The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 shocked the world and changed the course of history. When the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed after being struck by hijacked airliners, thousands were killed or injured. However, amid the rubble and chaos, stories emerged of miraculous survival. One such story was that of Genelle Guzman-McMillan, who was discovered alive in the rubble of the South Tower almost 27 hours after the buildings fell. Her astonishing tale of endurance and hope provided a small measure of optimism on one of America’s darkest days.
The Attacks on the World Trade Center
On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 terrorists associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial airliners bound for California. Two of the planes crashed into the upper floors of the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan. The impacts and resulting fires caused both 110-story skyscrapers to collapse within less than two hours. Tens of thousands of people were believed to be inside the Twin Towers at the time. A third hijacked plane was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and a fourth plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to retake control.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attacks, including 343 New York City firefighters, 23 New York City police officers, and 37 officers at the Port Authority. The attacks shut down air travel across the United States and had broader impacts on the economy, culture, and foreign policy interests of America. They also triggered major reforms to national security policy and spurred numerous memorials and tributes to both the victims and acts of heroism by first responders and civilians.
The Collapse of the Twin Towers
The South Tower collapsed at 9:59 am after burning for 56 minutes and the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 am, after burning for 102 minutes. The collapses destroyed the rest of the World Trade Center complex, as well as surrounding buildings. Debris spread over a wide area. Fires burned amid the rubble until December 19.
Despite extensiverescue efforts, very few people were rescued alive from the collapsed towers. Only 20 people were pulled out from the rubble in the hours after the collapses. All the other survivors had been able to evacuate before the towers fell. Given the violent nature of the collapses and the huge quantity of debris, the chances of anyone surviving in the rubble seemed vanishingly small.
The Discovery of Genelle Guzman-McMillan
In the late afternoon of September 12, nearly 27 hours after the South Tower fell, emergency service workers were toiling in the smoking rubble of the tower. Then, they heard a sound – a faint tapping or scratching. They shouted into the debris and were greeted with taps in response. The workers called for silence and realized the sounds were coming from somewhere beneath them.
Their digging efforts soon revealed a victim buried about 25 feet down in the wreckage. It was Genelle Guzman, an assistant accountant working on the 64th floor of the South Tower. Guzman had survived the tower’s collapse and then remained alive and conscious while trapped in total darkness for nearly a day.
Guzman was carefully extracted from the debris and was found to have suffered crushed legs, but was otherwise not seriously injured. Her rescue was deemed a “miracle survival” and gave hope to other families who hoped more survivors might still be found.
Genelle Guzman’s Story of Survival
According to Guzman, on the morning of September 11 she was at her desk when the building suddenly shook violently. She and her coworkers started fleeing the tower but struggled to navigate crowded, dimly lit stairwells. When the South Tower began collapsing, Guzman was only on the 13th floor.
Guzman was knocked unconscious as the building pancaked down around her. She believes her Bible, which she carried with her that day, may have shielded her head from falling debris. When she woke up hours later, she was surrounded by pitch darkness and could barely move her legs under the heavy rubble.
Certain that no one knew she was there, Guzman tapped on a pipe and shouted for help every so often, hoping that rescuers might hear. She tried to stay alert but sometimes drifted into unconsciousness. She remembers hearing rescue workers nearby at one point but they could not hear her.
Praying for Survival
Throughout her ordeal, Guzman prayed for strength and deliverance. She saw a vision of light which gave her courage. Her deep Christian religious faith was a key factor that helped her endure the fear and uncertainty. “I did my praying. I said ‘God, please send somebody to rescue me.’ I had so much faith,” she later recalled.
A Long Recovery
Guzman suffered many injuries, including damage to her vertebrae which eventually required spinal fusion surgery. She endured multiple operations and infections and was wheelchair bound for six months. But she was able to walk again and made a good physical recovery in the long run.
Emotionally, the experience also took a heavy toll. She had panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder. But support from family, friends, fellow survivors and counselors eventually helped her achieve some inner peace.
Guzman credits her Christian faith with sustaining her during both her entombment and her psychological recovery. She later recounted her survival story in the book Angel in the Rubble. She continues to share her inspirational story of faith and resilience.
The Continuing Search at Ground Zero
In the first hours and days after the attack, hope still remained that other people might be found alive in void spaces within the immense piles of debris at the World Trade Center site. Rescue dogs were brought in to help search the rubble.
This hope gradually faded as the rescues of severely injured people tapered off. No one was rescued from the rubble after the night of September 12. But recovery crews still treated the site as a rescue operation for weeks after the attack. Some family members also resisted calls to shift to a recovery operation, holding out hope for miracles.
Ultimately, though, the difficult decision was made on September 24 to formally end search efforts and transition the focus fully to a recovery operation. Guzman was deemed to be the final person rescued alive from the World Trade Center rubble. Thousands of victims’ remains would be recovered and identified over the coming months.
Honoring the Victims
Nearly 3,000 people were killed as a result of the September 11 attacks, both in the planes and on the ground. This included hundreds of emergency responders who rushed into danger. Recovery crews at the World Trade Center site took great care to find and identify victims’ remains for return to their families.
A number of memorials have been constructed to honor different aspects of the human tragedy of September 11. These include:
- The National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City with its twin reflecting pools marking the footprints of the fallen towers.
- The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial honoring the victims at the Pentagon.
- The Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania commemorating the passengers who died retaking United Flight 93.
- Numerous memorials to fallen first responders around the United States.
Services are also held each year commemorating the lives lost on September 11 and honoring the brave sacrifices made by many to save others.
Remembering the Miracle of Genelle Guzman
Genelle Guzman-McMillan has become one of the most well-known survivors and stories of hope to emerge from the September 11 attacks. She was the last person rescued alive from the rubble and her survival was deemed miraculous given the magnitude of the tower collapses.
Guzman’s tale of endurance, faith and answered prayers provided a glimmer of optimism when other survivors were no longer being found. She will always be remembered as a symbol of perseverance and as the “Miracle of 911.”
Though Guzman was the last officially rescued survivor, her experience was not completely unique. At least 16 other people are known to have survived inside or escaped from above the impact zones in the towers after the planes hit. However, Guzman’s rescue occurred latest after the towers fell.
In the aftermath of the attacks, accounts of narrow escapes, selfless heroism, and fortuitous circumstances provided uplifting counterpoints to the overwhelming tragedy. Guzman epitomizes these stories of incredible luck against improbable odds. Hers was one faint sign of hope amid the unthinkable losses of September 11.
September 11, 2001 shook the United States and the world. The collapse of the Twin Towers took thousands of lives in an instant. Nearly 3,000 innocent people perished that day in New York City, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Yet even in the midst of this unspeakable tragedy, there were stirring stories of hope and resilience. Genelle Guzman-McMillan’s miraculous survival after being buried alive for 27 hours was one of these narrative threads of optimism that offered some light in one of America’s darkest hours.