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9/11 Survivor Recalls Being Blown Out Of Her Shoes When Plane Hit World Trade Center

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9/11 Survivor Recalls Being Blown Out Of Her Shoes When Plane Hit World Trade Center

Meteorologist Edward Lorenz famously said that any small action — like the flap of a butterfly's wings — has the potential to change the course of history forever.

Looking back on the events of the 11th September, 2001, Kathy Comerford, 61, believes this to be true.

Kathy wasn't meant to be in the South Tower of the World Trade Center when United Airlines' flight 175 hit.

She had a doctor's appointment booked, but ever the diligent worker, the then 41-year-old Head of Events at Morgan Stanley rescheduled, in order to attend a staff meeting.

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That decision ultimately landed her at the centre of the most catastrophic terror attack in Western history, and — like everybody who entered her building on that fateful day — changed her life irrevocably.

Kathy, now 61, was caught up in the terror attack (Credit: National Geographic)
Kathy, now 61, was caught up in the terror attack (Credit: National Geographic)

"It was one of those beautiful, end-of-summer days here in New York," Kathy tells Tyla. "There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Our whole team was in a conference room, chatting about what they would get for breakfast after the meeting, and things like that. Then, all of a sudden, the North Tower got hit".

While chaos and sheer tragedy ensued just 200 metres away from them, those inside the South Tower weren't immediately aware of the gravity of the situation.

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"The noise was deafening, and our building actually shook," Kathy remembers, explaining that at first they thought an electrical transformer had blown, or a small plane had crashed as a result of a pilot error.

It was only when another worker approached and explained an airliner had hit the adjacent building that reality begun to sink in.

To this day, Kathy still doesn't know what came over her next, as she fearlessly made her descent down the emergency stairwell.

"I was determined to get out of that building because I was not not coming home to my husband and kids," she says. "So, I became very laser focused. It was like somebody else took over and I just did what I needed to do to get out of there."

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As she travelled downwards from the 70th floor, an announcement on the intercom told workers that they were "safe and secure" at their original stations, but luckily, they had been advised to ignore it.

Kathy reached the 44th floor when, at 9.03am, the second plane hit her building.

The Twin Towers were hit by a commercial airliner (Credit: PA)
The Twin Towers were hit by a commercial airliner (Credit: PA)

"The building basically bent right in half — you felt it — and then the floor was buckling and rolling, like it was going to open up and you would just kind of fall through," she recollects.

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"I was standing close to the marble wall of the elevator bank, [and] on impact of the plane I was blown out of my shoes and thrown into the marble wall, and then fell to the ground.

"All the lights were exploding, the planters were exploding, jet fuel had poured into all the elevator shafts and they had imploded.

"Everybody was screaming and it was pitch black. At this point, we all knew that we were under attack. There's not two mistakes".

What happened next will stay with Kathy forever. All of a sudden the building righted itself; the emergency lighting came on and there stood the head of security, Rick Rescoria, with a megaphone in hand.

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Rick had always predicted an attack by air was imminent, following a bombing of the building back in 1993, and according to Kathy he'd made it his mission to prepare everyone for this eventuality.

"People were panicking, but he yells into the [megaphone], 'today's a proud day to be an American'... and then he just started to sing, which is so not what you would expect in that type of situation," she says.

"It was so shocking to everybody that [they] just quieted, and he was able to gain control of the entire closet level, to then start giving us directions on where to go."

Ex military head of secrutiy Rick Rescorla died rescuing people inside the building (Credit: Shutterstock)
Ex military head of secrutiy Rick Rescorla died rescuing people inside the building (Credit: Shutterstock)

Having subsequently headed back upstairs to help every last worker, Rick tragically perished that day. And Kathy is determined that his selflessness in the face of despair saved not only her life, but several thousand more.

She has many more stories of human kindness from her careful and yet determined traipse to safety.

"The humanity in the stairwells... it wasn't like everybody running for themselves, it was people helping each other; coaxing those who felt like they couldn't go on anymore to keep going," she says.

One of her most powerful memories is that of a man with two artificial legs who couldn't walk anymore, and was scooped up by strangers, and carried the rest of the way down.

She recalls encountering a woman with asthma who was struggling to breathe, and handing over her son's inhaler, before encouraging her to get back onto her feet.

As her journey went on, Kathy also remembers giving out ice cubes that she'd found in an abandoned lunch cup, which people sucked on to deal with the blistering heat.

The more-level headed among the evacuees acted as "cheerleaders" for those who were nervous and frightened, to help them find the strength to carry on.

After what felt like a never-ending journey to safety, Kathy finally exited the building and sat on a curb — but she barely had time to catch her breath before terror struck again.

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"All of a sudden the ground started to rumble like an earthquake... the sound was deafening," she says.

The South Tower collapsed just eight minutes after Kathy made it out, leaving her sat in the pitch black, amidst the rubble and devastation.

Kathy eventually found safety in the nearest ambulance, because she was helping the badly injured woman next to her, and waited in a local hospital until the North Tower came down.

"When [the debris] finally settled, the beautiful clear sky was out again, but it looked like it had snowed... everything was white," she recalls. "It was all the pulverised materials, which covered everything in this white powder."

When Kathy was finally reunited with her loved ones, she had to sit down on the driveway as all the emotions hit her at once.

"I think the adrenaline crashed as I realised that I was now safe," she reflects. "It was really emotional and almost surreal, looking at where I had started at 8.30 in the morning to where I was."

Kathy recalls the rubble looking 'like snow' (Credit: Shutterstock)
Kathy recalls the rubble looking 'like snow' (Credit: Shutterstock)

Now, 20 years on, Kathy is still shaped by 9/11 and everything that she endured. She even finds it hard to be on a dance floor, because the sensation of people jumping takes her back to the moving floors of the besieged tower. But the biggest hurdle has been survivor's guilt.

"You made split second decisions, through the whole process. Like, why was it that if you turned left you lived, and if you turned right you perished?," she says. "It's really important to me not just to talk about the devastation and the terror, but also the humanity and the kindness, and how everybody came together."

Kathy credits many people for her survival during 9/11, but it's clear the impact she had on those around her was also colossal.

To hear Kathy's story in full, you can watch National Geographic's moving documentary series, 9/11: One Day In America. The series first aired on 31st August and is being shown again over September 10th-11th to mark the 20th anniversary.

Featured Image Credit: PA/ National Geographic

Topics: Real Life

Joanna Freedman
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