Coming through slaughter - Part 1
PART 1: A photograph of a miniskirted, black office worker
shrouded in yellow dust became one of Sept. 11's most haunting images. The woman in that picture has never come out of that cloud. She is bunkered in her home, beset by nightmares, refusing all offers of help. For some victims, the terror continues.
By PETER CHENEY
Saturday, March 9, 2002
BAYONNE, N.J. -- The day could not be more perfect. An unexpectedly warm winter sun is shining, and kids have dropped their coats on the sidewalk to play stickball in their T-shirts. The owner of the Army Surplus store is polishing his window, and on the horizon, the Manhattan skyline is etched laser-sharp against the blue afternoon sky.
But three floors above the street, at the end of a dim hallway that is filled with the smells of cooking and roach spray, Marci Borders, a young woman whose picture became one of the most famous images of the World Trade Center disaster, lives in her own small, self-defined universe.
She sits on her sofa, wearing track pants and considering scenarios that have looped endlessly in her head for the past six months: She thinks about what a terrorist could do with a laser beam, whether an atomic bomb would fit in the back of a minivan and how easy it might be for someone to cut the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge.
A half-smoked cigarette smolders in an ashtray. She rubs her head continually, grinding her knuckles into her hair, as if trying drive out some creature that has invaded her skull. "Got to get my head straight," she says. "My head's all wrong now."
Around her is a scene that could be drawn from a blues song: Her daughter has gone off to live with her ex. There is nothing in the refrigerator but a tray of ice cubes and a bag of frozen peas. And Borders's phone has been cut off so many times that she can't remember all the numbers she has had. At the most recent one, she has left a message that amounts to a wish for herself: "Have a blessed day."
Her days are anything but. For six months, she has been sliding steadily downwards. She clings to a single filament of hope -- that she has sunk so far that there's no farther to go. "The only thing I can do is go up," she says. "That's the only direction left."
For countless people, Sept. 11, 2001, marked a dividing line between their previous and current existences. But few have been as deeply affected as Borders. The picture earned her a nickname that many people still use when they realize who she is. Just last week, a small boy recognized her in the laundromat: "You the Dust Lady!" he said. "The Dust Lady! That's who you are."
Until Sept. 11, when her 15 minutes of fame began with the publication of that now-iconic photo, no one outside her own small world had heard of Marci Borders. She grew up in Bayonne, a blue-collar New Jersey suburb. She was a self-described "ordinary kid" who liked playing basketball and hanging out with her friends. She describes her parents: "My mother was a teacher. My father was a loser -- that's right, you put that down. He was a loser."
Borders graduated from high school and became a mother at the age of 19, when she gave birth to her daughter Noelle, who is now 9. She split up with Noelle's father a short time later. Until Noelle was 3, Borders fit into a dismal demographic -- a black single mother on welfare, living in a subsidized apartment.
She believed she could lift herself by her bootstraps. She went to church regularly and landed a job as a secretary at a company called Quest Diagnostics in Teterboro, N.J., where she made $18,000 a year. Borders was determined to provide Noelle not just with sustenance but with an example of personal industry. "I wanted to show her that there's more to life than collecting welfare and sitting around the house drinking," she says.
About a month before the attack on the World Trade Center, Borders landed a new job as technical support at the Bank of America, doing mostly clerical work. The job paid about $40,000 a year, the most she had ever earned. Even before she collected her first paycheque, she celebrated by splurging on some small luxuries for Noelle, including a Lady Diana doll from the Shopping Network.
On the morning of Sept. 11, Borders travelled by PATH train and subway to the World Trade Center as usual. She was wearing one of the office outfits she had assembled for her new job, a blouse and skirt accessorized with a gold necklace and earrings.
At 8:45 a.m., she was at the photocopier in the Bank of America offices on the 81st floor of Tower One. Suddenly the building swayed, and a colossal boom reverberated through the space. Walls started caving in, and smoke filled the air.
Borders has never pretended that her behaviour was heroic. She made her way to a stairway and clawed her way down through the moving crowd. "People knew I had to get out," she says. "They let me go by." That was the beginning of a sustained panic attack that has never really ended.
She estimates that it took her more than hour to get to ground level. When she came out of the building, she encountered a scene of otherworldly devastation. She ran to a nearby building, trying to figure out where to go. The air was filled with smoke and dust that filtered the sunlight and gave it a strange, yellow cast. Borders was covered in dust that converted her dark skin, her hair and her clothing to a uniform yellow-grey.
Some time in those first few minutes, Agence France-Presse photographer Stan Honda took his photograph. In the picture, Borders looked oddly like a mime, caked with grey and frozen in space and time.
Borders says she hardly remembers the picture being taken. Moments later, Tower Two began to collapse. People began screaming. There was a yellow police tape marking off the street -- she ran, and burst through it like an Olympic sprinter at the finish line.
As the dust sifted down, Borders wandered through the streets of Manhattan. People came up and touched her, offering prayers. A lady began speaking in tongues. A businessman named Frank gently took her by the arm and guided her to an office, where he gave her a shirt to put over her ruined clothing and a phone so she could call a friend. She walked to the ferry terminal.
As the ferry cast off, Borders became afraid that it would flip over, or that it would be hit by a missile. She asked a woman crew member for a life jacket. The woman looked at her and said: "Baby, you won't need it. You're going to be okay."
Borders asked for the life jacket again. She was frantic. An hour later, she was back in Bayonne. She realized that her purse was gone, along with the money from her first paycheque, her driver's licence, her Social Security card and her birth certificate.
Since that day six months ago, Borders has rarely ventured outside. Fear has gradually redefined her existence. Although she needs money, she can't bring herself to go out and apply for work, or seek aid. She has never called the Bank of America to see if she could get her job back, or whether the company could help her get counseling. The idea of going to Manhattan to see the company, or even making a phone call, fills her with dread.
"I don't want to go to New York ever again," she says. "I got to know what a terrorist act is, first-hand. And I don't want to get in the middle of another one."
The only relief she has collected is $300 from the Red Cross, and a few private donations that came in after she was profiled in a New York newspaper. Her landlord has dropped her rent from $536 to $50, but she struggles to pay even that.
After her picture appeared, a German television station offered to fly her to Germany and pay her $5,000 for an appearance. She said no. A woman from England offered Borders a free month-long vacation for herself and her daughter. She said no to that as well.
Borders called the Salvation Army the week after the attack. They sent over a caseworker, who told her that she needed counselling. Borders never went. She says her energies are consumed by her own thoughts, which she says she is trying to bring under control: "I need to make my brain stop having flashbacks. If I can do that, I'll be all right."
She divides the world into risk zones that are rated according to the perceived probability of a terrorist attack. She is constantly considering possibilities: Whether poison gas could be pumped into the subway, whether an airliner could be crashed by remote control, whether land mines could be planted in a sidewalk.
She won't go inside an airplane, a building, a car or a train, or cross a bridge. On the few occasions when she goes outside, she scans the sky constantly, like a soldier forced to cross an area exposed to sniper fire. She refuses to take the subway, believing the World Trade Center collapse weakened the tunnels. "They're not safe. Sometime they're going to fall in, and then there's going to be a lot more people dead."
Asking her for a list of the top danger spots is to invite a recitation that can go on for hours. She begins with the places she considers the most dangerous of all. "I don't want to be in no Empire State, no Holland Tunnel, no Brooklyn Bridge, no Yankee Stadium, no nuclear plant," she says. "You go to those places, you're asking to die, the way I see it. They're all target spots. There's all kinds of target spots. Most people don't think about it. I do. I'm looking for a place that isn't a target spot."
So far, she has found almost nothing that fits her criteria. She wonders whether the Nebraska plains might be a good choice, then decides not. She has heard that U.S. military planes fly there, and worries that one might crash, or that a terrorist could level the entire state with a nuclear warhead. "I have a lot of what-if dreams," she says. "There are always missiles flying around over my head."
Her own neighbourhood would seem to be a low-risk location, but Borders doesn't see it that way: "Bayonne's too close to New York," she says. "Something goes down there, we're gonna catch the drippings."
Borders keeps an American flag in her apartment, but it is not out of patriotism. Instead, it serves as a reminder to herself that she was once deceived: "I used to believe in America," she says. "But where's America now? I want to quit America. Nobody's helping me. I did my part. Now, it's time for America to do its part.
"This showed me that America didn't have control of the situation. So I got to take charge myself, ask all the questions, figure it all out and take care of things. So I don't take anybody's word for anything. You take someone's word, you're a fool."
Mikkee Salters, who has been a friend of Borders since she was two years old, says Sept. 11 precipitated a transformation on the level of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. "She was an outgoing, do-anything person. There was nothing she wouldn't do. Now, she won't do anything. A plane comes over, she runs. She won't go in a car or walk down the street. As far as being a people person, now, I don't see that any more. Everything is just bundled up inside of her."
Dr. Roy Vogel, a clinical psychologist with the Christian Health Care Center in Wyckoff, N.J., says Borders is afflicted with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "What's happening to her is very understandable," he says. "She is suffering from a medical condition that is every bit as real as a broken arm or cancer."
Vogel was alerted to Borders's case by relief workers and has spoken with Borders by phone, but has been unsuccessful in trying to get her to come in for treatment. He is now planning to go to Borders' apartment with a caseworker.
Vogel says there have been many cases of PTSD after the trade centre attacks. "I am not at all surprised at what's happened to Borders or to many others like her," he says. "The only thing that surprises me is that there haven't been even more. We are talking here about a very, very traumatic event."
Borders finds it hard to comprehend that there is a clinical explanation for what's wrong with her. Instead, she berates herself for not coping. She is particularly upset about being unable to care for her daughter, who went to live with Borders's ex months ago. Noelle's bicycle is in the hallway, and her drawings and report cards are still taped to the walls. Borders would like her daughter with her, but she knows she's incapable of being a good mother at the moment.
"She doesn't want to come here any more," she says. "She's afraid of me now. If I was her, I'd be afraid of me too."
She spends hours on end sitting in Noelle's room. The presents she gave her daughter two Christmases ago are stacked in boxes at the foot of the bed, artifacts from an earlier, happier time: a Bed and Sparkle Nail Set, a Barbie Rock 'n' Roll Radio House, a doll named Dancin' Debbie.
This Christmas, she had nothing for Noelle at all.
"I have to go back to work," Borders says. "I don't know where my next carton of milk is coming from. But I don't know how I can work. I don't feel like I can do anything."
Borders has found even her faith in God shaken. "I believe in God. I believe in Him all the way. That's why it's tearing me up that I'm still afraid. I used to go to church every Sunday. Now, I don't go. I'm afraid that I'm disappointing God -- God is so powerful. All the power is His, but I'm still afraid, and I don't understand that."
Borders always took pride in her ability to rise above her circumstances. Her ambition was to be "a strong lady who exemplified the human spirit." Now, she wonders if it's possible to recover her sense of strength and mission. "I would like to be strong again," she says. "I would like to be able to help others instead of just needing help myself."
'The Dust Lady'
Profession: Former bank assistant, now unemployed,
Family: Unmarried; daughter Noelle, 9
Lives in: Bayonne, N.J.
On Sept. 11: Escaped 81st floor, North Tower, World Trade Center
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