A Survivor Remembers: 18 Years After 9/11
She survived 9/11, now she’s an advocate for first responders; a Horizon employee’s story.
It was a regular Tuesday morning. As Wendy Lanski stood up from her desk on the 29th floor of the World Trade Center she felt a crash and the whole building shook.
Wendy saw debris out of the corner of her eye through the window.
There were no bells, no whistles or alarms. Nothing, except a feeling that something wasn’t right.
Eighteen years after that fateful day – September 11, 2001 – Wendy speaks often about the harrowing tale of her escape from the World Trade Center.
And while being a 9/11 survivor doesn’t define her life, she feels it is her duty to share her remembrances anytime she’s asked about the terrorist attacks that unalterably changed our nation – and, especially, of the many brave, selfless and kind acts displayed that day.
“Literally an entire generation has been born since 9/11. For school kids, it could seem like it was 100 years ago,” explains Wendy, a manager for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield New Jersey (BCBSNJ) since 2015. “But when I’m telling my story, maybe they can relate to me. Maybe I look like their aunt or their mom or their neighbor, and it’s not just something that happened ‘to those people on television.'”
“I’m a real person who survived, one who benefitted from the kindness of so many strangers. No, you can’t stop terrorism singlehandedly. But we can all do something -- a good deed or a kind word – that can make a difference.”
Since 9/11, Wendy has strived to make a difference by supporting the first responders (and their families) who were injured or killed that day, as well as fellow survivors. She has served as a board member of Strength to Strength, a support group for victims of terrorism throughout the world, and she has also served as chairman of a similar group, the Victims’ Advisory Council.
They are roles she believes are important, although – in her view – they should be unnecessary. “There is a segment of the population that feels survivors have to move on and we should focus only on the deceased,” Wendy once wrote in a blog post. “(But) the deceased are why the survivors need to be heard! Their voices are extinguished, and we need to keep the eternal flame of their memories lit forever.”
Numerous people – most of them strangers – made a life-saving difference for Wendy on 9/11. Here, in her own words, is her story of fear and disbelief and sadness, but also strength and courage and hope for a better tomorrow.
What did you do when the attacks began?
It’s 2001. Terrorism never entered my mind. I thought something hit the building – a small plane, maybe. Or an earthquake.
Did you evacuate immediately?
Yes. We all proceeded to the stairway.
Well, not everybody. I found out later that my good friend, Abe Zelmanowitz, stayed behind to wait for a colleague who was a quadriplegic. That’s the type of person Abe was; he was one of the best people I ever knew.
It was a slow process. As you would imagine, every time we’d go down a flight, a door would open and more people would enter. The stairs were so narrow that when the firemen came up, with all their equipment, we had to shimmy our bodies sideways to allow them to pass.
This is before smartphones; people either had beepers or old cellphones. We began hearing that it was a (small) Cessna airplane that hit the building. Obviously tragic, but it wasn’t a ‘run for your life the world is coming to an end’ feeling. That came later.
When did you realize something more serious was happening?
Maybe halfway down, I locked eyes with a first responder who was headed up. And I said to him, ‘What hit my building?’ I have no idea what made me ask that.
And he said, ‘A jet.’ For a second, we all just stopped. I’m a native New Yorker, and I knew jets didn’t fly near the World Trade Center. But I’m thinking it’s an accident; not terrorism. So, we kept going down, and water began seeping into the stairways from the sprinklers.
What happened when you made it to the bottom?
By then, I was barefoot. I’d taken off my heels, so I wouldn’t slip from the water. When the door opened into the lobby, it felt like Armageddon. Police and firefighters and EMS workers were everywhere; you could see panes of broken glass and marble that had been smashed to pieces.
First responders were coming up to us, grabbing us in groups, saying, ‘Go out this door, run across the street, cover your head, and don’t look up.’ They just kept saying, ‘Don’t look up.’
So, you looked up?
Yes. It was a thing of nightmares. No amount of therapy will ever get it out of my head. Think of all the things in an office, flying out a window. Paper … glass … you heard things crashing around you. And some of them were bodies. There’s no greater horror than thinking what these people must have seen and heard to decide to jump out a window.
Suddenly, we’re out on the street and a good Samaritan, a woman, runs up and grabs a bunch of us and said, ‘You can come to my apartment and call your families. Rest a little bit.’ We thought it was a good idea; nobody knew the towers were coming down. Her apartment was about a half-block away, on the 4th floor. Everybody had their shoes off because they were wet. And we made calls from her (landline) phone because the cell circuits were busy. I was able to call my father, in Virginia. Long-distance worked better than local. And he was able to contact the other members of my family.
But we didn’t stay long.
What happened next?
I heard a sound like rolling thunder and a freight train, followed by an alarm in the apartment building. We didn’t even have time to get our shoes on, and we flew down four flights of stairs.
Outside it was like the worst blizzard you saw in your life. You couldn’t see a foot in front of you. This was from the South Tower collapse, but we didn't know that. People are screaming 'It’s coming down.' I’m thinking we’re dead.
But my brain said … run toward the water. If I got to Battery Park City, maybe I could get a boat off the island or swim. I’m asking police, 'where’s the water?' Nobody can see; nobody knows.
I’m having breathing problems. I’m asthmatic. I screamed ‘Does anybody have an inhaler?” You get in this crazy survival mode; I’m not going to die in the street of an asthma attack.
This woman throws an inhaler to me, I catch it, take a couple of puffs, and I throw it back.
That started this chain reaction; it’s still one of the coolest things I’ve seen in my lifetime. People were taking off their neckties so others could use them to cover their mouths; everyone was trying to help. It’s a moment of humanity that still gives me chills.
Did you make it to the water?
Eventually. The dust was starting to settle, at the waterfront … and then the North Tower came down. And we went through the same thing again, only we had nowhere to run. We’re at the water’s edge.
We heard airplanes overhead, and we thought they were there to finish us off. We knew, at this point, we had been attacked. But somebody said they were U.S. fighter jets and it’s OK. They’re the good guys. But how do we know they weren’t hijacked? So, we laid face down, in the dirt.
Ultimately, a ferry boat did come. And like in a disaster movie, somebody said, 'women and children first.' All the men lined up, hoisted us over the rails to the ferryboat guys, who hauled us into the ferry.
On the ride to Jersey City, I turned and looked back – and my city was gone. Everything was covered in a cloud of white dust.
As horrifying as 9/11 was for Wendy, she says 9/12 was even worse. That’s when she learned who lived, who died and who was missing – including her good friend, Abe.
First responders made it to Abe and others stranded on the 29th floor, and he called his sister-in-law to tell her they were being evacuated – just minutes before the building collapsed.
Wendy and Abe were unlikely friends. Shy, laid back and an Orthodox Jew, Abe was in many ways Wendy’s opposite. “He had such a great sense of humor. Just a wonderful person that everyone adored,” notes Wendy. “Every time I talk about him, I hear his voice saying, ‘Not a big deal, Wendy. I’m not that important.’”
But Wendy knows better. Abe and the other victims, including first responders, must never be forgotten, she implores. Nor should the acts of kindness, like from the woman who shared her apartment with strangers or the one who tossed her an inhaler. Or the ferry boat captain who could have headed away from Manhattan, instead of into the inferno to save those who were stranded.
“I’m alive because of every one of them. And that’s why I never grow tired of telling my story,” Wendy states. “We must never forget what happened, but we also need to remember that it’s important to be good to one another.”
Wendy was pleased that a federal law was recently enacted that makes the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund permanent. “But it bothers me that it took too long. As an American, how could anyone be opposed to helping first responders and their families?”
This September 11, like every one of them since 2001, Wendy won’t be at work. She’ll attend memorial gatherings and pay her respects to Abe and others at Ground Zero. “It’s hard this time of year. But talking and remembering is how I handle 9/11. What else can I do? I can’t bring people back or take their pain away. But I can remember them. I can honor them.”