Karen and Miriam: two bodies, one heart survive Sept. 11 tragedy
Walking into World Trade Center Tower 1 a year ago today, Miriam Goodman was enjoying a warm fall morning in New York.
It was another day to take the train from Long Island to Penn Station. Another transfer to the New York subway, which had a station under her office building.
Like every other work day, Miriam crossed the marble floors of the lobby just after 8 a.m. on her way to a bank of elevators. That morning, she stepped on the elevator — one of 104 in the building — with just one other man. Both leaned over and pushed the button for Floor 29.
“This is our lucky day,” he said.
Miriam smiled to him and thought to herself, “Yeah, I guess it is.”
In retrospect, lucky doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Neither could have known that minutes before they stepped on the elevator, American Airlines Flight 11 had left Boston’s Logan International Airport bound for Los Angeles.
Neither could have known that in another matter of minutes, the Boeing 767 would be heading for their office building, no longer a plane but a fuel-laden bomb flown by men bent on destruction.
In the offices of insurance company Empire Blue Cross, Miriam had been back to work as a manager for provider relations for just six weeks after a leave of absence. Tuesday, Sept. 11, she was entering information from some business cards into her computer when she decided she needed a cup of coffee.
Miriam got up, swinging her purse over her shoulder. Business cards still in hand, she headed for the elevator for a trip down 29 floors to get her coffee.
But her boss stopped her. For several minutes, they chatted. Amid aimless chatter she can’t recall, she heard the roar, an indescribable sound she will forever hear in her mind.
It was American Airlines Flight 11 exploding above her on floors 94 through 98.
In the shadow of Carson City’s Lakeview Hill, Karen Wyman woke up to her usual favorite scene — the Sierra and a bright blue sky. Around 6:40 a.m., she wandered to her car to head to the gym, where she would meet her personal trainer for a workout.
As she turned the key, the radio came on, blaring a story she couldn’t believe. Planes crashing? World Trade Center? Pentagon?
It must be a story, she thought as she switched the station. Sort of like “War of the Worlds” from the 1950s, the Martian invasion story that sent a nation into a panic.
But each radio station told the same story.
The nation was under attack. Commercial jetliners had slammed into both towers of the World Trade Center, and another plane crashed at the Pentagon in her hometown of Washington, D.C.
Her best friend worked in the World Trade Center. Miriam.
She picked up her cell phone for a frantic call to Scott, Miriam’s husband of 32 years.
“Scott, what the hell’s going on back there?”
His voice cracked.
“I don’t know where she is.”
It felt and sounded like an earthquake. The building literally bent, but what could have made it rock four feet in either direction? Miriam suspected it was a construction accident. Someone was always working on or around the building, adding an annex here, remodeling an office there.
Looking out the windows, Miriam could see debris falling from the upper floors. But from what? At a time like that, everything happens in split seconds. In those seconds, perhaps enough to fill a full minute, nobody moved. Nobody panicked.
But Miriam finally found the voice to yell.
“Everybody leave now!”
There was no chaos at 8:47 a.m. Women picked up their purses, men their jackets and they walked toward the stairwells.
Miriam and a coworker, Terry Brown, ran together toward the stairwells in an attempt to escape whatever was happening above them. Passing the elevators, they could hear trapped people banging against the doors, begging for help that would never come.
Miriam and Terry started down a stairwell jammed with workers, some scared, some calm, some with memories of the 1993 bombing weighing on their minds. Terry wasn’t so calm. Somewhere around the 23rd floor, a woman came into the stairwell, shaken and wailing. Miriam didn’t have time to ponder her own fears. Between Terry holding on to her, and finding the strength to help another man support the second woman, Miriam found a way to keep her composure.
Except there was that smell. It permeated the stairwell. Diesel fuel, she thought, and it just got stronger and stronger. So strong she couldn’t tell if she were walking toward or away from the disaster. Someone started handing out Kleenexes so people could cover their noses to dampen the smell of the jet fuel spilling down the elevator shafts.
By then, people were feeling panic. Then the line slowed down around the ninth floor, and for a brief moment Miriam started to lose her composure.
Why are they stopping? Let’s go, let’s go!
The stairwell had been reduced to a single-file line to let firefighters pass.
As Miriam and thousands of others were fleeing, the firefighters were headed up and needed room to get through. They never let on how bad things really were. They muttered to people as they filed by that a plane had crashed. Like so many others, Miriam thought it an accident, surely a small plane. The looks on the firefighters faces as they passed, though, bore testimony that something more awful had happened.
She caught the eye of a red-haired fireman. He looked scared to death.
That’s when it hit her. She may never see her 3-month-old grandson Joshua grow up.
The car was on autopilot. Karen drove to the gym in a daze. No one there was working out, though. They stared at televisions tuned to the disaster coverage.
So she turned around and went home, thinking of her friend .
Miriam always says they are “two bodies, one heart.” They met on a Caribbean cruise in 1989, two women with the same sense of style who enjoyed a similar sense of humor and had shared values. Although they lived 3,000 miles apart, they became the best of friends, travel companions who joked they would grow old together.
Karen couldn’t fathom a future without Miriam in it.
She walked back into her house and called Scott again.
He still didn’t know where Miriam was.
She tried to call her sister, Judith, also a Manhattan resident. An acting instructor, Judith didn’t work downtown, but not being able to find her added another layer of fear to Karen’s mind. Karen, who owns her own consultant company, couldn’t work. She recognized the threat under which she, her friend, her country had been placed.
She called her daughter in Reno to share with her the horrible emotions of the moment.
By the time she thought to turn on a television, the Pentagon had been hit. Both towers had fallen. Was Miriam in them?
Over 3,000 miles away, all Karen could do was sob as she watched the horror continue to unfold.
Somewhere in the stairwell, Miriam and Terry started taking the stairs nine at a time. By the time they reached the lobby, Miriam thought they were actually in the basement. Marble and glass from the walls was strewn about the floors, and people streaming from the stairwells were scrambling over the rubble in a mad dash to the neighboring Marriott Hotel.
As they passed through the security turnstiles, it hit her that she was in the lobby of the World Trade Center, rendered unrecognizable by the force of the plane crash. How could a plane do this?
The mass of people was pushed by police and Port Authority officials to the Marriott. A woman sitting in front of the hotel’s revolving door was charred black, but Miriam thought she was merely covered in smoke. Miriam found herself herded to the back of the hotel when she heard a rescue worker yell, “Why are you taking them here? It’s a supply closet.”
It took 18 minutes to get from the 29th floor to the closet in the Marriott. It was 18 minutes between the first plane crash and the crash of United Airlines flight 175 into Two World Trade Center. No one on the ground could comprehend what that explosion could be. With the second explosion, rescue workers told her to put something over her head, don’t look up, and run.
Miriam, Terry and another co-worker, David, ran. Outside, military, FBI agents, emergency service workers from all agencies were scrambling. Above, she could hear fighter jets screaming through the sky. Women’s purses and shoes were scattered, abandoned as people fled.
Although she had worked in the city for years, she had never walked around Manhattan. She and Scott, a retired New York policeman, lived in Seaford outside the city. They had done everything together since they wed as 19-year-old sweethearts. She always relied on him to get her through the city. But Miriam had to survive this alone.
David helped guide her and Terry. They walked south toward the Hudson River and Battery Park before heading north to Chinatown. After an hour of walking, Miriam took off her black high heels and walked for another two hours barefoot.
As the threesome trekked through Chinatown toward SoHo, someone yelled, “The building came down!”
Miriam turned around. No, it didn’t. Smoke was obscuring the view.
Then she realized the smoke was the building. Soon, people covered in a strange, gray ash were running by her.
Unknown to her, family and friends had desperately tried to call her cell phone. She was in Chinatown hours later before she found an unoccupied pay phone to call Scott and tell her she was alive.
He just cried.
He told her the Pentagon also had been hit. Miriam began to realize then what had happened. How lucky she was.
It was hours later when Miriam broke down, after her cell phone started working and her son, Chris, finally got through. He told her to keep walking down Third Avenue — he and his sister, Allison, were coming to find her. When she saw two of her three children and realized she would make it home, she lost her composure.
As she reached Chris’ apartment, her phone rang again.
It was Karen, crying hysterically.
Miriam simply cried with her.
In January, Karen flew to New York to be with Miriam at Ground Zero.
Karen’s sister compared the missing towers to the Sierra. Always there, an ever-present part of Nevada. Strip away the mountains — that’s what it feels like in New York to have a gaping hole in the skyline.
Miriam and Karen took a photo before their visit to Ground Zero. Two friends who know they have a future away from the pain of Sept. 11, a future of two rebellious women traveling the world.
But the world had to wait a few hours while Miriam went back to the southern tip of Manhattan.
Miriam got them to the front of a line of people waiting to view the eight-story-deep pit of the World Trade Center. They walked up together, arm in arm, to see what looked like a construction site.
Miriam looked in. “My building was there,” she murmured.
Turning away in horror, she began to tell Karen what happened that day.
Miriam knows she was spared the worst nightmares. She didn’t have to make a choice whether to jump from an 80-story window or burn to death. She didn’t have to see her co-workers die around her. She knows she’s blessed.
Many of the people who helped Miriam escape didn’t get out. Her company lost 11 employees. Eight were stuck in the elevators.
Karen knows there are thousands who didn’t get the phone call she received Sept. 11. Thousands who didn’t say a prayer thanking God for the life of a loved one.
For three months, Miriam worked from home before the company found a place in the city to relocate its workers while constructing a new office in Brooklyn.
It was hard to make that first commute. But one of her first days back, she saw the man with whom she’d shared an elevator that Tuesday. They hugged each other, knowing it had been their lucky day.