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Published: Sunday, 9/11/2011

Pennsylvania woman reflects on close call

BY SALLY KALSON
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
Judy Colfer of Greensburg, Pa., was attending a seminar on the 55th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower when an airliner struck the building. Judy Colfer of Greensburg, Pa., was attending a seminar on the 55th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower when an airliner struck the building.
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE / ANDREW RUSH Enlarge

GREENSBURG, Pa. -- Ten years later, Judy Colfer's nightmares have stopped. She no longer sees the face of the New York City firefighter with the piercing blue eyes every time she closes her own. But she still remembers every detail of his face and every moment of Sept. 11, 2001, as if it happened 10 minutes ago.

"I don't think it's ever going to leave me," said Ms. Colfer, now 60, seated on a sofa in her Greensburg home.

She was in New York City that day for the first time, to attend a seminar on the 55th floor of the World Trade Center for her company, Mine Safety Appliances. Her husband, Gene, had just told her by phone to go straight up to the observation deck for the most spectacular view she'd ever see.

"I know you," he said. "If you don't go before the meeting, you'll never go."

Ms. Colfer didn't take her husband's advice, which is why she's alive to tell the story. But he spent the rest of that excruciating day thinking he'd sent her to her death.

Only a few minutes into the meeting, the building rocked. The people in the room didn't know it was American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston crashing into the upper floors of the north tower.

"Projectors flew, book cases came apart," she said. "Outside the window there was metal and debris falling through the air."

Security personnel started funneling people into the stairwell.

"It was a mass of people," she said. "Everyone was afraid, but it was quiet, no crying or screaming."

Slowly they descended. A man's pager went off, and he yelled out that an airplane had hit the building.

A New York City fire lieutenant came running up the stairs. He grabbed Ms. Colfer and asked what floor she'd come from, trying to determine how far the fire had spread. Then he told her, "You'll make it out of here," and kept climbing.

"He had piercing blue eyes," Ms. Colfer said. "I can see that man like he's right in front of me. I don't think he ever made it out."

On the 35th floor, firefighters began throwing them water bottles and paper towels, telling everyone to soak the towels and hold them over their faces to breathe. The smell of diesel fuel was overpowering.

By the 10th floor, she thought she might get out alive.

About 50 minutes after the plane hit -- "It seemed like hours," she said -- Ms. Colfer was on the first floor in water up to her knees from the sprinkler system.

"An officer said, 'When I open this door, you're going to walk into a wall of water. Hold on to the person in front of you and run.' We ran up a ramp and the guards were hollering, 'Run, run, run for your life!'

"We ran across the mall area. The elevator shafts were on fire. Firemen were on top of people trying to revive them. On the street we saw things falling, not realizing they were people. Then came a God-awful noise, a horrific white cloud, and it was totally silent.

"The cloud was so thick I couldn't see my hands. I started screaming. A woman said 'Reach out your hand,' wrapped hers around mine, and we ran toward the Brooklyn Bridge. We were covered in soot."

A Puerto Rican cab driver called them over in broken English and picked them up. At Ms. Colfer's urging, they also stopped for a young man, Mark. He insisted she come back to his place, and he took her to a pay phone to call her husband and their two sons, ages 10 and 13. Mr. Colfer's relief came over the phone like a gale-force wind.

"I didn't think we were going to have a piece of you left to bury," he said.

Ms. Colfer spent two days at Mark's apartment with his girlfriend and some others -- "We drank a hell of a lot of Jack Daniel's" -- until some colleagues from work came for her in a car and drove her home.

She still hears from Mark once in awhile.

"He changed jobs and moved to the South," she said. "He couldn't take the stress of being in the city."

Her sons wanted her to stop traveling after that, but, she said, "I was flying on a business trip two months later. You can't be afraid, you have to find the courage to keep going. You have to teach your children not to live in fear."

For a long time she wondered why she'd survived when so many others didn't. Then Gene Colfer was given a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and died in 2004.

"I said, 'OK, now I know why I survived. Somebody had to be there for the boys.' "

Still, she had nightmares for years, and every time she closed her eyes she saw the face of the firefighter with the piercing blue eyes. Her doctor told her that survivor's guilt was normal and that sharing her story with others would help.

"I have a lot of good friends, and they're there for me," she said.

She also speaks sometimes to different groups and was planning to do so again yesterday at a memorial service at Swissvale (Pa.) Presbyterian Church.

"I got out of that building by the grace of God, the Port Authority Police, and the New York City Fire Department," she said. But when the anniversary comes around, she stays close to home.

"Every year on 9/11, I go to Shanksville," she said. "I've never been back to New York."

Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sally Kalson is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette; contact her at: skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.



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