After witnessing people jump to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center and spending hours fleeing the city on Sept. 11, 2001, Karen Marinaccio has never returned to the site.
“It never leaves you,” Marinaccio, now a resident of central Pennsylvania, said of the horrific memories that vividly persist 20 years later.
Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the thwarting of another attack that brought down a commercial airliner near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Marinaccio was living in Queens and working at an investment management firm in the 7 World Trade Center Building, a 47-story structure connected by an elevated walkway to the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, on that fateful day.
Marinaccio’s normal routine was to arrive at work between 8:15 and 8:30 a.m. and stroll around the indoor underground shopping mall underneath the north tower, often picking up a pastry at Au Bon Pain restaurant.
That morning, she brought chocolate biscotti from home and decided to head directly to her office on the 42nd or 43rd floor — she can’t recall exactly — across the street from the towers.
At 8:46 a.m. she “felt the whole building shake and the lights went down and then back up,” leaving Marinaccio to think an elevator or large cable dropped violently.
Soon after, a co-worker announced that an airplane had struck the north tower.
“I looked out the window and saw all this metal and paper flying around. It looked like a snow globe,” she said of the debris spewing from the building after it was struck between the 93rd and 99th floors by a passenger plane. “But we couldn’t see the plane. Where did it go?”
After watching the scene for a few minutes, she went back to work. Seventeen minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., another commercial jet slammed into the south tower between the 77th and 85th floors.
“We heard another ‘boom,’ and my boss said, ‘That’s it. Get up,’” she said.
As she was leaving with only her purse and cellphone, Marinaccio looked back at her desk where she’d left a recently purchased white sweater and thought about going back for it. She got into an elevator with several others where, during the descent, another woman began panicking and crying.
“I wasn’t bothered by it,” Marinaccio said of the woman’s emotional outburst. “I just wanted to hit the ground floor.”
Outside the building, she saw a couple of police officers and could hear sirens wailing. One officer was looking up, so she turned her eyes to the skyscrapers that were 40 to 50 feet away.
“I think everyone was just trying to make sense of it,” Marinaccio said of the lack of immediate pandemonium.
Standing on that street with her eyes to the sky, Marinaccio witnessed true horror.
“It looked like bent metal was coming down in pieces off the building but then I realized, ‘Oh my God. It’s bodies,’” she said. “I saw three people jump. The sound when they hit was even worse.”
Finding a way home
The police urged her and others to move away from the carnage, and Marinaccio began walking up Broadway. She had taken the train to work, but because all public transportation was at a standstill, the only way out of the city and to the Queens home she shared with her husband, Jim, and son, Michael, then 20, was by foot in platform shoes.
Marinaccio tried to purchase sneakers, but the line at the shoe store was so long she continued on in her high heels.
Her cellphone had no service, so she called her son from a pay phone just before 10 a.m. to assure him she was safe. After hanging up, she saw the south tower collapse.
“The sound of it. Oh, my God. It was like bombs going off,” Marinaccio said. “That did it for me. I sat on the curb and said a little prayer.”
Her pace quickened after that as she joined a growing crowd of crying and screaming people scurrying farther from the wreckage as paper, dust and building debris fell over them. She did not see or hear the north tower fall about 30 minutes later.
Marinaccio remembers stopping at one point for a slice of pizza that a restaurant owner was handing out for free. At another pay phone she called her husband, who was working in Connecticut and with whom she would reunite at home later that evening.
She saw a female mail carrier driving in the “stop-and-go” traffic and got a lift over the Queensboro Bridge and then got on an overfilled bus. At about 6 p.m. she arrived home, and as her son opened the front door, he exclaimed, “Oh, Mommy. Your building went down at 5:30.”
The building had been evacuated hours earlier, and there were no casualties.
Avoiding news coverage
While her son watched news footage of the events, including reports of a third plane striking the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and Flight 93 crashing into an empty field in Shanksville, Marinaccio avoided all of it. The next day she had to go back to work, now in a temporary office in New Jersey.
Marinaccio continued to work in New Jersey for three months before the company relocated back to Manhattan, about 7 miles from the former World Trade Center site.
Her routine was forever changed by the terrorist attacks on the city. For years afterward, she avoided rush hour when the subway and trains were crowded and arrived and left work at an earlier hour.
Marinaccio left her once-beloved city — where in younger years she used to roller-skate down First Avenue to the United Nations Building and ice-skate in Central Park — and moved with her husband 16 years ago to Danville, Pennsylvania.
“I miss my city, but it isn’t what it used to be,” she said.
Over the years, Marinaccio said she’s developed asthma, which she attributes to the debris that rained down on her two decades ago. Her life was also altered in other ways by witnessing the tragic events.
“You realize how precious life is and how brave people can be,” Marinaccio said. “I saw people who decided to jump out of a window rather than be incinerated.”
She has no plans to visit the World Trade Center memorial, which sits on what she considers “sacred ground. There are still bones there.”