Beilue: 9/11 survivor makes most of ‘second chance at life’

The shaking of the 64th floor of the North Tower. The South Tower collapsing. Fighting down a pitch-dark stairwell in a frantic rush to get out. Letting go of Rosa’s hand to take off her heels. Then the noise, the rubble, the muted cries, the prayer.

It all comes into sharp focus again each year around Sept. 11 for Genelle Guzman-McMillan.

“I live it in some way every day,” she said. “It’s just a grateful feeling to know I’m still here to tell the story. It changed my life for the mere fact I was given a second chance. I live my life to the fullest of my extent. I want to make the most of it in a good way.”

Guzman-McMillan, a native of Trinidad, was the last survivor rescued in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

She was pulled from the mountain of twisted steel nearly 30 hours after the collapse of the two towers that killed 2,753.

A book, “Angel in the Rubble: The Miraculous Rescue of 9/11’s Last Survivor,” tells her story. So do her public appearances, like the one set for 7 p.m. Monday at Happy State Bank’s Training Center, 701 S. Taylor St. She is the keynote speaker for OvercomerNow, a Mark Phillips-led ministry to overcoming life’s obstacles. She will also speak Tuesday at Sam Houston Middle School in a closed campus event.

“Sometimes I ask myself the same question — what is the message I’m trying to get out and the purpose of my story?” she said. “I want people to know the main factor that there is a higher power, and prayer is a powerful thing.”

Guzman-McMillan, then 30, worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the North Tower’s 64th floor. At her desk at 8:46 a.m. on that Sept. 11, she felt the skyscraper shake. Guzman-McMillan thought it was an earthquake, unaware that American Airlines Flight 11 had torn into the North Tower 30 stories above her.

When word filtered down that it was a plane, she thought, like most, it was a private plane. Seventeen minutes later, American Airlines Flight 175 tore into the South Tower.

For nearly an hour, the 15 employees in the office remained on the 64th floor. But when the South Tower collapsed at 10:05 a.m., all the employees began to feel their way down the darkened stairwell.

She and others tried to count down the floors as they descended. Genelle held the hands of a woman named Rosa. On the 13th floor, when escape seemed achingly close, Genelle let go of Rosa’s hands to flip off her heels.

And then…

The walls opened up, and her world and life seemed to crumble around her.

“Finally everything stopped and I just heard silence,” she said. “I knew I was alive, but I thought it was a bad dream.”

Only two of the 15 from Genelle’s office were alive. Genelle was one of them. Rosa was not. Yet she could not move, trapped around concrete and under a steel beam. While her right leg was crushed, her spirit was not.

Guzman-McMillan had only a casual sporadic relationship with God. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. At times, she could see her mom’s face. Was she dying? She then began to pray and bargain with God.

“I just prayed to God to get me out and give me a second chance at life,” she said. “I felt this burning in my heart that I wanted to change my life if I was allowed to. I said, ‘God, give me a second chance and I promise to do your will and live my life according to your will.”

But hour after hour after hour crawled by, none of them giving much hope as Genelle, weary with fatigue and now pain, struggled to remain conscious.

“I finally said, ‘God, are you listening to me?’” she said.

Later, now nearly 27 hours after the tower collapsed, she could raise her left arm. Cadaver dogs were on the scene. At some point, she felt a strong warm hand grasp it. He said his name was Paul, a New York City fireman. Guzman-McMillan had been found.

Her angel in the rubble gave her renewed reassuring energy. She would have that second chance at life. Now what?

Genelle would have four major surgeries. In between, just two months after 9/11, she would marry Roger McMillan at city hall. The next year, when she could walk, they would do it right in a church wedding.

Since then, the two have two daughters, ages 12 and 13, to go with another of Genelle’s daughters, who is 28. She works at LaGuardia airport in New York, and has been a 10-year member of the renowned Brooklyn Tabernacle.

That second chance has not been a cheap backsliding bargain with God, but a true about-face of a life once ebbing away under steel and concrete.

“Sometimes I’m scared of being sidetracked,” she said. “I know I’m unfinished. God’s still working in me. I just try to stay on that right path with him. I’m here for a reason. There are things that God still wants me to do.

“There’s something out there higher than me, who keeps me focused and living the right life. Tomorrow will be a better day. I’m grateful for every day. Every day is precious to me.”

Jon Mark Beilue is an AGN Media columnist. He can be reached at jon.beilue@amarillo.com or 806-345-3318. Twitter: @jonmark beilue.

How to go

What: OvercomerNow featuring keynote speaker Genelle Guzman-McMillan

Where: Happy State Bank Training Center, 701 S. Taylor St.

When: 7 p.m. Monday

How much: $20

Information: 806-236-7516 or overcomernow.com

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