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U.S. News
Judy Colfer: Escaped from the World Trade Center

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Judy Colfer still has weekly nightmares about her escape from One World Trade Center.

Judy Colfer keeps trying to wash the canvas briefcase she carried with her last Sept. 11 when she escaped from the World Trade Center minutes before it collapsed. But the dust from the building that day just won't come out.

She was on the 55th floor, sitting in a seminar on shipping goods to Mexico, when she felt an earthquake-like jolt.

Desks and tables jumped up off the floor. Chairs shook. Books flew across the room. Glass, metal and paper swirled around outside. People headed for the stairs.

She huddled with a couple dozen others on a stairwell landing. They knew something had happened, but didn't know what. Cell phones weren't working, but Colfer heard a man's pager beeping a couple landings below.

"A plane hit the building! A plane hit the building!" the man yelled out seconds later.

She remembers the smell of diesel fuel and creeping single file down the stairs, sometimes moving only three or four steps, then stopping for minutes on end.

Rescue workers were heading up the stairs as Colfer and others were inching down. Movement halted for longer stretches as rescuers carried down the injured -- a pregnant woman, a blind man with his Seeing Eye dog, burn victims with singed hair.

"Had they told anybody what was going on, people would have been jumping over the railings trying to run down stairs," said Colfer, 50, of Greensburg. "Instead, it was controlled panic, controlled fear."

Colfer's most vivid, recurring memory is of her encounter with a firefighter in the stairwell.

"Lady, what floor did you come from?" the fire lieutenant asked her on his way up. "What did you see? Was there smoke? Were there flames? Was anybody injured? Did everybody get out?"

His serious demeanor and terror-filled eyes chilled her to the core.

"If you're a firefighter for the City of New York, you've seen everything, and if you're that terrified, it had to be more horrible than I could ever imagine," Colfer remembers thinking. "I can close my eyes and I'm right back in that stairwell."

The man, who Colfer is sure didn't make it out, placed his hand on her arm and assured her she would get out. She did. And five minutes after she ran from the building, it collapsed.

"I was given back my life that day," says Colfer, acting logistics manager for Mine Safety Appliance Co., based in O'Hara. "I do believe God spared me. ... I prayed so hard in that stairwell."

The tragedy has pulled Colfer, her husband, Gene, and their sons, Brian, 14, and Brenden, 11, even closer together.

"Everything means twice as much," she said. "Even little things."

They sit together as a family at soccer games instead of scattering about as they once did. She stresses to her children the importance of respecting life and each other and not taking things for granted.

"The world has turned upside down," she said. "I don't think anything will be normal again, but we try to make it normal for the children."

Colfer still has the dust-covered black canvas briefcase, black pumps and black dress she wore on Sept. 11. She has tried to wash them, but they won't come clean.

"Maybe that's part psychological, trying to make it right again," she said.

She also still has the guardian angel pin she wore that day. Her son Brenden gave it to her.

Today, Colfer is slated to tell her story as part of a memorial service at Hillcrest United Presbyterian Church in Monroeville.

"It will be my eulogy to the people who died in that building, who helped me get out."

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