‘I’m the face of it’: the people whose images came to define 9/11 reflect on the day
Marcy Borders: ‘The dust lady’
Marcy Borders was a 28-year-old Bank of America employee when she fled from the north tower on 9/11. She became known as “the dust lady” because of a single indelible photograph. She died from stomach cancer in 2015. Her daughter, Noelle Borders, now 28 herself, is an elementary school teacher and lives in Bayonne, New Jersey.
“I remember 9/11 as clear as day. I was in third grade at the time. My teacher was teaching current events and I guess it popped up like breaking news, what was taking place in New York City, so they had to turn it off. Kids’ parents were coming in the building to pick them up, but for me it was weird because I knew my mom was a very active class parent and never missed anything. I’m like, my mom wouldn’t leave me to be the last kid.
“My aunt then came but, before she took me out of the classroom, she pulled my teacher into the hallway and must have told her my mom was in the building and she just started crying. I remember going home and everything being top secret because none of my family members really wanted to say anything to me, to have me worried, because I was a child.
“My grandmother, my mom’s mom, called and was screaming and crying: ‘Where’s your mom? Is your mom OK?’ Panicking and going crazy and I was like, err, no, and in that moment I just started crying. I couldn’t help thinking the worst happened to my mom and I was so upset.
“At some point, my mom must have got to a payphone. She was screaming and crying and she told me that she was OK.
“My mom was a single mom. You look at your mom as your superhero. Nothing bothers her, she’s always the toughest cookie for you. To see her emotionally upset takes a toll on the child and that makes me scared and nervous now because my person who’s my hero is hurt.
“I went to bed upset, panicky, and there was nothing much that anyone around me could say because nobody really knew what was going on. She returned home late because it was hard to get out of New York. She had to wait for the fire department to transfer her over to New Jersey. Then she had to go to the hospital to get checked out to make sure there was nothing wrong with her and then she was released.
“I didn’t see my mom until the next morning. She was cleaned up: she didn’t have no dust on her. She was on the front page and honestly, when she first saw that picture, she was scared. She thought, ‘Oh, my God, the world knows who I am. Whoever attacked the World Trade Center is going to come after me because now I’m the face of it.’ For a long time, the dust lady photo, she was scared.
“You could tell she was different. She was quiet. Any noise, she was like, what is that? I remember a few weeks after 9/11, she wasn’t going outside, she didn’t want to be in large crowds, she didn’t want to be around people because she was still in fear.
“I said to her, ‘Please, I want to go to the parade, all my friends are going to be there’, so I guess she just tried to show me, all right, I can do this. While we were at the parade, this plane was flying low and my mom panicked, grabbed my hand and started running like somebody was chasing us. My friends looked at me: what is going on? This is a local side-effect after being in 9/11.
“She didn’t know how to express her feelings so she fell into a depression. She used drugs and she drank alcohol but I never saw that. Whatever she did in the dark, I’ve never seen it. The only reason why I found out about these things is because my mom finally started to begin telling her truth in interviews.
“I learned that my mom would never allow her children to see her at her weakest point, no matter that deep down inside she was hurting and she didn’t know how to help herself, so she looked to drugs and alcohol … But she didn’t want it to spill over to her children so my mom went away and got treatment.
“While she was away in treatment, Osama bin Laden wound up being caught so she felt like, ‘Oh, my God, this was God answering my prayers’. She felt safe again and that’s when things started to go back to normal a little. She started to open up and be who she was before the plane hit.
“I never really liked it when people said, ‘Oh, your mom, she’s the dust lady.’ I never really liked to do interviews, although she asked me. ‘Mom, I don’t want my friends to see me on TV.’ But it wasn’t until my mom passed away and there were news reporters outside her funeral that I was like, wow, my mom made a huge impact!
“People love her story. She was not just my hero but she was a hero to many other people around the world. It was just a lot for me to take in at that moment. I couldn’t believe that. To actually see that she was more than just what I thought of her as a mother. She was a huge part of history today; my son is eventually going to be reading about his grandmother in a textbook. It was an eye-opener.
“Her breathing in the debris was one of the causes of the cancer she developed and that eventually took my mom’s life. She was in the process of writing a book that has yet to be published. I’m actually looking into the possibility of finding someone to help me get that process going.
“My mom’s story has helped so many people all over the world. Things that they’ve dealt with are some of the things that my mom dealt with and she helped them overcome. So, hey, why not finish what she started and put out her story and continue to show people that although you’re facing dark days, the sunshine always comes.”
Hugh Caulfield was a police officer stationed in Union Square, New York City. He retired from the police in 2013 and works as a property manager. Now 53, he lives with his wife, Eileen, in Sag Harbor, New York, and has four children.
“I remember going to work and it was a picture perfect day. So I go to the locker room and I get changed and I hear on the police radio that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.
“We jumped on the subway and were on the train with our radios screaming. It was a rush-hour train and you could see the looks on the people’s faces. They would listen to our radios and then, as we pulled into the train station and the doors opened up, you’d see the fear of people running away. It was chaos the moment we stepped off the train.
“We went running down there and I was trying to get everybody out of the area. I was going back and forth, back and forth, and I kept on trying to get into the tower but I kept on getting held up. Somebody’s like, ‘You’ve got to help over here. There’s people trapped in this building.’ There was probably something higher than me that prevented me from going in there.
“Everybody had fear in them. There were injured people from the building itself and then, down in that part of Manhattan, there’s a lot of old buildings with a lot of sheet glass. With the explosion all the glass fell on everybody and there were people having heart attacks. There were a lot of burn victims.
“One guy I went down there with, he’s like, ‘Oh, they’re jumping, there’s people jumping’. I didn’t bother looking up. I didn’t want to watch it because it seemed like everybody was stuck staring at it and my goal was to get everybody out of there.
“Then I heard the roar of the tower falling and I looked into the centre of the World Trade Center and I saw firemen running towards me and I was like, ‘Holy shit! They’re running. I’m running.’ I looked up and saw the top 30 floors over my head, as it was peeling like a banana peel, and I thought I was dead.
“I decided to run and that’s when I saw this crazy photographer taking pictures – what the hell’s your problem? We’re running! I think I must have run her over.
“I ended up in an alleyway and the cloud came and I started helping people. There was a bunch of people trapped all over the place; they were just scared, like sheep. I assisted them out and went back to the tower to see what I could do and it was a mess.
“Then the north tower fell. I had to run from that. I still didn’t really see what was going on because I was underneath it and I ran into a Blarney Stone (it was like a chain of bars down there). Then I saw everything happen on the TV. I realised it was a lot of people that were killed and soon after the weight of it really hit.
“The next morning I saw the photo of me in the paper and it was shocking. I was on the back page or the front page of one of the papers and that brought it all back. It made it really real – not that it wasn’t real. Then I realised that was the photographer I almost ran over. Now I think it’s hanging in a couple of museums.
“I was there [at Ground Zero] for a couple of months. It was a strange time because we had to work our regular tour and do police duties. The city was shut down: there was nothing going on, and then after that we went on our time to dig and search.
“The most frustrating thing was you never found anybody. You’re in that bucket line and you just smelt the bad bucket come through and know that was probably somebody. Everybody got pulverised. The only people they really discovered were deep down in the initial tower.
“The strangest thing was finding the photographs that were on people’s desks or their little mementoes in the rubble. It was all the stuff they would have in their office. There was a New York Giants helmet that was crushed; you know that was on somebody’s desk. And a lot of photographs of families.
“At that time the whole country, especially in New York, turned into a patriotic place to be. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, apart from what your parents or grandparents experienced during the world wars. I still feel it. Lately, with what’s going on, it took a couple of hits but it’s nice to know that it’s there, and I know it’s there with a lot of people.
“I went back to Ground Zero for the first few anniversaries; the 10th was the last I went to. Then I went back to show my kids. It’s pretty much been part of their life and it was tough but now they’re in the teens so it would be a different experience.
“I moved on – you have to – but I think about it daily; it’s not like something that goes away. Things that happen in my day sometimes remind me: hearing a noise, or a smell – especially a smell. Sometimes just the number itself: the clock will say ‘9:11’ and I’m like, ‘Oh!’ You know, just silly things like that.”
Joe Massian was working for a subcontractor on a technology upgrade for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the 70th floor of the north tower, the first to be hit. Now 44, he lives with his wife, Krista, and their two sons in Madison, Wisconsin, and works for Google in state and local cloud sales.
“I had just put my backpack down on my desk and was beginning to unpack my laptop. A colleague of mine asked a question and I put my left hand on the cubicle wall and turned and was listening to the question.
“That point was when the plane hit just a few floors above us and I remember feeling like the whole building moved 12, 18 inches: it was a relatively large sway. That’s when I said to myself, OK, something’s not right, and I immediately was thinking maybe it was a construction incident.
“But then the panic on the floor began to develop quickly and people started running towards the exit. Everybody started moving and I realised I was the last man in that section and there was a colleague of mine still sitting in the chair in a panic mode.
“So I grabbed her and started walking with her and that’s when somebody else helped me as well. We were towards the end if not the back of the line, getting into the stairwell and then beginning our process of moving down the stairs.
“In the stairwell people were relatively calm and proceeding in an orderly fashion; everybody had a common goal to just keep moving. When there was somebody above us coming down, like a burn victim or an injured victim, people would yell, ‘Move right!’ It would basically free up the left hand side of the stairs to allow that victim easier and quicker access to the bottom.
“The woman we were with, when she needed to take a break, we would lean up against the corner of the wall on the landings between each floor – allow her to stand there for 30 seconds or so. I think we were in the 50-55 [storey] range when we first came across a firefighter. It was an older gentleman as well as some younger – mid-20s, early 30s – and they had axes and hoses on their shoulder.
“For me the adrenaline was just very focused. I don’t think I took the time to let fear kick in. It was about one thing only: that’s getting down to the bottom and getting out. I don’t think anybody thought the buildings would fall.
“When we get to the bottom and we’ve come through the door, we’re in the atrium. As you’re going down the escalator, you’re looking around at all the windows blown out. You see all the debris on the ground outside the window. You see these little pocket fires and you hear things falling and hitting the aluminum on the building. Occasionally you hear the bigger thumps, which we now know were potentially people.
“It was a multi-storey atrium so when you get to the bottom you can see all the FBI, dogs, police, firefighters. They were creating a human wall at the bottom of the escalator, pushing people from tower one into the mall connecting tower two. That line kept moving into the underbelly of tower two and we ended up coming out the door facing Century 21.
“There was a female officer there and she looked at my buddy and I. We had our friend Theresa in the middle and I said, ‘I think at a minimum she needs oxygen and water. Where can we take her?’ She said, ‘Across the street, you’ll see a line of ambulances, follow this path.’
“As we did that, I remember looking up and seeing both towers on fire. I said to my buddy Larry, ‘Look up, you’re never going to believe this. This is like Hollywood.’ We both looked up. Theresa looked up and panicked and then at that point we heard a pop and then we just all divided and started running.
“What I didn’t want was the building to collapse on me, so I remember specifically thinking, you’re going to run to the right a block, you’re going to run to the left a block, get out of the domino effect. So I think that maybe was when there was fear: am I far enough, am I fast enough to beat this building?
“In the stairwell my dad had actually been able to connect with me. He’s like, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘I think I’m around floor 20 or so.’ He’s like, ‘I just need you to get out.’ I said, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ He’s like, ‘I’m leaving work, heading home, call us when you’re out.’ We got disconnected.
“My mom called when I’m standing across the street from having to cross the Brooklyn Bridge or go uptown. She asked me if I’m OK, if I’m alive, am I in the building, am I not? I said, ‘I’m not.’ She’s like, ‘How do I know?’ She was asking questions to confirm that I was truly out and away and safe. That was an emotional moment because here you’re telling your parents that you’re not dead when on TV you are.
“I ended up making my way up to midtown and, when I got into our office there, msnbc.com had published my photo and it was the first photo that others were seeing of the event. I walk in and everybody stands up and they’re all crying and I ask why. It’s like, ‘Well, because you’re on the internet and now you’re here’.
“It was one of those moments where your hairs stand up on your arm, where it’s somewhat surreal. You’re overcome with emotion but you don’t know if you should cry, if you should just curl up in a ball and go to sleep.
“But the reality sets in that, OK, I’m not one of those victims. I am here. Why me? I was 70 floors above the ground, it took me over an hour to get down, and there were people on lower floors that I know didn’t make it, people on higher floors that couldn’t make it. So you start questioning why and what you did different and what could they not have done.
“I still have dreams about it. One of the dreams I have is I’m jumping from building to building, like rooftop to rooftop, and I have these planes, almost like kamikaze jets, just flying into the rooftops trying to get me.
“At the 9/11 memorial now it’s an empty feeling. You feel a physical presence, a connection, but you know that, if you’re a spiritual person, there’s souls there. There could be people that are just waiting.
“As time goes on, it’s turning out to be a generational event. The younger generation that were not here understand what it was, but the connection and the support that united people is fading.
“When we were able to take out Osama bin Laden, I remember I just felt like he knew me because I knew he had seen that photo because it was so widely used. At some point that photo might have been in his hand. He might have reflected on it for whatever length of time. So, when the news came out that he was no longer with us, it was one of those days of like, wow, just bringing everything together.
“When I look at the photo now, it’s interesting to see the spin in the stories from the media and be able to share with my own family and friends my view and how many of my experiences differ, but also it’s interesting because now my kids are learning about it in school. They call me a hero because I helped someone out and that’s really interesting to have that title in the eyes of your children.”
Christian Waugh, 74, was a firefighter with Ladder Company 5 when he was photographed helping carry the body of fire department chaplain Mychal Judge, the first officially recorded victim of 9/11. Waugh retired in 2003 and now lives with his wife, Marie, in Pine Bush, New York, and has five grandchildren.
“I was in my office at the fire house. I was the aide to division chief. We were about a mile away from the World Trade Center and we heard the plane go by and people yelling in the street. We got dispatched to go to the scene for a plane crash.
“We were there within five minutes. We saw a lot of fire at the top of the building where the plane crashed and a lot of people running out of the building and some people jumping.
“We knew it was bad up there. At that time we entered the building, set up a command post in the lobby. The command post is where we assign everybody their positions as they come into the scene and try to keep track of most of the firefighters.
“As units started coming in, the chief would just tell them where to go and they would go to their position and head up the elevator or the stairs; mostly the stairs.
“Tower two came down first and blew all the debris and dust and smoke into tower one. We were running through the hallway and we all got knocked down to the ground. We started calling out for each other.
“We started to get out and we came across Father Mychal Judge (originally he was within five feet of me in the lobby, just standing there praying, so I guess he knew what was coming). I checked his pulse and another person checked his pulse and he wasn’t breathing. We knew he was dead but we wanted to get him out of the building. We didn’t want to leave him there.
“We carried him up the escalator, out on to the balcony and around, I believe, to Vesey Street. At that time we carried him down the outdoor escalator, which they call survivor stairs – that’s in the museum – and when we got down to the ground, that’s when the photographers started taking the pictures.
“We walked up the block and we put him down by one of our ambulances. At that time tower one started coming down, so we all ran. We left Father Judge by the ambulance and I ducked into another building, the lobby of 55 Vesey Street, I believe it was, until the all clear.
“Then we came back out and I went looking for my boss. I ended up with another deputy chief on the other side of the building and helped him for a while. And then I asked if I could go back and look for the priest and he let me take a company. We went back down the block and, where we laid him, he was gone already.
“Another group of guys had carried him to Saint Paul’s church. When I went over to Saint Paul’s church he was laying up on the altar and had blood all over him from the debris ... I felt bad that we couldn’t get him out alive but he was pretty much gone already.
“I don’t think I got home until a day and a half later. I went back to the firehouse, cleaned up and then ended up going back. I was detailed with the deputy for that day and of all the guys I worked with, lost 11 out of 13 of them. And the house that I came out of also lost about 11 or 12 people. I knew a lot of them. It was a tough day.
“It left problems. I had neck surgery and my knee replaced in 2003 and then I retired; I fish, do a little metal detecting, travel a little. The guys I worked with, I miss. I go down there every now and then for all the ceremonies.
“I’ve been to the 9/11 museum. It’s hard but it’s well done. They did a good job setting it up. My helmet’s there; I lost my helmet at the scene and they found that a couple of months later.
“And of course the picture of Father Judge that I’m in is there. He was a great man. Anybody who needed help, he was there to help them. I think I was saved because of him. Me helping carry him out, I got out of the building. I give him that credit for saving me. He’s by my side.”