Last survivor pulled from WTC
rebuilds life, recalls horror

Mike Kelly
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 minutes later.

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 McMillan.

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, explains.

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," she says.

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 Buzzelli survived.

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 down."

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 silence.

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 watch.

She felt hot. She now thinks the fires deep in the rubble were starting to flare up. Then she felt wet from leaking water pipes.

With her left hand, she reached behind her - and felt something soft.

A body.

After her rescue, McMillan would learn she had landed atop a dead firefighter. Nearby was the body of another firefighter.

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 with God.

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," McMillan said.

Then, she remembered her fiance, Roger. Was he still waiting by Century 21?

McMillan asked God a favor. Could someone at least find her body?

"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 missing list."

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 last time?

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 sobs.

"It's so unbelievable that I'm actually here," she says.

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.

"A survivor!"

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 firefighter asking.


"Keep talking Genelle," he said. "We're almost there."

Cops, firefighters, and other rescuers flocked to the spot.

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," Cushman recalls.

As her stretcher passed, Cushman says McMillan opened her eyes. Her brown hair was covered in gray dust. Her face was swollen.

"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 me."

She repeated the prayer, again and again.

"Before you knew it, someone grabbled my hand," she says.

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 saying.

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 out."

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 Islands.

People magazine featured her survival story.

So did Time.

But she got tired of all the attention. She wanted her old job back at the Port Authority. She went back to church. She got pregnant.

On some weeknights now, McMillan can be found working a volunteer hot line at the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church. Sometimes the people on the phone have no idea she is the last survivor found in the trade center rubble. There is no reason to tell them, she says.

But sometimes, if her pastor asks, she speaks about her time in the rubble and her long talk with God.

It's then that she speaks of Paul.

"I wasn't dreaming," she says. "I was wide awake. I know it was an angel. That was my miracle."

Genelle Guzman McMillan

See also: The 9/11 WTC Collapses: An Audio-Video Analysis

What Really Happened