An angel in the rubble

Genelle Guzman-McMillan woke up in a great mood on September 11, 2001. She'd had a peaceful night's sleep, the weather forecast was predicting a gorgeous late-summer's day, she'd reconciled with her boyfriend, Roger, after a fight that almost destroyed their relationship. Life was good, really good.

She left her East Brooklyn apartment and headed for work, reaching Manhattan around 7.50am, arriving in her office at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the 64th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre, at 8.05.

At 8.46am, she was chatting to a colleague, Susan Miszkowicz, when the two women heard a startling sound in the distance.

An angel in the rubble

''Did you hear that?'' Miszkowicz asked.

''Yeah, I heard it,'' Guzman-McMillan replied.

They didn't know it but American Airlines Flight 11 had crashed into their building just 30 floors above them.

An angel in the rubble

Next thing they knew the whole building started to vibrate, then everything and everyone shook violently and uncontrollably, enough that they were jolted 10cm into the air, a massive single shockwave that rocked the building - and then the entire building seemed to sway from top to bottom.

The entire episode, from the shattering noise to the final sway, lasted about 20 seconds, then everything was still.

For the next hour and a half, no one knew what to do. There were conflicting reports about what had occured. Through television bulletins and phone calls, the 20 people in the office finally worked out what had happened but still didn't know what to do. After initially being told to stay in the office, that everything was okay, a little after 10am, manager Pat Hoey called the Port Authority Police again and told them they were going to use the stairs to try and get out.

The group heads for the stairs. Guzman-McMillan's high heels are hurting but the group is upbeat, counting down milestones as they pass floor numbers. At the 42nd floor, they meet firefighters on their way up. ''Keep going, you'll be fine,'' they're told.

At 10.28am, on the 13th floor, Guzman-McMillan's life changed forever. The North Tower collapsed, one hour, 41 minutes and 45 seconds after the impact of Flight 11.

''The walls surrounding us burst open like a couple of semi-trucks had smashed through them,'' Guzman-McMillan writes in her book, Angel in the Rubble.

''The floor under our feet was cracking every which way. I put my face down and covered my head with my arms as concrete chunks of every shape and size poured down from above and pelted my body, like I was being stoned to death

''I dropped hard to my knees while the North Tower of the World Trade Centre fell on top of me. Finally, after what felt like forever, the crashing stopped. When it did, my world shifted. It went from a white cloud of dust and whirlwind of pandemonium to total darkness and sheer silence.''

For the next 27 hours, Guzman-McMillan lay trapped under the North Tower, pinned by the head and legs, in great pain, in the dark, alone.

''Was I dead?'' she writes.

''I could not see anything. I could not hear anything. I was in a lot of pain from head to toe. If I'm feeling pain, I thought, I couldn't be dead, right? I felt like I was still breathing, but how on earth could I be alive. Didn't a tower just fall on me? I began to wonder if this could all be a really bad dream ... If it were a dream, I needed to find a way to bring myself out of it.''

That way was prayer.

Guzman-McMillan is in Australia to spread her message. Her story is one of horror and terror; her message is one of hope and faith, for she found God at the bottom of the World Trade Centre.

Born and raised in Trinidad, Guzman-McMillan is the first to admit she had made some poor choices in her life to that point. She had left her daughter Kimberley behind in Trinidad with her father, she was sleeping with her boyfriend Roger even though they weren't married, and partying hard every weekend. Raised a Catholic, she hadn't found time for faith in New York.

''Growing up, I had been slowly walking a road towards hell with my ignorance about God and had picked up the pace as I ignored Him in adulthood. Now I was at the very end of that road, standing on hell's doorstep. It seemed only natural now to take those last couple of steps through that door and live the eternally damned life that I deserved. It was the simplest choice at this point. I could feel the devil welcoming me.

''But was it my only choice?''

Thinking of her daughter, of her family, of Roger, Guzman-McMillan decided eternal damnation was not her only choice and turned to God.

''I had to look at this makeshift grave I was buried in as a confessional and I had to believe God was listening ... and that he cared. But it had to be more than words. I couldn't just confess my sins, say I was sorry, toss in a Hail Mary or two and wait for the debris to open up above me.

''There had to be substance to it. I had to mean it. It had to come from the heart ... ''God, it's Genelle,'' she said timidly. ''I'm in a difficult situation right now, one that I got myself into, and I need your help.''

Her mother had always told her to live the life of the Lord but she hadn't realised how crucial that was until that point. It was a strangely freeing experience.

At roughly 9.15am on Wednesday, September 12, that experience became a reality. A search and rescue dog, Trakr, a seven-year-old German shepherd, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, picked up her scent. At about the same time, a man reached down and grabbed her hand.

''I've got you, Genelle,'' he said.

The rescuers came closer and closer, she could hear them talking, the debris above her started to move.

''They're almost here, Genelle ... you're in good hands now ... I'm going to let go and let them do their jobs and get you out, okay?''

Guzman-McMillan can't remember ''Paul'' letting go and the fireman taking over.

''It was a heavenly transition,'' she writes. And it may well have been for Rick Cushman and Brian Buchanan, the two rescue workers who dug her out at about 12.30pm, have no recollection of there being anyone else there. When the three were reconnected by a television journalist who was following stories in the aftermath, the two men were confused by her story. To this day, Guzman-McMillan has not found ''Paul''.

When she started to think about it, she remembered more details. He did say her name, how would he ever have known it. ''I will never forget those words,'' she writes. ''I will never forget him saying my name. As crazy as it sounds, I hadn't thought about that since the day he found me.''

It consumed her for days. She eventually spoke to her pastor who told her the story about Paul from the Bible.

''Genelle,'' her pastor said. ''God may have sent you an angel.''

Guzman-McMillan is strangely peaceful when talking about the whole experience. She harbours no anger, no hatred towards those who committed the horrendous acts. She has found closure.

''I believe it happened for a reason,'' she says. ''To have this second chance is part of His plan for me ... God had a bigger plan and a purpose for me.

''I came to know myself, know exactly what kind of person I am, how much I am blessed to be here.

''I understand what my mother was trying to teach me all along, about living the Lord's life, and I think being trapped under the North Tower was something that had to happen.

''My life changed drastically because God wanted me to tell this story, so people, people who were facing adversity and tragedy themselves might see there is hope.

''I'm really hoping that when people read the book it will bring some sort of hope into their lives and help them believe in the power of prayer because, for me, it was a powerful thing.

''I chose faith over fear, I've learned to be grateful and to accept life and know there is a God and he exists and he's real.''

On September 11, Guzman-McMillan will be in church. It's fitting that the 10th anniversary falls on a Sunday, a day of worship. Her faith hasn't wavered in the past decade, she's married Roger, they've had two children and live on Long Island. She's returned to Ground Zero a couple of times, appreciative that a memorial has been built there so future generations can learn about one of the most significant events in world history.

''Of course,'' she finishes up in the epilogue to Angel in the Rubble, ''the most significant result of my time buried under the tower is my relationship with God. It is one of the greatest gifts I've ever been given ... People can question whether or not God even exists, and if I just happened to be lucky ... While I was buried alive, I know what I saw, I know what I heard, I know what I felt, and it all radically changed my life forever ... God saved me.''

  • Angel in the Rubble: How I survived for 27 hours under the World Trade Center Debris. By Genelle Guzman-McMillan. Allen & Unwin. 228pp. $24.99.