Out of the rubble

Survivor, brother remember community, family response on 9/11

On Sept. 11, 2001, Maggie Ruperto-Rivera worked as an in-house security guard for the 22-story Marriott World Trade Center.
A former employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Ruperto-Rivera had worked at the World Trade Center since the 1980s, first for the PA, then later for the hotel chain. In discussing her security post at the Marriott, there is one word the Jersey City resident and native uses frequently to describe the company: Family.
“Everyone was like a family,” she said, with a reverence few workers have for their employers. “I loved working there. I really did because everyone really worked together and looked out for one another.”
It’s clear that this sense of family kept Ruperto-Rivera in a doomed, burning building even after her husband called to tell her to evacuate. But it was also familial loyalty – from both her family of origin and the extended family of co-workers, friends, and community – that saved her.

Family is what saved Ruperto-Rivera.
On 9/11, Ruperto-Rivera was assigned to the hotel’s security base, which was located underground. Although she could see every security monitor inside and outside the hotel, she had no idea what was going on at the top of the Twin Towers that morning.
When her husband called to tell her that a plane had hit one of the buildings, she didn’t believe it.
“It seemed so incredible; I didn’t believe it,” said Ruperto-Rivera, who has never publicly told her 9/11 story until now. “I thought maybe it was a rumor.”
But soon every phone in the security base was ringing. In one call a hotel employee told Ruperto-Rivera, “There’s a woman in the hotel who’s on fire.”
By the time Ruperto-Rivera went up to the hotel’s lobby, it was clear something serious had happened.
“People were screaming, running everywhere,” she said. “The lobby was full of firefighters.”
As she had been trained to do, Ruperto-Rivera began taking direction from firefighters to help them evacuate the building.
“It was a really chaotic situation,” she said. “But everybody – the security personnel, firefighters, hotel staff, police – we were all together. We all became one. We were all trying to do one thing, and that was get as many people out of the building as possible.”
Ruperto-Rivera again refused to leave the building herself, even after her friend and coworker Amy “Jade” Andrews urged her to do so. Andrews and Ruperto-Rivera were both still in the hotel when the Trade Center began shaking. They and others in the Marriott lobby were thrown several yards when one of the towers collapsed. At some point, the hotel began to crumble.
“The next thing I knew,” she said, “there was a firefighter standing over me saying, ‘Do you know where you are?’ ”
Ruperto-Rivera said that she did, but then she began talking about doors and exits that no longer existed. Still, the information she offered apparently gave firefighters some idea of how they could save people who survived the collapse. The escape from the hotel was fraught with danger.
“There were holes everywhere,” recalled Ruperto-Rivera. “At one point we had to turn around because the people in front of us fell through a hole.”
The survivors were forced to climb upwards out of the debris using the skeletal remains of the towers and the shoulders of firefighters.
“Eventually I could see blue sky,” Ruperto-Rivera recalled. “It was such a beautiful day that day.”
With the help of firefighters, whose names she never knew, Ruperto-Rivera and Andrews made it to safety.

‘We’re going back in’

“The firefighters told us, ‘Okay, we’re going back in. You guys got to get to the street on your own.’ We looked all around us and there was no building,” said Ruperto-Rivera. “We were just standing on a heap of debris.”
Ruperto-Rivera said her footwear that day was the standard issue pumps that were part of her uniform, not the best shoes for climbing over glass and twisted metal. But she was luckier than Andrews, whose shoes had been knocked off from the force of the building’s collapse. As the two women tried to figure out how they would make it down to the street, Andrews stood on the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center in bare feet.
Two men who had also worked at the Marriott eventually saw the women. “They saw us and shouted, ‘We’ll come up and get you.’ And that’s what they did,” Ruperto-Rivera recounted. “The one guy, when he saw that Jade didn’t have any shoes, he actually carried her to the street.”

‘We heard people banging on metal’

Meanwhile, a day earlier, Ruperto-Rivera’s brother, Carlos Mercado, had returned from a trip to Los Angeles. Exhausted, he said he fell asleep that night with the television on. When he awoke the next morning he saw an image of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. A scroll on the TV channel read, “BREAKING NEWS: World Trade Center Hit.”
“I called Maggie. But Maggie didn’t pick up the phone,” Mercado remembered. A resident of the Jersey City Heights, Mercado decided to put on some clothes to see if he could get a view from his roof.
“As I was upstairs getting ready, I hear on the TV that the second plane had hit,” he said. “Now I’m thinking this isn’t just an accident. Something is going on. My concern was for my sister. I wanted to call Maggie to see what’s going on.”
He made it to Palisades Avenue in time to see the South Tower fall.
“My only thought was to get over there,” Mercado said.
By this time, the Holland and Lincoln tunnels had been shut down to non-emergency vehicles and public transportation into Manhattan had been suspended. But Mercado began hearing reports of civilian volunteers getting into New York by boat. Most of these people were construction workers who decided they wanted to help with the search and recovery effort. Posing as a construction worker, Mercado was able to board a tugboat loaded with steelworkers.
“When I got over there, it looked like a nuclear war zone. Everything was covered in about two inches of this thick dust.” Unprepared for what he found when he reached Ground Zero, Mercado said he had no mask or other protective clothing.
Other people who had relatives who worked in the Twin Towers approached Mercado with photos of their family members, asking him to look out for their loved ones.
“I tried to comfort people,” he said. “I told them I would look for their relative. But you could tell from the way things looked, it was unlikely we were going to find a lot of people.”
Although still worried about his sister, Mercado admitted to himself he wasn’t likely to find her that day. “In my heart, I just told myself Maggie is okay,” he said. “We did hear people yelling for help and we heard people banging on metal. But I didn’t see any of those people get rescued.”
For a brief period, he said, civilians were allowed to offer some light assistance to the police and firefighters working the scene. But they were soon shifted to more supportive roles such as giving emergency workers water and food that had been donated by people who came to Ground Zero.
“I’m telling you, every cross section of everybody was out there,” Mercado remembered. “You’d see guys from Wall Street working together with these blue collar guys. There were women out there. I saw guys who looked like thugs and gang-bangers working together with white girls who looked like they came from the Midwest. It was really amazing how quickly people mobilized.”
But when Mercado hopped another tugboat back to New Jersey late that night, no one in his family had heard from his sister.

Getting home

After making it to the street, Ruperto-Rivera and Andrews walked to the Staten Island Ferry. With other survivors, they were taken to a triage center.
The two women were cut and bruised, but had escaped with no other physical injuries.
“Jade and those men who got us off down to the street were like my angels,” said Ruperto-Rivera. “I wouldn’t be here today without them.”
She said tried calling her husband and other members of her family late in the day, but phone service was disrupted.
Even early on Sept. 12 she could not get through.
Eventually she was able to reach her mother.
“When she heard my voice, she just started crying and screaming,” Ruperto-Rivera remembers.
Because the Bayonne Bridge was closed and was only open to a handful of emergency vehicles, the New York City Police told her she could only leave Staten Island in an emergency car and had to wait until one of those cars made a trip across the bridge.

Brother volunteered again

Early on Sept. 12, Mercado, who had still not heard from his sister, went back into Manhattan to help with the search and recovery effort. He brought his nephew and fellow Jersey City resident Erik-Anders Nilsson, a childhood friend who Mercado said “is like a brother to me and knows my whole family really well.”
But by then, civilians had almost no access to Ground Zero and the closest the two men got to the WTC site was the Battery Park waterfront.
“We went to Exchange Place early on the 12th. People were just flooding that downtown area with supplies of food, water, socks, boots, gas masks, ice, dog food [for the canine search and rescue division],” Nilsson remembered. “McDonald’s, Snapple, and a number of big companies had set up donation tables there. We would load up boats with these supplies and take them over by ferry to the firefighters in New York who would them load the stuff onto a dolly. That’s what we did all day.”

Lingering health effects

Although both Mercado and Ruperto-Rivera made it back to Jersey City, both have suffered in different ways from the attacks.
After Ruperto-Rivera made it home from Staten Island, she did not leave her mother’s house for about a year, except for doctors’ appointments, she said.
She survived with the “help of neighbors I didn’t even know I had. Every day people would drop off food, water, whatever I needed. Or people would come by and ask my family if I needed anything. If I did, they’d get it for me.”
The neighbors, who had heard about her story through word of mouth in the community, were white, black, Latino, Asian, and Muslim. Most of them were people she had never met before.
It took three years and therapy for Ruperto-Rivera to get back on her feet. She now has a job in Hoboken and is beginning to heal from the events of 10 years ago.
Her brother’s health, however, has been more tenuous. A man of only 42, he has already had two heart surgeries, including a double by-pass, and he suffers from upper respiratory ailments.
“At first, I didn’t want to believe it had anything to do with a day I spent at Ground Zero, he said. “But then when you hear about other people who were there that day, and a lot of them have the same problems. It does make me think it’s connected….But I would do it again, even knowing what I know with my health. If people were in trouble like that again tomorrow, I would be there again. That’s what it means to be a family, and I’m not just talking about Maggie as my sister. I mean us as one, as a collective family of people.”
Nilsson said it is important to honor these unsung heroes during 9/11 tributes.
“You know, for every story of a firefighter who helped rescue a survivor, there’s a story of someone like Carlos who was there, not because it was their job, but because they felt they had a personal duty to help at Ground Zero,” Nilsson said.
Andrews, who stayed with Ruperto-Rivera for several months after their rescue, was motivated to join the Air Force and served for four years in the service. She now lives in Maryland.
Ruperto-Rivera’s two sons are planning military careers for themselves in the Army and Marines. She admits their decision to join was at least in part shaped by her experiences on Sept. 11, 2001. She’s apprehensive about their decision, but understands their evolving patriotism.
“They love this country, what it stands for, what it represents. We’ve all seen the worse in people. But because of my experience that day, my sons saw the best in people. They saw the best of what we can do.”
The former Marriott workers who survived are supposed to have a reunion later this month. Most of them haven’t seen each other since September 2001.
Ruperto-Rivera said she hopes to see the two men who helped her get down to the street so she can thank them again.
“I always thank the firefighters ’cause they saved me,” she said. “And of course I love Carlos and [Nilsson] for what they did. Now I need to thank the other members of my family for what they did.”

Jersey City lost 37 residents on the day of the attacks. Memorial events were planned for this weekend at the city’s memorial and at a new statewide memorial in Liberty State Park. For information on those events, see last week’s Jersey City Reporter cover story at hudsonreporter.com.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

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