Surviving the terror: One woman’s story, Pt. II

Catherine Petito, a stock exchange worker from Bensonhurst, was one of the lucky ones to survive the World Trade Center terror attacks. She says the catastrophe changed her life forever.

This is the final installment of her two-part story, which was first published in this column on Oct. 1, 2001 and is now reprinted to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9-11.

Last week’s account ended with Petito desperately trying to escape the pandemonium on the streets after hearing what sounded like the rumble of a second jet plane.

“All of a sudden, when I tell you, a tidal wave — 300-feet-high or better — of smoke and debris comes plummeting through every nook and cranny of every street from blocks away. I thought it was a nuclear war. You thought you were gonna die. Grown men thought they were gonna die.

“We run into a building. There was a pond in the lobby, like a fountain. I saw men rush in covered in white soot. They run to the fountain and put their heads in the water. Outside you see a thick fog of smoke and debris. You’re not sure what’s happening.

“I remember I had a plum I had brought along that morning. I start eating it like a scavenger. You know why? Because I thought I would never eat again. Moments later, we go over to the next building to look for more co-workers. All of a sudden, we hear another explosion. Later, I find out it was the other tower collapsing. You see the smoke and debris come flying in from every direction. Someone yells out, ‘Go to the third floor!’ They had bagels and things there. We go in one of the conference rooms and then finally we see what’s going on. We see it on the TV.

“The windows on the third floor are covered in white soot. I look outside and see the smoke and debris and people. Here we were trying to be safe on the third floor and there were these people outside, who needed help.

“I call my father. About 45 minutes later, they evacuate the building. Outside, a man in a uniform is saying, ‘I’m only gonna say this once — or maybe twice. That way to the Staten Island Ferry. That way to Brooklyn. Don’t ask me about Jersey. I don’t know anything about Jersey’

“I start running towards the direction of the Staten Island Ferry. I knew my sister-in-law would be home. It’s now about 12:45 pm and all of this has been going on for four hours. Finally, we get to the ferry. I see people I had worked with for years; heads of companies, CEO’s of the financial district, completely broken down and devastated. Everyone is so nice. Everyone is so scared. I remember that I had grabbed a bunch of napkins before leaving the last building and wetting them with water. I begin handing them out as compresses.

“When I get to Staten Island, I called my sister-in-law and my nephew comes to pick me up. That night, I’m in shock. I stay up watching TV until my eyes couldn’t stay open anymore. I kind of passed out through exhaustion. When I woke the next morning, my sister-in-law had left the bedroom window open. There was a very strong, distinct smell of smoke; a very, awful smell. I freaked out.

“It took me two days just to process everything that had happened. Did I really go through that? I cried a lot. Then it turned into anxiety. I became paranoid. But you know what? I’m not scared anymore. Now, I’m pissed off. The damage is done. They ruined the place where I worked.

“Now, you put your life into perspective. I grew up in a nice family with nice friends in a country where you have the freedom to say what you want; we’re not out to hurt anybody. On Sept. 11, they took a piece of us. They violated us. They did exactly what they set out to do — terrorize us. But, now that fear’s gone. The damage is done. When I leave my house now, I don’t like it.”