By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City — Fifteen years ago, Filipino community leader Juliet Payabyab survived the fires of hell that rained on the cool, unsuspecting morning of September 11, 2001 in lower Manhattan. It was a horrible situation in face of death that she would rather not talk about it.
Juliet, then working in the World Financial Center for the Merrill Lynch, went through medical assistance to be able to recover from the disaster. Her building, attached to the WTC Tower 1 by a walkbridge, was the first to be bombed.
There were 17 Filipinos of the 2900 victims of the horrific bombings. Juliet was one of those who miraculously survived.
Yesterday, in commemoration of 9-11, I asked her if I could run her story. I could still clearly remember her experience as she told me while we were walking through the newly opened Oculus.
“No, no,” the feisty, petite woman leader said. “Not today. I will be triggered with pain and fear,” she told me. I apologized. There goes the journalist in me again, digging in information, forgetting about how people may still hurt.
But then Juliet still generously shared her story, after the sun went down, during dinner. She in fact showed me a copy of the story of survival published by The Filipino Reporter that included a picture of the burning tower which she herself took using the old camera using a roll film.
Fire and Chaos
Juliet and her colleagues ran frantically outside the building as they were immediately ordered to evacuate. She said that she saw people jumping from the towers. “I thought they were debris of fire, but then I realized that they were people who plunged to death on the ground. I was so horrified.”
Some of those coming from her building ran to a convenience store to buy disposable cameras and what nots. Juliet started to run away, like a mob, from the burning Tower 1 after she managed to take a picture of it.
In her account at the Filipino Reporter, the chaos seemed like the one created by King Kong in the movie. After the loud noise of what seemed to be a crash, there was dead silence. A thick black smoke engulfed at them on the ground, and people were soon running and screaming.
Juliet ingested dust into her mouth and nostrils, and her hair was all covered with thick dust. She could feel the dust going down her throat. “I thought I was going to die. I said this is it. I am going to die. I just prayed,” she remembered.
Walking with an Angel
In the midst of the pandemonium and darkness walking towards Battery Park, Juliet was able to walk alongside a tall white woman who was very calm. She told the woman to cover her face because of the dust, but she continued walking. Juliet was covering her face with a sweater while walking.
“She told me that she just came back from Israel and was looking for her husband,” recounted Juliet. “But she was very serene in the midst of chaos.”
They walked for about 15 minutes and the tall lady held her shoulders. Upon reaching Battery Park, the lady held Juliet’s hand and told her to walk left, where the buildings are, while she walked the opposite direction towards the water. She was gone.
When she was alone, Juliet coughed and threw up the dust she ingested. She could not stop thinking about the lady who walked with her and protected her from the debris. Minutes later, some owners of yachts volunteered to bring Juliet and other people to Liberty Island. While they were crossing the Hudson River, Juliet kept looking at the burning site, where did she go?
The survivors, including children, stayed in Liberty Island for two days, in shock of what had happened. There was no food and water. People left, one by one, as they were picked up by their folks.
“I just sat there there until I finally gathered strength to call my sister Ching that I was alive. I told her about what happened and how the tall white lady helped me,” she said.
Juliet’s sister rejoiced and heaved a big sigh of relief and gratitude. “It must be my saint, St. Rita!” she exclaimed.
Ching said she was praying for her safety while watching on TV the horrific bombings. “My prayers were answered,” Ching told Juliet.
Juliet firmly believed that her new life after 9-11 was because she was saved by an angel, through prayers.
But the bombings still send shivers to Juliet to this day. “I am scared of how it happened. And I am also scared that it might happen again. I wanted to be assured that our leaders and the people are prepared. But we will never really know,” she said.
(Juliet Payabyab served as the president of the Philippine American Communities Executive Council at the time of the WTC bombings and she is currently chairperson of the Mindoro International which initiates humanitarian and empowerment programs for Filipinos in the US and in the Philippines
Featured photo is the burning Twin Towers, taken by Juliet on her camera just before they fled away from the bombing sites. Photos first published by the Filipino Reporter).