WTC survivors recall day of terror
Vancleaf and fellow firefighters were among the
first on the scene when the Trade Center's north
tower was attacked.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- For New York City firefighter Damian
Vancleaf, the second Tuesday of September started out
routinely. He and other firefighters from Manhattan's Engine
Company 7, located just a few blocks from the World Trade
Center, responded to a call for a gas leak. They were at the
scene when they heard the loud drone of an engine from above.
"We all looked up and saw the plane," recalled Vancleaf.
"Something was wrong. You never see a plane in downtown
Manhattan, especially that low. I could see almost every
detail on the plane. That's why I knew it was way too low. I
could see rivets in the plane."
The firefighters watched in shock as the jetliner slammed
into the north tower of the World Trade Center and a huge ball
of fire shot up into the sky.
"We threw all our gig on the rig and we started to respond,
down to the Trade Center," Vancleaf said.
Engine 7 was one of the first fire companies to arrive on
"I remember taking an extra couple of seconds before
running in to make sure we had everything and ... we were
ready to go, because this was going to be a big one," Vancleaf
Genelle Guzman, an administrative assistant for the Port
Authority of New York and New Jersey, was working on the 64th
floor of the tower when she felt the building shake.
"I was scared," said Guzman. "They (were) saying an
airplane hit the building. But I had no idea where the
building was hit."
The plane had struck between floors 96 and 103. Guzman
waited for instructions on what to do as the tower above
'There's another plane!'
Across the East River in Brooklyn, New York City's fire
chief, Peter Ganci, and his executive assistant, Steve
Mosiello, watched the horrific scene from Fire Department
"We saw the smoke billowing, the fire, and that people were
in trouble," Mosiello said. "People out there were definitely
They raced across the Brooklyn Bridge in Ganci's car, along
with Danny Nigro, then the fire department's chief of
"I said to Pete, 'This is going to be the worst day we've
ever had.' Little did I know," recalled Nigro.
The three made it to the scene in less than 10 minutes.
Ganci set up a command post on a ramp leading to a garage near
the north tower.
"We were standing with the chief and we heard somebody
yell, 'There's another plane!'" Mosiello recalled. "Then it
came into the range of my hearing. And it sounded louder and
louder and louder and there it was ... it went right into the
building, into (the south tower). Now we have a real problem
on our hands. We have two buildings hit by planes. Thousands
and thousands of people trapped."
'A sick vibration'
Up in the north tower, Guzman was making frantic calls to
the Port Authority police, trying to get advice on what to do.
The 31-year-old native of Trinidad also made calls to her
family and friends. She left a message on her boyfriend's
voice mail: "Honey, I'm staying inside of the building. I
don't know ... we have to wait until somebody comes (to) get
us out. Okay? I'll try and call you back again. Bye. I love
Meanwhile, at the base of the north tower, the firefighters
from Engine 7 arrived and stopped to extinguish flames on some
of the people who were rushing from the building. Then they
headed into the building with dozens of other firefighters.
"While we were up, operating on the 21st floor, there was a
sick vibration in the building," Vancleaf said.
Although Vancleaf did not realize it at the time, the
vibration he felt was from the collapse of the south tower
"After that vibration, it was just something that wasn't
right, and eventually I heard the order to vacate, to back
out, to evacuate the building," he said.
Mosiello (above) was the top aide to Fire Chief
Pete Ganci, who perished during the collapse of
the north tower.
Chaos on the ground
Down below, the streets were filled with panicked people
and clouds of smoke and debris from the south tower collapse.
Chief Ganci and his assistants managed to escape from their
makeshift command post and retreat into the basement of a
"The basement was full of dust. You couldn't breathe,"
Mosiello said. "We couldn't find a way to get out. We finally
found a staircase and we all got out."
Ganci told his men to set up a command post in a safer
location, further north of the disaster. He ordered Mosiello
to retrieve some backup. And then the fire chief rushed back
toward the scene to help with the rescue efforts.
The order to separate came as a surprise to Mosiello. As
the chief's top aide, his job was to protect his boss and
never to leave his side. Off-duty, the two were just as close
-- they were best friends.
Ganci had helped Mosiello find a home, right across the
street from his own, in Massapequa, New York. The two worked
on each other's house. They played golf together, betting a
dime a hole.
"It was a marriage," said Christopher Ganci, describing the
relationship between his father and his top aide. "I don't
want to make my mom jealous or anything, but it definitely
was. He spent more time with my father than we did."
The two men usually began their day before sunrise.
"I would get up early in the morning, 4:15, put the coffee
on, open the back door to my deck, go take a shower, do my
routine, and I'd come down and he'd be sitting there waiting
for me," Mosiello said. "He'd be drinking his coffee and
The morning of September 11, Ganci had jury duty and
Mosiello was supposed to drive him to court instead of the
"We're passing one of the parkways that would have brought
us toward the courts and I said, 'Do you want to go to jury
duty and make an appearance?'" Mosiello recalled. "He said,
'Steve, I have so many meetings today. You know, we just can't
get there today.'"
September 11, 2001, two hijacked airplanes crashed
into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Neither tower proved strong enough to withstand
the crashes and both collapsed soon after being
'I'm going to die here'
Vancleaf and a fellow firefighter from Engine 7, Pat Zoda,
had followed the orders to vacate the building and made it
safely to the bottom of the north tower.
"We just got to the lobby and there was no one there. It
looked like the end of the world," Zoda said.
Guzman was not far behind. After waiting almost an hour for
assistance, she had decided to make her own way down from her
office on the 64th floor. She and colleagues from her office
had reached the stairwell of the 13th floor when they heard a
"We fell, we fell to the ground," Guzman said. "And then
everything started crumbling, faster and heavier, and
everything just kept falling."
The building was collapsing on top of them.
Guzman's boyfriend, Roger McMillen, was waiting on a corner
a few blocks away for Guzman to come down from the north tower
when he saw the building begin to collapse. He and the other
terrified people on the street ran for their life as clouds of
soot and debris rolled in. He thought Guzman was dead.
Miraculously, Guzman was alive but she was in serious
trouble. Her head was pinned between two concrete pillars and
her legs were trapped in the staircase. The colleagues who had
been with her were all gone. Her thoughts turned to her
12-year-old daughter, Kimberly. She drifted in and out of
consciousness until the light peeking through the concrete
eventually gave way to darkness.
"I saw it became dark and no one came ... and I'm not
hearing any noises." She thought, "I'm not going to make it.
I'm going to die here. I'm going to see myself slowly dying."
Mosiello was also thinking the worst about Chief Ganci's
fate. The north tower collapsed minutes after his boss radioed
him to give his location.
"I kept trying to reach him and I got no response,"
Monsiello said. "It was so eerie because the chaos of the
radios at a fire scene, there's always conversations going on.
And after that building came down you heard absolutely
nothing. Nothing at all."
'Where is everybody?'
By dusk, the firefighters of Engine 7 began making their
way back to their station.
"The first person I saw there was the captain, Captain
Tardio," said Vancleaf. "His first question to me was, where
One by one, the firefighters returned. The entire team had
escaped the north tower with just minutes to spare before the
building came down.
"I believe if we were two more floors up we would have been
dead," said Zoda.
Chief Ganci was not so lucky.
His body was later found buried under four feet of debris.
Mosiello helped recover his remains from the rubble, then had
to give the Ganci family the bad news.
"Here I am, his best friend, his closest friend, his aide,
his executive assistant, his driver -- everybody," Mosiello
said. "And I'm standing before them and he's not."
At the time, about 4,000 people, including 343 firefighters
and Genelle Guzman, remained missing.
Guzman, with the Port Authority, was in the north
tower as it crumbled. She was found and rescued
after being trapped for 27 hours.
'I felt the fireman hold my hand'
The morning of September 12, smoke billowed from the pile
of rubble that once was the World Trade Center. The New York
Fire Department pressed on with the rescue effort, despite its
"The next day ... after I woke up, I started to pray
again," said Guzman, who remained trapped under tons of
debris. "I asked God to show me a miracle, show me a sign that
I'm going to get out of here today and not the next day. And
so it happened that I heard noises ... like people moving
stuff. And I yelled out and ... someone answered me."
It was 27 hours after the tower's collapse.
"I took a piece of concrete and I knocked the stair above
me. And then they heard the knocking and they decided to come
closer," she recalled. "And then I put my hand through a
little crack ... and I felt the fireman hold my hand. And he
said, 'I got you.' And I said, 'Thank God!'"
She was the last person pulled alive from the rubble.
When Roger McMillen received notification that his
girlfriend had been found and was at Bellevue Hospital, he
thought perhaps they wanted him to come down to identify her
body. Instead, he found Guzman alive, although barely
recognizable, due to the swelling that distorted her face.
"We both cried," he said.
'I feel guilty every day'
On the Saturday following the attacks, the body of
54-year-old Pete Ganci was laid to rest. The 15-mile
procession from the church to the graveyard was lined with
civilians and firefighters paying their respects to Ganci -- a
leader, a neighbor, a friend, a husband and a father.
"I look at my mom and I see how strong she is but I know
she's hurting," said Chris Ganci. "I try to be there for her
because my father would want me to be. And my sister ... the
first thing she said was, 'Who is going to walk me down the
aisle when I get married?'"
Some of Engine 7's firefighters are among those who report
daily to help in the grim recovery effort.
"I feel guilty every day, every morning. I don't know why,"
said Vancleaf. "I guess that's part of surviving something
like that. I stood next to people that are no longer here."
After three surgeries and five weeks of hospitalization,
Guzman still requires a brace to walk and must undergo
grueling physical therapy twice a week. She suffers from
nightmares and is disturbed by loud noises.
But she feels extremely lucky. She and McMillen became
engaged on November 7 and she is hopeful that she will be able
to dance with him at their wedding.
"I'm just so thankful to be here that I can see my life in
a completely different direction," she said. "I just want to
have a family, be close to my family. And just give praise and
thanks for being here."
Ganci's grieving family finds some solace in his legacy.
"Would I want my father here to spend time with, to talk
to? Of course," said Chris Ganci. "But he played his part that
day. He was a true hero. There's not that many times you can
go around and say that your father's a real all-American
Mosiello now drives alone to the fire department each day.
But he still rises at 4:15 a.m., puts on the coffee and
unlocks the door.
"There isn't a time I don't look over at his house and
think about him, think about his family," Mosiello said. "It's
getting easier. I'm sure it's getting easier for them. But it
will never be easy."