There was a misting spring rain the day I met Genelle Guzman-McMillan at a busy Sydney café. I was running a little late for our appointment and caught sight of her from across the road, standing near the cafe entrance in a smart charcoal dress and heels, her short bob neatly parted down the side.
When I introduced myself, Guzman-McMillan flashed me a tentative smile, as if somewhat shy to meet someone new. It came as a surprise, considering she had admitted that as a child in Trinidad, she loved performing in talent competitions and wanted to “perform in the limelight and make it big.”
One would think the amount of media attention that had been focused on her this past 10 years would have also seasoned her somewhat. But perhaps it was why she was thrust into the limelight a few days after September 11, 2001 that made her unprepared for the attention. Guzman-McMillan had wanted recognition for her talents. Instead, she will always be known as the last survivor found beneath the World Trade Center rubble after the terrorist attacks in New York City.
“Having the moniker ‘The Last Survivor’ has always been bittersweet for me. Every time I hear those words, they are a stark reminder that nobody after me was found alive.”
Those are the words in the prologue of her book, Angel in the Rubble, published to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The book tells of her experience the day the planes crashed into the buildings, her ordeal of being buried under the rubble for 27 hours and a life-changing experience, with whom she believes was an angel, in the moments before she was miraculously rescued.
As she started to relax during the conversation, Guzman-McMillan became more effusive, possessing a generous dose of laughter which first bubbled forth when I asked her if this was her first visit to Australia.
“It is, most definitely!” she says, eyes sparkling. “And it’s such a long way!”
Hers was a laughter that belonged to someone filled with joy and love in her heart. Guzman-McMillan is not someone who, after losing close friends and work colleagues to a hideous act of terror, was going to let it mar her outlook on life. In fact, it probably strengthened her.
“To be found after so long was truly miraculous, the result of the effort and self-sacrifice of countless strangers with a goodness in their hearts far superior to the evil acts that prompted them to respond. . . . Because of them, and because of the grace of God, I have the opportunity to share my story with the world today,” she wrote.
Pinned on her side after the collapse of the World Trade Center, her head jammed between heavy blocks of concrete and only able to move her left hand, Guzman-McMillan had turned to the God that she grew up with, but chose to reject in adulthood, for help.
During the 27 hours when she was involuntarily paralysed with only her thoughts and regrets about her life to keep her company, Guzman-McMillan found herself praying to God for the first time in a long while. She “found God” while buried under the World Trade Center and true to the promise she made to Him, changed her life around after her rescue, began Bible studies and was baptised a few months later.
“If I’d gotten out of there unhurt, I know I would have been the same old Genelle I was,” she says in a unique American-Caribbean accent. “This tragedy was a wake-up call for me because it transformed me into a much better, caring person and I’m just forever grateful to be part of this new life. I begged for it, I asked God, I begged and I pleaded with Him to give me that second chance, because I wanted to make that change, and I knew genuinely that I was going to make that change and I did.”
Nobody, not even al-Qaeda, who claimed responsibility for the attacks, expected such devastation when they planned for the planes to hit the World Trade Center 10 years ago. The collapse of both the towers came as a surprise and it was that which claimed the many lives.
“I wish it’d never happened,” Guzman-McMillan says when asked what she wished she could forget about that day. “It’s something I will have to live with for the rest of my life. At one point, it happened and somehow it happened for a reason. It changed me, it changed my life and so that’s the positive side to look at it but knowing that my friends are not here, that’s why I wish it had never happened.”
Guzman-McMillan has an amazing ability to see the silver lining in every dark cloud. It isn’t that she is thankful for the September 11 attacks. She is simply thankful to God for giving her a second chance and recognises that her life is much better with Him in it.
“The life I was living before [the attack], I wouldn’t consider myself to be a positive leader back then,” Guzman-McMillan says. “It was just about me; it was just about what I wanted to do—selfish ways—the cheating, the lying, the trying to get ahead and, today, since my life has changed, I think I’ve been such a positive influence to other people’s lives and that I hold dearly. I thank God for transforming me from the inside out. . . . I think the reason I’m [alive today] is to encourage people to step out in faith and live that life according to how God wants us to live our life and for us to know that we can’t do it alone. It’s not our strength, it’s always from a higher strength, and this is what I believe.”
It’s this belief that drives Guzman-McMillan’s life and made her to be the warm and joyous lady that she is. “People think that I’m going to be in total depression, remembering everything each year that comes by, but I want people to know that my faith has become stronger."
Writing her account, however, was not easy, Guzman-McMillan admits. “To relive that whole experience, to put it into writing, in detail, word-by-word, it was very emotional. It was heart-wrenching for me,” she says. “But it feels like it’s therapy for me as well, a healing process. Knowing that the book is out there—and someone who might be going through a similar situation—I feel like I’m giving therapy to that person as well.”
You get a sense that Guzman-McMillan serves a higher purpose outside of herself. The thing that matters is not about her but the kind of impact she can have on others. “[Angel in the Rubble] is not about me. It’s about other people and encouraging them to use their faith as well in overcoming adversity.”
With many predicting a global financial meltdown soon, with people nervous that another major terrorist attack will occur in their city and with many concerned the end of the world is near, as suggested by the Mayan calendar, Guzman-McMillan wants people to know that there is no need to live life in fear.
“Some people go through tragedy in their life and they choose not to go outside, not to go anywhere, they’re so scared. I choose faith over fear. I look at it as this: if it were my time to leave this earth, I would have gone, just like that. But it has to be a bigger plan, a bigger reason for me to be here, so I’ve got to have faith somehow to move forward in this life. It’s scary when you think about it, it’s scary out there. But if we don’t have faith at all to do anything, what good is our life?”
Ten years on, the American war against terror is drawing to a close. When asked if she feels a sense of vindication, a feeling that justice has somewhat been served with the death of Osama bin Laden, leader of al Qaeda and believed mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Guzman-McMillan takes a moment to pause and reflect.
“I’m not going to lie. It feels like a relief because of the families who have been grieving so long, their loved ones gone. I’m sure it brought some kind of closure to the families . . . but I’m not the person to go and celebrate death. . . . I just sit quietly and say, ‘Thank God, it’s all over.’ ”
Again, it’s about those who have been impacted by the events. With a laugh, Guzman-McMillan says that if it had been about her, she would’ve tracked bin Laden down herself for “messing up” her leg.
“I suffered injury, but you know, I’m in a different place. I’m still here and I’m grateful,” she says. “God is my life, my Rock, He’s my biggest support. I know that He’s my Angel and He’s looking out for me, and you know, it’s impossible to do anything without Him. I thank God for 9/11. Despite everything, I got to know Him and I get to be in a deeper, closer relationship with Him and that to me is, that’s all I live for.”
Terrorism may continue to exist, there may soon rise another evil mind like Osama bin Laden, but Guzman-McMillan’s message to the world is simple: pain and suffering will always be around, but God can grant us a peace that surpasses all understanding. Faith will overcome any and all adversity.