‘Stay calm, keep moving. You’re getting out of here.’ The firefighter lifted me up. The lights faded, water filling at my feet. Panic set in.’: 9/11 survivor thanks firefighter for saving her life, ‘I will  live each day to its fullest, never in vain of his heroism’

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“I graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University in May 2001. I moved back to my hometown of Cleveland for that summer where I’d find a job and work until I started law school the following year at Case Western Reserve University. Towards the beginning of August, I received a call from my former employer, Sidley Austin, in New York City where I had worked as a legal intern during my senior year of college. They wanted me to return to the firm as a legal assistant and hire me for the year before I started law school. I was ecstatic. I loved working there. My sister was going to start her freshman year at Barnard later that month and I would be able to look after her and show her the ropes.  

I moved back to New York City at the same time my sister did. I couldn’t wait to share this milestone of her freshman year. I returned to Sidley Austin at the end of August 2001. After leaving my small and wholesome suburb of Moreland Hills, Ohio, I made a promise to my mother that I would call her every morning at 8:45 a.m. when I arrived at work. New York City was a big move for both of her daughters and she wanted to make sure I was safe. On this clear, sunny Tuesday, September 11, 2001, she did not receive my call at 8:45 a.m. 

I arrived in the lobby of the World Trade Center through the Church Street entrance as I normally did off the bus. The head legal assistant left his position to pursue another career path after training me when I started in August. His last day at the firm was the day before. I would be on my own without his guidance, but I was thrilled to take on my legal assistant responsibilities in the Public Finance Department of the firm. The World Trade Center had 110 floors. My office was on the 56th floor. To get to the 56th floor, there was a two-step process: 1) I would take the express elevator from the lobby to the 44th floor, then 2) I would transfer to the local elevators which would take me to the 56th floor. 

There were a series of elevator banks once you reached the 44th floor. There was an escalator that would take employees to the 45th floor where a large cafeteria resided and where I often got turkey burgers for lunch. Next to the escalator were elevator banks to take employees to the higher floors. After arriving at the 44th floor, I crossed the expansive hallway and made my way to my elevator bank, which would take me to the 56th floor. I pressed the up-arrow elevator button. It was at that very moment, I heard a very loud crash and the building had started to shake violently. Then, it felt like the tower dropped and sank. 

My first thought was, ‘We just had an earthquake.’ As strange as it would have been for there to be an earthquake in New York City, the thought of a commercial jetliner plowing into my building was unimaginable. I stood there alone, 22 years old, not knowing what the next best course of action would be. None of my colleagues were with me. Our day started around 9:30 a.m., so many hadn’t even arrived at the office yet. But, determined to be in the comfort of people I knew, my next action was to continue to press the up-arrow elevator button, so I could take the elevator up to the 56th floor to my office. It wasn’t the smartest choice, but having not known what had occurred, I wanted to be with my people. Thankfully, the elevator light kept flickering on and off. It no longer worked and I was forced to stay on the 44th floor.             

Wondering what to do next, I saw a frightened tall, heavy-set gentleman run through the hallway. I thought, ‘If he is scared, then I probably should be too.’ I stepped out into the hallway to follow him. I turned my head quickly to look out the long, slim windows of my building (of which I would never look out again), and saw a horrific scene of flying debris, heavy smoke, and an assault of papers. Not wanting to lose sight of the gentleman I was following, I ran closely at his heels into the closest emergency stairwell. The mood in the stairwell was calm and wasn’t crowded at that moment. It wasn’t 9:00 a.m. yet people didn’t start to come in until 9:30 a.m. That was the silver lining in this nightmare: many hadn’t gotten to work yet and were saved by the timing of the attack on the North Tower.

I was able to get down the first couple of flights easily, but then smoke had started to fill the stairwell as people started filtering in from the other floors. None of us knew what had happened. We did not have smartphones at that time. I pulled out my Motorola Startac flip phone to make a call to my mom, who I knew would be worried since I hadn’t called her right around our scheduled time in the morning. But the signal would drop each time I tried calling. The phone lines were being swamped. In the stairwell, I’d listen in on people’s conversations to get any sort of information.

Courtesy of Shumi Brody

One businessman said, ‘I have a meeting at 11:00 a.m. I hope they clear this whole matter up before that time.’ A couple of women chattered to each other and opened the doors to other floors smelling for smoke. ‘I don’t smell smoke on this floor. Let’s get out here and wait for instruction.’ Despite their actions, I continued down the stairs, not knowing anyone in the stairwell and preferred awaiting instructions from my firm once I was out of the building. 

It was clear no one had gotten the real scoop. I had heard from other conversations that there had been a kitchen fire in the 45th floor cafeteria. One woman covered in black ash was brought into the stairwell, and we all moved to the right side, so she could make her way through. After looking at her, I thought, ‘This must be some serious kitchen fire.’ As we continued to head down, the stairwell started to get more crowded. People were making their way in from the other floors. Word had gotten out to evacuate the building, but for what reason, no one knew.  

Around the 35th floor, there was a locked door in the emergency stairwell. It was very bizarre. Why would there be a locked door in an emergency stairwell? A facilities worker who was in the stairwell tried every key on his key ring to get the door unlocked. I’m not sure if it were him or the firefighters behind the door that finally got it open. The entire ordeal seemed to cost us about 10 minutes. As the firefighters started making their way up the stairs, I seemed to stumble down a few stairs while heading down. One of the firefighters lifted me up, despite the heavy equipment he was carrying.

He soothingly said, ‘Stay calm, keep moving. You’re getting out of here.’ At that moment, I knew there was something more wrong than just a kitchen fire. During this entire time, I continued to try and phone my mother, almost angry she hadn’t tried to reach me first. Was she aware of this kitchen fire? Was it on the news? If she didn’t know, what the heck was she doing this morning? What was my dad doing? Why hadn’t my sister tried to call from Barnard somehow? Maybe she was in class. My brother was 13 years old at the time, so he was in school.  

Courtesy of Shumi Brody

Heeding the words of my firefighter, I stood up straight and tried as swiftly, yet as peacefully as I could, to make my way down amongst the crowds in the stairwell, while he continued his brave journey up towards the danger. From my descent from the 35th to the 11th floor, smoke started filling the air. We were handed towels from one of the building’s employees. I covered my mouth and nose and ‘charged’ ahead, hoping to make my firefighter proud.

Around the 11th floor, the lights started to flicker on and off. It began to get extremely hot – the air no longer was being circulated. The crowding of the stairwell made it even worse. Water started to fill in the stairwell – the water pipes had burst. With the lights starting to fade, the water filling at our feet, and the stale air, panic started to set in for us. The inability to see properly made our escape a bit more difficult. We began to hold onto the shoulders of the people ahead of us, in hopes of having them guide the way out of the stairwell. This went on for 11 flights of stairs. Then a door opened and light streamed in. We had reached the lobby of the North Tower, the same place where I had started my ascent over an hour ago.  

 The evacuation procedure was orchestrated so beautifully. Just as one would expect the conductor of the New York Symphony to lead his musicians. In this unprecedented nightmare, the first responders knew the drill so well, as if they had been through this scenario thousands of times before. As I reached the lobby, there was a bit more of a fast jog in my step than the casual walk. I had a heartfelt moment where I turned to look outside toward the WTC Plaza to catch a glimpse of the globe structure that sat outside. I often had lunch with friends in the courtyard. It was destroyed. My memories of happiness were all I had left. As we exited the building toward the Hudson River, I stood outside looking up at my building. I not only noticed the huge gaping hole in it, but also stared at the horror of the South Tower. This was more than a kitchen fire. Everything we were told in order to keep calm was a lie, but it allowed so many of us to escape.  

Moments after I had turned my body to head north on West Street from Vesey, I heard the loudest rumble I’ve ever heard in my life (and hopefully will ever hear). People screamed ‘Run!’ as thousands of people ran as if to be in a full sprint running event. The South Tower was collapsing. It had fallen first. Even after evacuating the building, we were not safe. The real terror and chaos set in for us after we had left the building. I saw people being trampled trying to run away from the building. If you re-watch news broadcasts of people covered in white debris and black ash, I was one of those people. At this point, it was 10:00 a.m., and I had still not been able to contact my family. My cousin who worked nearby the tower screamed my name in desperation. As if, in that chaos, I’d ever hear her. My family friend, whom I’ve known as my uncle, drove from his hospital in Long Island towards Ground Zero, as close as he could get to the site. He began his search to find me. All in love and desperation to hear some word of my safety.    

The South Tower, while it was hit second, had fallen first. It was hit lower in the building and at an angle. It could not hold strong for as long as the North Tower did, which was hit straight through the top floors. I was able to run out of harm’s way for the time being at a bodega, where I saw people huddled around a small TV in the trunk of a car. It was then I learned two commercial jetliners had crashed into the WTC. And one had hit the Pentagon. And that one plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, whose target at that time was presumed to be the White House. All public transportation had ceased: taxis were occupied, subways, ferries, and buses had stopped operating. I started walking the seven miles north to my sister’s dorm room.  

I finally was able to contact my parents from a payphone after both towers had collapsed. To say I felt more pain for my parents than the nightmare I witnessed firsthand is an understatement. I always felt I had control of the situation. My firefighter had lifted me up figuratively and literally and gave me the will to move forward. His soothing delivery of words encouraged me to keep progressing through the stairwell calmly yet allowed me to process something beyond a kitchen fire had taken shape. For my parents, they thought I hadn’t made it. My father was going to start making funeral arrangements. The worst-case scenario was all who were in the building had not made it out was a truth believed by many.  

Courtesy of Shumi Brody

My father is a physician at the Cleveland Clinic and has been there for nearly 40 years. That day, one of the nurses on his team asked for him to look at the television since she knew I worked at the WTC. He saw the North Tower had been hit but did not know which tower I worked in. He had been proud his daughter had gotten a job at the WTC, and that’s all he needed to know. When he saw the North Tower had been hit, he prayed I was in the South Tower. When the South Tower was hit, he held onto hope I was the stubborn, strong-willed child I had always been growing up and I was finding a way out. After both towers fell, and my parents’ repeated efforts to contact me failed, their hopes of me being alive had diminished until my phone call to my mother from the payphone was answered.   

Courtesy of Shumi Brody   

The pain only set in after surviving this event. The Survivor’s Guilt I felt consumed my being. There were so many children who lost their parents in this attack. Why I had survived wasn’t fair. I was single and didn’t have children. I was one of three children to my parents. My siblings still had each other, and my parents had their two other children. It wasn’t until I met my husband in 2005 in Cleveland, that I began to love life again. I didn’t need a man to feel love, but my husband, Alfie, was the person who showed me I had a purpose and I was given a gift.

I met Alfie during my third and final year of law school. I struggled with what I wanted to do after law school, not knowing if I deserved happiness. Through that time, Alfie was by my side, never tiring of my 9/11 stories, always wanting to know more, and helping me see the beauty in life. We traveled a lot together, went to many sporting events, and never tired of our thriving social life. We got engaged in Cairo, Egypt with my family present and married a year later on November 11, 2006, in a traditional Indian ceremony. We moved from Cleveland to New York City, where I was ready to return to start a new life and a family – back to the city, which had given me another chance.  

Courtesy of Shumi Brody
Courtesy of Shumi Brody
Courtesy of Shumi Brody
Courtesy of Shumi Brody
Courtesy of Shumi Brody
Courtesy of Shumi Brody

We had our first child, Rania, in 2009, who became the center of our universe the second she was born. She brought Alfie and me so much joy and continues to do so with her bubbly personality, her talents, and her love and respect for all people. Just when we thought our love couldn’t grow anymore, we were blessed with identical twin girls on 7/7 in 2015. I felt that the Twin Towers I had loved so much had returned to me. I never took a day I worked there for granted. I was proud each day I got to go into work. The structure of the Towers held strong and allowed so many to escape with the help of first responders, like my firefighter. I will raise my twins, like their older sister, to be like those pillars of strength.

Courtesy of Shumi Brody
Courtesy of Shumi Brody

Just this past Labor Day Weekend, we drove to Manhattan Beach for a safe getaway. We randomly drove past the Manhattan Beach Fire Department where two of the metal structures from the World Trade Center stood. I’ve thought daily about the people who have reached out with their own WTC stories, including those whose parents died on 9/11. This allowed us to grieve together and to find comfort and peace in moving forward with life while remembering those who were heroes that day and forever. Seeing those towers brought back memories of 9/11. I took my children to see the structures. I touched the metal and said, ‘Thank you for holding strong for me and for countless others.’  

Courtesy of Shumi Brody

I regret not taking a long, hard look at the firefighter who gave me his encouraging words. I wish I would have. I wish I at least would have looked at his fire department’s number on his helmet. I would have reached out to his family and let them know what a hero he was to me and so many others. I hope in some way, he knows what he has done for my life and I will continue to live each day to its fullest, never in vain of his heroism.”

Courtesy of Shumi Brody
Courtesy of Shumi Brody

Watch Shumi’s accompanying video here.

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Shumi Brody of Marin County, California. You can follow her journey on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTokSubmit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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