a collapsing north tower
stairway. Hours later, he awoke atop the debris and was
carried away by a rescue team.
Fourteen others, including 12 firefighters, huddled in
that same north tower stairwell. But their section of the
stairwell held together like a protective cocoon. Just
after noon on Sept. 11, they climbed the stairs to the
top of the Ground Zero rubble field.
Port Authority Police Officer Will Jimeno of Clifton was
cut from the rubble later that evening. Jimeno's partner,
Sgt. John McLoughlin, was pulled free just after 7 a.m.
on Sept. 12.
It wasn't until nearly six hours after McLoughlin's
rescue that searchers came upon McMillan. In fact, early
news accounts referred to McLoughlin as the last
survivor. But that distinction eventually fell to
There is no logic to why McMillan lived and others did
not. No science explains why she did not slip into
unconsciousness and die in silence.
McMillan was not stronger or smarter than those who died.
She did not have special training about how to cope when
buried by a 110-story skyscraper. She did not even have
an especially loud voice to call for help through the
knotted steel and jumbled concrete that fell around her.
Only one explanation really makes sense.
If you believe in miracles, McMillan's survival was just
that - a miracle.
She jokes now that people sometimes want to touch her
before they plunk down money for a lottery ticket or head
to Atlantic City. But she is uncomfortable with the
celebrity that comes from being the last survivor of the
tragedy that redefined the way we live. On the street in
Valley Stream, N.Y., where she and her husband recently
moved from Brooklyn, she says she hasn't even told her
neighbors about her ordeal on that postcard-perfect
September morning two years ago.
"I don't like to talk about it that much," she
says. "I don't have the answers why I am spared. All
I know is that it was for a reason."
But what is the reason?
"It just wasn't my time," McMillan, 32,
She is sitting now on the fifth floor of a Madison Avenue
office building. Two years ago, nearby lampposts were
swathed with posters of missing World Trade Center
workers, and U.S. flags seemed to be everywhere - on
windows, on lapels, on car antennas.
Now, those lampposts are home mostly to posters for rock
concerts or the latest furniture sale. And, while many
flags still hang from buildings and adorn lapels,
windows, and antennas, the fervor has clearly ebbed as
people try to return to normality.
McMillan says she, too, is trying to forge a normal life
- whatever normal means for someone who will forever be
known as the last survivor of the trade center. She is
married for just over a year, and pondering what to name
the child she carries in her womb.
"If it's a girl, I think I'll name her Khalie,"
she says. "If it's a boy, I'll name him Kyle."
McMillan laughs. It's clearly a happy moment - this
chitchat about the baby who will join her 14-year-old
daughter, Kimberly, and 12-year-old stepson, Kadeen, from
her husband's previous marriage. But, as with so much of
her life now, everything seems to return to Sept. 11.
Even going to work stirs memories.
In April, McMillan returned to her old Port Authority
department and a secretarial job not unlike the one she
held on Sept. 11.
"I just wanted to be around the people again,"
But the people now working with McMillan on Madison
Avenue are not the same people who surrounded her on
Sept. 11 on the 64th floor of the north tower.
Simon died that day. So did Lisa and Debbie and Susan and
Franco and Steve and Pat and Rosa. In all, 16 workers
waited on the 64th floor and weighed escape options after
a hijacked jetliner cut through the skin of the north
tower about 30 stories above them. The rest of the floor
had cleared out 30 minutes earlier. Why the 16 stayed is
open to question. Only McMillan and co-worker Pasquale
Some say the group was instructed to stay by the Port
Authority police, even though radio transcripts show the
Port Authority's commanding officer at the World Trade
Center, Capt. Anthony Whitaker, ordered a full evacuation
of the complex a minute before a second hijacked jetliner
struck the south tower.
On instructions from the Port Authority, McMillan
declines to discuss why she stayed. What is known from
agency records is that Buzzelli and others tried to seal
doors with masking tape, wet coats, and towels to prevent
smoke from filling the floor. But after an hour, the
group headed for the stairs - stairway B.
Buzzelli led the way. McMillan paused and phoned her
fiance, Roger, who worked a few blocks away at a
direct-mail firm. He told her to meet him at the Century
21 department store, just across the trade center plaza.
McMillan, in black skirt, a lilac silk blouse, and black
pumps with 2-inch heels, hung up and turned to her best
friend, Rosa Gonzalez, and held out her right hand.
Gonzalez grabbed it, and the women headed down - 10
stories, 20, 30.
McMillan remembers counting off the floors. Then, she
felt the tower shudder - as if it had been hit by a huge
punch. It was the south tower collapsing. But in the
stairwell, she had no idea of the catastrophe outside.
Up ahead, Buzzelli, who later got a Port Authority medal
for his leadership, steadily guided the group down.
Gonzalez was crying. McMillan can't remember whether she
cried, too. She says she might have sobbed. What she
remembers is how her co-workers kept trying to assure one
another, many repeating what became the group's mantra:
"We're almost there."
On the 13th-floor landing, McMillan stopped. Her 2-inch
heels seemed like 10-foot stilts.
McMillan reached down to pull them off. She would walk
the rest of the way barefoot.
She never took a step.
McMillan heard a rumble. "A big explosion," she
now calls it.
"The wall I was facing just opened up, and it threw
me on the other side," she says.
McMillan looked for Gonzalez.
"I was still holding Rosa's hand," McMillan
says. "But she pulled away."
McMillan remembers Gonzalez trying to climb the stairs.
"I got up," McMillan says. "And I tried to
go behind her. That's when the rubble just kept coming
She never saw Rosa Gonzalez again.
"Everything just kept coming harder and
harder," McMillan says. "I just kept my head
down. I don't know how I ended up the way I was. I don't
know how I landed."
It was complete darkness.
She heard a man's voice.
"Help. Help. Help," she remembers him calling.
Then the building shook again. More debris fell.
"I thought I was really going to go down,"
McMillan recalls. "But I didn't."
Then the shaking stopped and the silence began.
"I couldn't do anything," McMillan remembers.
"I couldn't move. I couldn't get the rubble off.
Everything was just heavy. I couldn't see a thing. There
was nothing else for me to do."
She believes she fell asleep.
Genelle Guzman McMillan can't account for every minute of
her entombment. Her watch - a silver Citizen - survived,
still ticking. She still wears it. But in the darkness,
she couldn't see anything, not even the face of that
She felt hot. She now thinks the fires deep in the rubble
were starting to flare up. Then she felt wet from leaking
With her left hand, she reached behind her - and felt
After her rescue, McMillan would learn she had landed
atop a dead firefighter. Nearby was the body of another
She thinks she slept for an hour or so. Then, hearing a
noise, she awoke.
The pattern continued for hours. It was then that she
started to think about her life. She also started to talk
McMillan had been raised as a Roman Catholic in her
native Trinidad. But after coming to the United States in
1998, she put religion on the shelf.
"I was into the glitz and glamour," she says.
In the rubble now, her thoughts turned to God.
"I knew that this building consists of 110 stories
and I knew that no one was going to find me under
90-something floors," she remembers telling herself.
"I was prepared to just close my eyes and pray that
I don't have to suffer under the rubble."
She thought about her daughter, Kimberly, then 12.
"I was just seeing my daughter's face,"
Then, she remembered her fiance, Roger. Was he still
waiting by Century 21?
McMillan asked God a favor. Could someone at least find
"If I have to die, I was hoping that they would
recover my body so we could have a burial for me,"
she recalls. "I just didn't want to go out on a
She thought of her daughter again - and asked God for
another favor. If McMillan had to die, could she just
make it to the hospital so she could see her daughter one
Then, she asked for a final favor - to live.
"I was praying to God: 'God please save my life.
Give me a second chance. I promise I will change my life
and do your will.' "'
McMillan remembers saying that prayer over and over. She
had no idea now how many times she repeated it or how
many hours passed. As she repeats the prayer now, she
"It's so unbelievable that I'm actually here,"
As she prayed, she started to hear noises - rescue teams.
McMillan believes she could even hear men talking on
walkie-talkies below her. This is entirely possible. The
rubble pile was not level. The seven-story mountain of
debris had deep crevices. She was trapped near the
surface, atop a mound of steel. So it's likely some
rescue teams may have searched rubble below her before
she was found.
"It was chaotic," Port Authority Lt. John Ryan
recalls. It was also energized. Jimeno had been pulled
out. So had McLoughlin. Surely others were alive.
Someone noticed the distinctive reflectors of a
firefighter's coat, gleaming from atop a pile of steel
that rose in a jagged mound toward a seven-story piece of
the north tower's wall that still stood.
It might be a body. It might be a survivor. Two
firefighters climbed up the steel to check.
Rick Cushman watched from below.
A marketing manager and National Guardsman from Saugus,
Mass., Cushman had rushed to Ground Zero from
Massachusetts 12 hours earlier with a friend, Brian
Buchanan, a former Marine. Now after a mostly sleepless
night at Ground Zero, he felt drained.
He figured he would help rescue survivors. But he had not
seen any - only pieces of bodies. Beneath his boots, heat
billowed up through the web of steel.
And then, he heard a shout.
It was Genelle McMillan. As the two firefighters examined
the reflective coat in the pile, they heard McMillan -
then spotted her hand.
"What is your name?" she remembers the
"Keep talking Genelle," he said. "We're
Cops, firefighters, and other rescuers flocked to the
The firefighters called for an ironworker with a portable
torch. He cut away a steel beam; the firefighters lifted
McMillan into a steel-mesh stretcher, and then passed
her, man-to-man, down the mound of steel.
"There must have been 300 people who lined up,"
As her stretcher passed, Cushman says McMillan opened her
eyes. Her brown hair was covered in gray dust. Her face
"Am I out yet?" she asked in a whisper.
Months later, when CNN linked up McMillan with Cushman
and Buchanan for what it thought would be a reunion, she
could not remember their faces.
In the rubble, she remembers reaching out with her hand.
And before the firefighters came and called out to her,
she remembers Paul grabbing it.
"I kept my hand out there, praying to God," she
recalls. "Show me a sign. Show me a miracle. Show me
that you're out there. Show me that you are listening to
She repeated the prayer, again and again.
"Before you knew it, someone grabbled my hand,"
It was Paul.
She tried to open her eyes but could not. Paul told her
she would be fine.
"Just hold on to my hand," she remembers him
She grabbed his hand. She remembers he was not wearing
gloves - unlike the firefighter who found her. She also
remembers he grabbed her hand with two hands.
"He was holding my hand for a long time," she
says. "And then other workers came and pulled me
In the hospital, after surgery on her leg to repair nerve
damage and to close a deep cut on her left cheek,
McMillan asked about Paul.
None of the rescuers remembered anyone named Paul. When
she met Buchanan and Cushman, she asked about Paul, too.
None could remember anyone by that name.
"I don't remember anyone with that name,"
Cushman says now.
"No one saw him," McMillan says of Paul -her
angel. "No one saw anyone holding my hand."
Two months after Sept. 11, Genelle Guzman and Roger
McMillan married. It was a small ceremony at New York's
City Hall. But her CNN appearance made her a celebrity.
WNBC-TV invited her to deliver a special Christmas
message during a broadcast. Brides magazine gave her a
fancy wedding reception, replete with a designer gown, a
night at the Plaza Hotel, and a honeymoon in the Virgin
People magazine featured her survival story.