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published: Sunday, September 09, 2012
11 years later, Catherine Griffith can still taste the dust in her mouth
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
The weather in New York City was picture-postcard perfect on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. Catherine Griffith arrived for work at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, whose offices were on the 29th floor of Tower 1, the World Trade Center.
She changed out of the sneakers she wore while commuting, putting on her high-heeled shoes.
She and a colleague were chatting, Griffith said, when there was a loud bang and the building shook. "It felt just like a wrecking ball had been swung into a wall," she said. "One wall split open all the way from the top to the bottom."
It was 8:46 a.m.
No one had any idea of what was happening.
Looking out a window, Griffith could see debris floating down from above -- a blizzard of paper and pieces of furniture and office machines.
Panic set in and everyone ran for the elevators.
Griffith was following the exodus when she remembered her cell phone was still in her desk drawer. She went back to get it.
"I should have grabbed my sneakers instead," she said.
Working their way downstairs, everything was confusion, but no one even thought the building would collapse.
On the 12th floor the crowd met firefighters and police officers running up past them.
Soon after, water began to pour down the stairs. "No one cared," Griffith said.
Guided through the lobby to the Liberty Street exit, Griffith said the floor was totally demolished. "It looked like someone had used a pneumatic drill."
As dangerous as it was, however, the other lobby was blocked off. An elevator had exploded and body parts were strewn everywhere.
Emerging outside, Griffith learned Tower 2 had also been hit. Military jets roared over head. At first, she and the people around her were confused and frightened because no one knew if the jets were American or if the country was under attack.
Police officers told everyone to go home, but no one could move.
"I was mesmerized," Griffith said. "We were all in shock and disbelief. We just stood and watched."
When Griffith noticed the tower fires were getting worse, she decided it would be wise to go home. She walked to the nearest subway station.
There, a large crowd waited patiently on the platform. Then dust began to drift down into the station through the street grates. A woman came running down the stairs screaming one of the towers had fallen.
"At first everyone thought she was lying," Griffith said. "Then all at once everyone started running for the exits. A woman fell in front of me. I knew I would be next because now there was a stampede behind me."
She caught hold of the stair rail and hung on. "I didn't survive the tower to be trampled to death in a subway," she thought, and screamed "stop" as loud as she could. The crowd paused for a fraction of an instant, just long enough for the fallen woman to regain her feet.
Back up in the street, Griffith said the scene was surreal. "I thought a volcano had erupted, that's how thick the dust was."
The air was so bad she took off her half slip and wrapped it around her face.
She was told to go to the South Street Sea Port where transportation would be waiting. "But there was no transport," Griffith said.
By this time she had blisters on her feet. "I'm not complaining," she said. "There were people who were barefoot and bleeding."
The crowd was anxious, excited and confused, but almost everyone was thoughtful of one another, Griffith said.
One thing that stands out in her mind are the people who leaned out of their apartment windows as the crowds walked past, tossing bottles of water and shoes down to those who needed them.
Trains weren't running to Queens, where Griffith lived, so she headed to the Bronx and her mother's house.
The ride was a blur. Wrapped up in her thoughts, she not only missed her stop, but ended up in the train yard.
After visiting with her mother, Griffith headed home to Queens once the subway began working. She got home at about 7 p.m.
It was only then that the horror sank in and she felt the bruises she'd gotten in the subway melee. For the first time she began to cry.
Griffith said 13 people on her floor were killed. She thinks of two in particular.
One of her co-workers was a big, heavy fellow, confined to a wheelchair. Because he couldn't navigate the stairs, he waited at the elevator hoping for a miracle as everyone else left.
Griffith, whose story had been pouring out, suddenly paused a moment, then said quietly, "One of his friends stayed with him by the elevator, so he wouldn't be alone. Neither one survived."
Blue Cross/ Blue Shield gave everyone three months off with pay. Eventually the company re-opened offices in Manhattan.
Griffith went back to work, but two additional incidents within a year of 9/11 proved to be too much -- a construction crane crashed through a wall on her floor; then a crazed gunman, jealous about an affair his wife was having with her boss, shot and killed them both. Griffith heard the shots at her desk.
She could no longer live in New York. To this day, in fact, she says she can't even think of visiting the city. She had trouble sleeping and couldn't focus on her work. Even transferring to Pennsylvania didn't help and she went on disability.
She still sees a counselor. Telling her story openly is part of her treatment.
"I still get chills talking about it," she said, "but at least now I can talk about it."
9/11 (by: JC - 9/10/2012)
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