Contributor's location on 9/11:
Elevator Starter & Shop Steward at WTC
Contributor's local union affiliation:
September 20, 2001
Local 32BJ member and Shop Steward Arlene Charles was on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center when terrorists crashed a plane into the building. 'It got dark and smoky. I couldn't see nothing. Stuff was falling and in the air. So I hid under my desk,' Arlene said.
'The windows in the hall blew out and the smoke started to clear a little. Then I hear this lady screaming, screaming hard. I looked around the desk, and I see Carmen on the ground,' Arlene said, referring to coworker Carmen Griffith. 'I told Carmen, ‘Come to me! Crawl over here to me.''
When Carmen made her way to the desk, Arlene realized that her friend was severely burned. 'Her face was so red, all her fingers peeled, no skin left. So I got a guard to help me get Carmen to an office where we could help her,' Arlene said. Suffering from second-degree burns, Carmen complained that she felt as if she were still ablaze. Arlene and the guard poured water on the wounds.
'I told Carmen we had to get out. So me and Audrey, she works for the Port Authority, we took her down Staircase A,' Arlene said. The women flanked Carmen, tucking their arms beneath hers to give the injured woman support as the trio made their way down the 78 flights of stairs.
'For some reason, my cell phone was working. My cousin called me while I walked down with Carmen,' Arlene said. Relieved to find that Arlene was still alive, her cousin begged her to leave the building immediately. 'I told her, ‘Just tell Granny and Auntie and everybody I'm okay. I gotta go. I gotta get out of the building.'
Arlene continued down the seemingly endless stairs, struggling to assist her friend who still suffered from excruciating pain. Near the 40th floor, two men moved in to help the women. One took off his shirt, soaked it with water and put it on Carmen's face to help relieve the pain. Both men then helped Carmen make the rest of the trip down.
'When we got outside, they said they were taking Carmen to Brooklyn. The ambulance was full. So I couldn't go with her,' said Arlene. In the days following the tragedy, Arlene called hospitals until she was able to find Carmen. She also called hospitals in search of Carmen's husband, Arturo, an elevator starter who also was injured in the tower. 'I told them they both made it.'
Echoing the sentiments of so many 32BJ members who worked in the buildings, Arlene described her coworkers as her family. When asked why she risked her own life to save her friend, Arlene said, 'I couldn't leave her there ... burned ... crying ... crawling. My heart couldn't let me do it.'
Having escaped unscathed, Arlene is more impressed by the miracle of her survival than her own heroic actions. Arlene's young sons, however, were moved by their mother's bravery. 'They know Miss Carmen. They're so happy and proud that I helped Miss Carmen,' Arlene said.
Reflecting on the tragic event, Arlene reminisces about the glory and grandeur of her beloved World Trade Center. She talked about the countless tourists from around the world who visited the edifice every day. 'This a building people will never forget – even if they don't build it back,' Arlene said before heading off to file for unemployment benefits.
Read Carmen's story.
Story #45, The September 11 Digital Archive, 20 September 2001, <http://911digitalarchive.org/stories/details/45>.