BELIZE CITY, Mon. Sept. 11, 2017–In the United States, today marked the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack in which 17 terrorists, whose affiliations were traced to the extremist terror network of al-Qaeda, used four commercial airliners to crash into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the US Pentagon building in Washington, DC., killing almost 3,000 persons, and changing forever the lives of those who were inside the buildings and survived the attack.
Among the survivors of that unprecedented terror attack on the US was Belizean-American Emma “Georgia” Barnett, who escaped from the north tower with some of her co-workers, before the edifice that decorated the New York City skyline came tumbling down in a heap of dust, rubble, and mangled steel, sending hundreds of people fleeing from what later became known as “Ground Zero.” Barnett, now 65, was 49-years-old at the time.
This year, instead of being at home with some of the other survivors who have formed themselves into support-groups to cope with the aftermath of their 9/11 experience, Barnett decided to spend the anniversary in Belize along with some of her sisters. She granted an exclusive interview to Amandala about how she made it out of the flaming World Center building, where she was at work on the 91st floor when the first plane stuck the tower.
“Today is 9/11, and for you that is a significant day, because you are one of the persons who survived the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. On a day like today, what would you have been doing, if you were not in Belize?”, Amandala asked Barnett, in her suite at the Renaissance Tower where she is staying.
“On a day like today, I would be attending one of the memorial services for the victims and survivors. I would be going to the name calling, and after, we usually get together for lunch,” said Barnett, who is a member of the World Trade Center Survivors Network.
“We usually meet up with the Oklahoma bombing survivors and the Boston bombing survivors,” explained Barnett.
“The first or second year after the World Trade Center bombing, we went to the Brooklyn Bridge and decided to plant a tree in memory of the victims of 9/11. It so happens that the tree we planted was a tree that survived the Oklahoma bombing. It was a tree that was in front of the Federal Building in Oklahoma,” Barnett said.
“And how many persons are in the group?”, Amandala asked.
“I would say like about 25,” Barnett answered, “and we have been doing this since 2003. How we meet is that they send out an email to all of us.”
“And they know that you skipped all that to be in Belize this year?”, questioned Amandala.
“No, they don’t know,” Barnett disclosed, adding, “This year I retired and I did not give them my personal email address, which is bad.”
Barnett went on to explain that she also has a friend, who is a firefighter from New Jersey, that she met at the first anniversary of 9/11.
“His name is Matthew Fox, and there is not a year since we met that we don’t get together and talk. Matthew has always been there for me. He was one of the first responders that came to the World Trade Center. I met Matthew out at the service. That’s when we first started talking. You know, he was just walking around, looking for a friend and he found me. I was along with one of my co-workers, Merline Mayers, who is also one of the survivors from my company, and ever since then, we have been friends with Matthew,” Barnett recalled.
“Tell us about your company and how long you were working at the World Trade Center, before 9/11”, Amandala asked.
Barnett replied, “I started working in that building in 1997. I’ve been with the company for 20 years. I lived in New Jersey, and that morning, (9/11) as I rode the Path Train with my daughter, Sasha Swift, who is a school teacher in Brooklyn, I was all excited, and talking about how I love my job and love coming in the building in the early morning. I am an early riser so I get to work around 7:30 a.m.”
Barnett worked as an administrative assistant at American Bureau of Shipping and said that when she first started, she was not in Tower One, but was in Tower Two, on the 106th.floor.
Barnett said that after the company transferred some of its staff to its home office in Houston, Texas, they rented a smaller office on the 91st floor in the north tower, also known as World Trade Center One.
“Now tell us about that fateful morning of 9/11 — what were you doing at work?”, Amandala asked Barnett.
Barnett said the morning was just like any other morning: “We come in, have coffee, talked to each other and so on. Someone was in the office doing some electrical work. He was on a ladder up in the ceiling. I was looking up. And then I heard something like a plane coming. Then I heard a bang. I looked up and I was saying to myself, ‘Now what did he do to cause an explosion?’ Then the building rocked. And I said to myself, ‘This must be an earthquake.’ When that happened, I don’t know why I thought about terrorist attack. But it was eleven of us in the office and we decided to get out of the building.
“So, one of the engineers, whose desk was located on the east side of the building, was under his deck covered with debris. That part of the building was hit. He gathered himself and we decided that we would start walking down. We went to one exit and we couldn’t get out. Debris had already blocked the door, so we went and found another exit and we started going down,” she related.
“The plane that hit your building — was it the first or the second plane?”, Amandala asked.
“It was the first plane,” Barnett replied.
“We started going down and then I slipped and fell down like three flights of stairs. And when I looked up, all I could see were flames. I thought this flame was going to burn my hair off, because I had fallen face-down. But when I noticed, the flame was in the chute, so I just felt the heat. I got up, met my co-workers and we continued. When coming down that building, it’s like entrance, exit, entrance, exit. So, while coming down, we saw other companies’ workers in their offices just sitting there and looking at us, and probably wondering where we were going, because they did not know what had really happened,” she said.
“So, you were on the 91st floor, and the plane hit above your floor”, Amandala questioned.
“Yes, the plane hit above us, but from the 91st floor, there were 19 other floors above,” Barnett responded.
“Was this the building that had the Windows on the World Restaurant?”, we asked.
“No, Windows on the World was on the other building,” Barnett said. “But in the total 19 floors above us, there about 1300 people perished. The only ones who got out were mostly from the 91st floor to the ground floor,” Barnett pointed out.
“When we were going down, the firefighters were coming up with all their heavy equipment on their backs and I felt real bad for them. At one point, a young lady who was in front of me passed out. And I and Merline decided that we were going to help her. We stopped and lifted her up and then we started going back up. We were trying to find an office where we could put her to sit down. Then this man, who was bleeding from his forehead, came from out of nowhere, and he said, ‘You ladies go. I am going to take care of her.’ I don’t really know what happened to them. I don’t really know what happened to the electrician who was working in our office. We continued going down and then we lost each other. I don’t know where the rest of the staff went, but it took us more than an hour to walk down, only two of us. All this while when we were in the building, coming down, that was when the second plane hit the second tower. We just heard like a little thump. There was no big explosion, I guess because of the size of the buildings,” she said.
She further related, “I was limping, because I had injured my left knee in the fall I had earlier. When I got to the lobby, all the sprinklers were on and there was not a single soul around, only the people coming out. I got on the escalator and exited on Church Street, across from the Millennium Hotel. While coming out, I met our office manager, Ms. McIntyre. I don’t remember where I met her, but she and I came out the building together.
“When I got out, I met some firefighters and they told me that they were going to take me to the ambulance so that I could go to the hospital. They had someone in front of them on a stretcher. Then I heard a rumbling noise and when I looked up, the second tower was coming down. So, what happened, everyone disappeared. The person on the stretcher was dropped and everyone started to run. So, I am looking up and I thought I could outrun this building, because I thought it was going to come down horizontally, instead of vertically how it came down.
“Before I could get across from Church Street to Broadway, all that dust that you see covered me. I couldn’t breathe. My mouth was filled with all that dust. The fragments from glass were just penetrating my skin. Me and the office manager, held each other really tight. When we got across from St. Paul’s Cathedral, calmness came over me and I said this is it. There is no way I was going to survive, because I couldn’t see anything. I was choking from the dust and we just stood there. All of a sudden, I could see my hands and then I realized that I wasn’t dead.
“We proceeded from there and went into a Chase Manhattan Bank that was at the corner of Fulton Street and Broadway. We went into the bank, but then the police officers came and told us that we had to get out of the bank.
“We got out and started running up Broadway and there was a building that they were doing construction on and we went into that building, but they told us there was a gas leak and we came out and continued running up Broadway. The reporters were running behind us, trying to get stories. My office manager told them that we can’t talk, we needed help. We went to a building where they had doctors and nurses who were attending to people. But I didn’t want to go into the building. They had a hard time getting me into the building. They came outside and looked at my leg. They couldn’t do anything, because I wouldn’t let them touch me. I was so traumatized by the whole thing.
“They said that they had a van that would take us across the bridge to Brooklyn. We got in the van and then someone said that they were bombing the Brooklyn Bridge, so we jumped out the van. We proceeded walking on Broadway toward China Town. People were just going about their own business, not even aware that the planes had hit the building. People were looking at us, because we looked like we had come from war, covered with all that dust and soot. People really didn’t know what was going on.”
Barnett said that she walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and went to her sister’s home. Her sister lived at Myrtle Avenue and Clinton Avenue.
Barnett said that her family was worried that she did not survive. “When my brother asked what floor I was on and they told him 91st, he said there is no way I could have survived that,” she said.
Barnett explained that the next day, “My sisters had to carry me. My whole body was in pain, I could not even walk”.
“I got to find out that my twin sister, who worked above me at Marshall McLennon on the 92nd floor, was at another location that day,” she noted.
Barnett explained that another Belizean, Alva Jefferies, also worked on the 92nd floor. All of those employees, over 300, including Jefferies, had perished.
“I used to meet Alva on the elevators at lunch time,” Barnett said.
“My daughter teaches at a school in Brooklyn from where she could have seen the World Trade Center and when the buildings came down, she fainted,” Barnett revealed.
The following week, Barnett said that they returned to work at one of the company’s offices in Paramus, New Jersey.
Barnett said she spent some time in therapy. “You know, what it did to me, flying is very hard. I am afraid of flying. Even at night, when I used to live in New Jersey, not far from the airport, and I hear those planes, I would be traumatized,” she said.
Barnett said she migrated to the US after Belize got its independence in 1981. Prior to migrating to the US, Barnett worked with the Government of Belize as a clerk at the Treasury Department.
On the second anniversary of 9/11 in 2003, the New York Times published a story about the survivors from the 91st floor of the North Tower. The Times captioned its story: “TWO YEARS LATER: The 91st Floor, The Line Between Life and Death, Still Indelible.” The story, written by Michael Lou, begins with this one-line paragraph: “Everyone above them died.”
“You know, people complain about things, I used to go to a psychologist for therapy and paid out my own pocket. I filed all the paperwork and my company filed papers saying that I am a 9/11 survivor, but my insurance company refused to pay for my therapy. Even though I had all my documentation, they wouldn’t do it. They told me I was late in filing,” Barnett said.
Barnett said that she had started to fill out the paperwork to seek assistance from the US Government as a 9/11 survivor, but she never continued with it.
Barnett, with the help of her sisters, is still struggling to cope with the impact that her 9/11 experience has had on her. She explained that she had to sell her house in New Jersey, because she couldn’t live alone. She said that she spends a lot of time with her sisters.