Mario Garcia occasionally finds it difficult to remember everything about the day he raced down 87 flights in Tower I of the World Trade Center, but on the first anniversary of Sept. 11 he relived those traumatic events in excruciating detail.
"I felt it was Sept. 11 again," he told Vivian Wecselman-Fishman, a service coordinator for the Jewish Board of Family and Childrenís Services, the next day.
Wecselman-Fishman was meeting with Garcia in her ongoing efforts to get him additional financial support and pave the way for his return to work as a waiter at upscale restaurants, once he is emotionally ready.
And Wecselman-Fishman said she would arrange for him to join a group counseling session the Jewish Board runs for 9-11 victims, something he had not been
ready to handle. He has been receiving individual counseling.
Garcia, 44, told Wecselman-Fishman that something had compelled him the previous day to walk to Ground Zero from his apartment at 168th Street. Garcia said he started walking at 2 a.m. and arrived five hours later. Then he took the subway home, watched television and cried.
"I was remembering and crying because I knew that one year ago at this time I was close to dying," he said. "It has changed everything for me."
Garcia said he has nightmares of being in a falling elevator. And he said it has been difficult for him to ride the subway because he fears being trapped underground should something happen.
Nor has time softened the pain for Gregory Amira, 33, of Brooklyn, who a year ago was a vice president at Morgan Stanley. He has been so emotionally scarred by his brush with death and the horrors he witnessed that he also has been unable to return to work. Amira also has been receiving psychiatric help.
Amira is getting help also from one of the Jewish Board’s six service coordinators, who assist 9-11 victims in accessing benefits, funds and other needed services. The service coordinators are funded by UJA-Federation and The New York Times’ 9-11 Fund.
Mindy Liss, director of communications for the Jewish Board, said the organization’s Manhattan office received calls from 15 people late last week seeking counseling. Its Staten Island office also received a half-dozen calls and expects more, she said.
"Many people recognized through the anniversary that they have not come to terms with what happened and are now able to reach out for mental health support," Liss said. "We have ongoing support groups for people affected by 9-11, and we will be seeing them and assessing their needs."
On the day of the attack, Amira recalled, he was changing elevators in Tower II to go from the 44th floor to his office on the 73rd when the public address system announced the tower should be evacuated because of a fire in Tower I. He had reached the 10th or 12th floor when Tower II shook from the second plane crash.
"I thought a bomb had gone off," he said.
After reaching the lobby, Amira said he started to walk away. He ran back, however, to help the injured "because there were not enough emergency people there." Amira said he helped people off an escalator and assisted firefighters who were taking a woman out of a stuck elevator.
Moments later there was a "horrendous noise": Tower II collapsed. Amira said he dropped to the floor as debris flew through the lobby, ripping the shirt from his back. In the terrifying darkness, Amira worked with a firefighter to help those who had been critically injured in the attack.
Garcia, in recounting that fateful day in English and at times Spanish, was able to provide Wecselman-Fishman with an almost minute-by-minute account of what happened to him when he got into the elevator for a job interview at Windows on the World.
He said he had taken the subway to the Trade Center and noticed a fire in the other tower but did not give it much thought.
"I was in the elevator when I heard an explosion," Garcia recalled. "The elevator stopped and shook. The roof [of the elevator] opened and there was smoke. Everyone screamed. A big guy tried to control the 17 or 19 people on board and said, ‘We have to open the door, help me.’"
As they struggled to pry open the door, Garcia noticed a man huddled in a corner of the elevator, praying.
"I grabbed his arm and said, ‘This is not the time, let’s move it, man,’" he recalled.
The floor was about five feet above the elevator car and when the door was opened, there was a rush to scamper out.
"I was very scared," Garcia said, "and when everybody tried to climb out at the same time, I climbed on top of the people to escape."
In the hallway, lit only by a fire at the far end of the hall, Garcia said he heard the cries of a woman who had climbed out before him. She had been struck by falling debris.
"I’m burning, I’m burning," she cried.
Garcia said he did not see her in the darkness and that he kept walking toward the light of the fire ahead. Suddenly he noticed a huge hole in the floor and in the roof directly above. People on fire were falling through the hole.
"I opened a door and saw stairs," Garcia said, adding that as he stepped from the floor onto the stairs, the floor collapsed.
"I ran down and down and then I heard a noise and the stairs above me started coming down. I found people on the steps who were burned. Everybody was screaming. I tried to help a man [with a large gash in his stomach], but he was too big and he said, ‘Don’t worry about me. Go down, help is coming up.’ … I didn’t feel good leaving him but when I felt the heat and heard the building creaking again, I went back down. My heart was beating too much and I was shaking. There was a lot of confusion and I was thinking about my family and my daughter, about when I was born and the first time my mother punished me: my whole life."
At the 54th floor, Garcia passed a thin woman who was walking very slowly, having apparently broken her ankle in the evacuation.
"I walked back up and spoke Spanish to her," he said. "She didn’t speak Spanish and she had a beautiful face. I said, ‘Hold onto my back, I’m going to help you.’ She said, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ And we went down together."
As they descended, they encountered two separate groups of firefighters walking up. Asked by each group if anyone was still up there, Garcia said the woman told them there were many injured people but that the stairs were falling so they better hurry. The firefighters went up, Garcia and the woman continued down after assuring the firefighters they did not need help.
They reached the lobby when a fireman spotted the two and ran to help the woman, who at first refused to let go of Garcia, tightening her grip and inadvertently choking him. Garcia said he finally freed himself and let the fireman care for her before running to the street.
"I ran about half a block and noticed a piece of metal falling to the ground. The tower fell seconds later. The tower shook," he said. "In my country [El Salvador], I know what an earthquake feels like. It was like that."
Garcia said he ran into a Starbucks, where he found men and women crying. "I vomited and I was shaking. I didn’t believe how I got out," he said.
After sipping some water and resting a few moments, Garcia feared something else might happen so he darted outside into the dark, soot-filled air. He ran to the Henry Hudson Parkway and caught a cab home, crying all the way. Once at his apartment, the cab driver refused to take his money.
Six days later, Garcia went to Pier 94, where social service agencies were providing help to 9-11 victims. On a wall containing pictures of the missing, Garcia spotted the picture of the big man in the elevator who had pried open the door, and of the woman he had helped down 54 flights of steps.
After seeing the woman’s picture, he called the phone number on the flyer but could not bring himself to speak and hung up the phone.
Now, Garcia says, he feels strong enough emotionally to speak with her family as well as the family of the man who opened the elevator door.