SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Many remember exactly where they were when they watched the 9/11 attacks on TV in 2001. But there is a much smaller number of Americans who saw it all first hand and lived to share their story.
WSAV reporter Martin Staunton watched and worried as his aunt in New York City was working at the World Trade Center that day. Eighteen years later, she’s sharing her story by phone about being on the ground when both towers were hit by hijacked airplanes.
Shirley Staunton worked for a law firm with offices in the World Trade Center. She began work in the iconic complex in 1985. In late 2000, Staunton was diagnosed with colon cancer, taking medical leave for 10 months. She returned to work on September 10, 2001, and the next day has been seared in her psyche as she witnessed death and the destruction of the twin towers.
I’ve gotten to the Trade Center and I put my foot on a pedestal there and I was just about to go in when I turned around and went back across the street to get a muffin. That’s exactly what happened. That’s the reason that I wasn’t right in the middle of it. Otherwise, I would’ve been right there when the first plane went in. I saw the second plane go into tower two with such force that it scared me so bad because the flame that came out of that was huge. It reached out, almost touching me, it was so intense at that moment.”Shirley Staunton
Staunton says there were a lot of traumatic moments that day at ground zero in New York, but none more haunting than those of the people who chose not to die in the fire raging in the upper floors of the first tower to be hit.
“A lot of people were just jumping out of the towers. That was very hard to witness and very hard to know that was happening,” Staunton said. “But when the towers went down, and that sound, I’ll never forget the sound that it made when it imploded…. as if you kind of died on the inside.”
You knew that people had died and you knew that there was nothing you could do to save them. That was very surreal.”
Staunton said she and others walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to get to safety.
“I could see the flames and the smoke in the air in the background as we kinda soldiered across the bridge to safety. So that’s how I got out of Manhattan,” she recalled.
But making it safely into Brooklyn, nearly 12 hours after the first plane slammed into the towers, brought with it the realization of the communications nightmare she and other New Yorkers faced.
“The frightening part was that at that moment there was no communication. I had no communication with my family,” Staunton said.
She went on to tell News 3’s Martin Staunton something he had not known about her escape from ground zero.
“Your sister Rebecca was the first person I was able to call, to contact, because she lived in Connecticut. I couldn’t reach anyone living in New York and I called Rebecca,” Staunton said. “She called me and I could answer the phone and I told her that I was safe and she was exactly the first person that knew that I was safe.”
As time pushes the day of the tragic attack another year into the past, Staunton has returned to the place where death and destruction rained from the sky when the twin towers were toppled by terrorists.
“Eighteen years later I’m still at ground zero,” she said, adding that for a while she relocated to Midtown before going back downtown to work.
I didn’t think that I would be able to get used to it. I always relive it. But there are families moving in here as it ‘s become more residential. There are supermarkets and children going to schools. It changed New York in a way no one expected, brought us together more. It’s the one good thing to come from that terrible day.”Shirley Staunton