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PHOTOGRAPH BY CATRINA GENOVESE
||HOLY SPIRIT: Praying in the sanctuary of her church in Brooklyn
Genelle Guzman-McMillan was the last person found
alive in the debris of Ground Zero. Having cheated death, she isn't
quite sure how to live
Posted Sunday, September 1, 2002; 3:38 p.m. EST
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.
If we can't seem to fully register people like Pasquale and
Genelle, their own senses of identity have drifted, wavered since that
day. Having cheated death, they aren't certain how to live. Genelle has
put on a brave face for friends—and for the many reporters who have
called. But in June, on a trip to Macy's with her cousin Gail
LaFortune, a caterer for New York City's Oxford Cafe, Genelle confessed
that she wasn't sure what life was about anymore. She wasn't sure if
she had ever really known.
"For Judy," says Gail, using her cousin's middle name, as do
those who grew up with Genelle in Trinidad, "there's a sense of ... of
misplaced things, of misplaced parts of her life." If that's true, how
does Genelle Guzman-McMillan find herself again? It turns out there is
no shortage of people who want to help create a carefree, well-centered
version of Genelle—and an inspirational Sept. 11 tale for the rest of
us: Victim miraculously lives, turns to God, finds true love (in July,
she and longtime boyfriend Roger McMillan had a free "dream wedding"
arranged by Bride's magazine and CBS's The Early Show,
an event both then covered as news). But her story isn't so simple.
People say Sept. 11 was a crucible for our nation, which may or may not
be true, but it was doubtlessly a crucible for the person you see in
the pictures on this page. The question is, Who emerged from that
crucible? Why did the last survivor survive?
It's such a pretty day. Genelle has gold braids woven into her hair.
Her cousin Lauren Lavin did them the previous Saturday, one of their
"special hair days" when some girlfriends get together to try different
hairdos, makeup and outfits. The braids remind them of their native
Now Genelle is setting up her computer. A contracted clerical worker
assigned to the Tunnels, Bridges, and Terminals Department, she has
worked at the Twin Towers just nine months. The job, mostly data entry,
doesn't inspire her much, and she rarely talks about it at home. She
also took the position illegally—her nonimmigrant visitor's visa
expired in 2000, making her eligible for deportation—so she keeps a lot
to herself. Many of her relatives will discover only today that she
works at the Trade Center.
After booting up, Genelle carries her egg-on-a-bagel and hot
chocolate down a few cubicles to gab with Susan Miszkowicz, a
co-worker. They are gossiping about one of the bosses. And—wham! The
building gives a mighty shake that just about knocks one of Genelle's
colleagues out of his chair. They don't realize it, of course, but it's
American Airlines Flight 11 puncturing their building upstairs, across
floors 94 to 98. "What the hell?" says Genelle. She's not scared yet,
just curious, so she goes to the window. Seeing a snowstorm of papers
in the air, she stands in awe and confusion, motionless. Now people are
saying a plane has hit the building. "We have to leave," she hears
Genelle walks over to find Rosa Gonzalez, her closest colleague. She
and Rosa have never socialized outside work—oh, they mean to, it just
has never happened—but they have spent many a lunch hour together
talking about their guys and the weekends they can't wait for. Now Rosa
is on the phone, and Genelle breaks in: "We have to leave." Rosa nods.
Genelle goes to get her bag and runs into one of her supervisors, Joe
Roque. "Get your stuff now, and let's get out of here," he says,
turning to gather his belongings. "One second," says Rosa, who has
appeared at Genelle's side. "I want to call my sister." Co-workers are
saying that if they will be gone the rest of the day, they need to let
relatives know. That makes sense to Genelle. "O.K., I'll call Roger,"
she says. When Joe comes back, Genelle is gone; he assumes she has
left, and now he starts down the stairs without her.
Like many people who come to life within the anonymity and cacophony of
a nightclub, Genelle is actually shy by nature, a virtual Trappist
around strangers. Her first conversational gambit is most often a big,
gap-toothed grin. It was that way when she was a girl too. Judy, as she
was called, was the youngest girl of 13 children, three of whom died as
babies. Her father drove trucks for the Trinidad Ministry of Works and
Transport; her mother was usually pregnant.
Genelle's father was strict—she had to be home at 4 p.m., an
hour after school let out—and as a teen she chafed at his rules. By 18,
she had a job at the big Holiday Inn in Port of Spain, the capital. She
had also met Elvis Yip Ying, an older guy of Spanish and Chinese
ancestry who had light skin and a steady demeanor. "I wanted
independence," Genelle says. "[It] was not love at first sight, like
Roger. It was like, you're young, and you just want to get out on your
own, have a kid, get on with life." She had Kimberly, her only child so
far, when she was 18. "But I wasn't in love with Elvis," she says, and
they eventually broke up.
Genelle moved to New York City in 1998; she left Kimberly in
Trinidad with Elvis, who she says is a devoted father. Genelle already
had family in New York, and there wasn't much opportunity at home. (The
year she moved, Trinidad and Tobago had an unemployment rate of more
than 15%.) At first, she didn't like the loud people on the subways or
the run-down look of Brooklyn, where she was staying with a sister. She
moved back to Trinidad for a while, but in 1999, her mother lost her
fight with ovarian cancer. Genelle was devastated. Trinidad seemed far
too quiet without her mom's kind voice; Genelle moved back to New York
She wasn't sure what she wanted from Gotham, but as with many
pretty young people, its nightclubs beckoned. She and cousin Lauren and
other girlfriends liked downtown Manhattan's Webster Hall, a
long-running if slightly cheesy dance club, and the more upscale, sexy
NV Bar. These places don't get going until quite late—after 11 p.m.—and
Genelle would be out until dawn some nights. "Roger would say, 'Just
one [drink].' I would say, 'No, two.' And I would have two or three,
and do all sorts of crazy stuff." Genelle loved to dance, and those
nights wore her out. She usually slept most of Sunday so that she could
look decent for work on Monday morning.
Everything is starting to get hot now. There has been another shake,
and people are saying another plane hit the other building. Genelle is
terrified. She has no idea whether to take the stairs now or wait for
official orders to do so. Many of the people who remain—there are now
just 15 others on 64—say they should stay put until they hear something
definite from their Port Authority bosses. At least two of the senior
people have been glued to the phones most of the time, trying to get an
The fire alarm won't quit. Genelle keeps calling Lauren, Roger, her
niece Carla Guzman and others on the outside who are watching the
horror on TV. As the clock ticks, they begin to insist: LEAVE NOW JUST
GO PLEASE HONEY GET OUT. But she is too frightened to depart by
herself. Susan Miszkowicz, with whom she was chatting when Flight 11
hit, hugs her and says, "Genelle, don't worry. We will be all right."
She will say it several more times, but there is fear in Susan's eyes.
Finally, Genelle tells Roger, "O.K., I'll take the stairs." He will
meet her outside Century 21, the discount-clothing emporium across the
But now someone says the stairwell has filled with smoke. People have
taped the entrances shut, and they are wetting jackets and shoving them
under doors. Everybody is worried about smoke inhalation; they are all
corralled in the northwest corner of the floor because it has the least
smoke. Genelle has an urge to look out the window again, but she
doesn't—she is too scared the building will tip over. At one point, one
of her co-workers says something about the building being unstable, and
Genelle nearly loses it.
Just then the ceiling makes a loud noise, sending a fresh wave of
terror through Genelle. She thinks she could die, not realizing that it
is hundreds of people in the south tower who have just perished in its
collapse. It is 9:59 a.m., and the north tower still has 29 minutes.
Finally, with the smoke thickening even in the northwest corner,
Pasquale and a colleague remove the tape on the lobby doors and go to
stairway B. They are surprised to find a reasonably bright staircase
without much smoke. Genelle calls Lauren and says they are leaving.
Only about half the lights on the floor are working, and everyone knows
that if the power goes out, they are in serious trouble. Pasquale is at
the front of the pack, at the door to the stairs. He has words with a
co-worker who still wants to wait for a go order; the co-worker
relents. It is just after 10 a.m.—an hour and a quarter since the first
plane struck—and they all start down.