As part of the 20-year commemoration of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Fort McCoy hosted a presentation by the last survivor to be pulled out of the World Trade Center debris.
Genelle Guzman-McMilan shared her experiences with Fort McCoy community members Sept. 1, 2021, at the Noncomissioned Officer Academy (NCOA). The event was organized by the NCOA and Fort McCoy Army Community Service.
Guzman-McMilan was working for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which was located on the 64th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center, at the time of the attacks. The north tower was the first building to be hit but the second to collapse.
She said that when the first plane hit her building, she at first thought it was an earthquake, having been through earthquakes in her native country of Trinidad and Tobago. Or perhaps a small plane had hit the building, she said she was thinking, which the World Trade Center was built to withstand.
A few people left immediately, while others in her office, including Guzman-McMilan, tried to figure out what was happening first. She said they'd recently had an emergency drill, and because the alarms and emergency lights weren't going off, she thought it couldn't be that bad. It wasn't until they turned on a television in a conference room and saw the images being broadcast that they realized how bad things were.
Guzman-McMilan said she couldn't believe the images she was seeing or what she was being told when she called family. "Me, the little island girl? In a terrorist attack?" she asked.
Emergency personnel told them over the phone to stay put; rescue workers would come find them. They checked stairwells to see if they were clear and tried to keep smoke out of their office with wetted jackets and sweaters.
"The building shook again. It swayed. And that's when ... the other building collapsed," Guzman-Mcmilan said. "I thought, 'Oh no. We're going down. ... We're not getting out of here."
One of the managers decided they couldn't wait any longer for emergency personnel, and their coworkers checked the stairwells again to find one with working lights that seemed clear. About 15 of them began making their way down the staircases.
Guzman-McMilan said she was wearing high-heel boots that day - her friend and coworker Rosa Gonzalez kept urging her to take them off so they could move faster - but she kept them on, wanting something to protect her feet when she got outside. At one point, they passed firefighters heading upstairs to check the upper floors, who told them to keep heading outside.
Somewhere round the 15th floor, she said, she finally had to pause to take off her shoes because her feet were hurting so badly. That was when the second tower collapsed.
"The dust, the darkness... everything just came crashing down," she said. "It happened so fast."
She lost hold of Gonzalez during the collapse, whose hand she'd held most of the way down. She said she covered her head as best she could and told herself she was having a bad dream. When she came to herself again, she realized she couldn't move. Her body was twisted in an odd position and her legs felt like they were being crushed. She said she could feel steel pushing into her back, and her head was trapped between two pillars.
"I keep being alert. I keep hearing the radios. I keep hearing the firetrucks. I keep hearing the walkie talkies and the communication going on," Guzman-McMilan said. "And for some reason, I just couldn't speak. I wanted to, but my voice just couldn't open up to say 'help.'"
Guzman-McMilan was trapped in the rubble for 27 hours before rescuers found her. She said, after the initial shock, she was awake and aware the entire time, though she couldn't tell how long it had been. At one point, she wanted to fall asleep so she wouldn't have to feel the pain anymore. During her ordeal, she began praying, despite not being religious beforehand, asking for a second chance.
She credits God and possibly a guardian angel for her survival. At some point, she said, she felt a hand reach through the rubble and grasp the one that wasn't entirely trapped. The hand's owner said his name was Paul and began encouraging her to hold on and reassuring her that she was going to make it through. When the radio noise came closer, Guzman-McMilan said, Paul told her she had to speak up so that rescuers would find her.
The hand let go of hers before the rescuers reached her, and Guzman-McMilan said she's never found out who Paul was, leading her to believe he was a guardian angel. She spent months in the hospital afterward; medical workers thought at one point that her leg might need to be amputated. None of the coworkers she'd left the office with made it through the collapse, and she didn't find out until much later that she was the last person to make it out of the rubble alive.
Guzman-McMilan said she doesn't know why she made it out when so many others, especially her friends and coworkers, didn't, but she is grateful for her second chance. She said she put her faith in God after her survival and shares her story with others. She ended her presentation with a prayer, asking God to share his grace and plan with those around her.
According to her biography at her website, www.genelleguzmanmcmillan.com, Guzman-McMilan is an active member of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church and serves as a volunteer for the American Red Cross and the 9/11 Tribute Center. She also is the recipient of several awards and proclamations by mayors and senators of New York since Sept. 11, 2001, including receiving a Medal of Honor from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.