Kerri’s Story: Surviving 9/11

Jennifer Rosen, Features Editor

“Flashbulb memory.” 15 letters. 5 syllables. 2 words. Infinite in impact on the lives who hold them. A flashbulb memory can be defined by the American Psychological Association as, “A vivid, enduring memory associated with a personally significant and emotional event.” 

For Kerri Wilson Stallone, Wantagh resident, mother, and survivor of 9/11, the events of September 11th, 2001 provide a flashbulb memory that has lasted in her life for two decades. In talking with her about the events of that day, Wilson-Stallone was able to describe everything  she had endured. 

Stallone said, “I worked right across the street from the World Trade Center, as a legal secretary. I was in the South Tower on the morning of 9/11 in Barnes and Noble returning a book. The line was too long so I left and said I would return on my lunch hour instead. When I arrived at my office, I got to work and was at my desk when the absolute loudest airplane noise I had ever heard in my life was approaching. It felt like a minute long. 

“When the tower was hit, my desk faced East. My friend Matt called me to tell me what happened. I ran to a West window and just stood there crying. We could immediately see people at the windows above where the plane hit. They were waving their shirts. Then the smoke from the fire was making them disappear. When we saw the plane come down the river and turn to go into the second tower, we were all screaming ‘No.’

It was then that Matt came up to my floor, and we put on our sneakers and evacuated. We were now the next tallest building. But when we got downstairs, no one was being evacuated. We were being told by security to stay put.

Zuccotti Park was in between the North Tower and my building. From the fountain, we had a crystal clear view of the North Tower. We could see people jumping and would hear very loud banging noises. 

“A police officer sought solace at my Plaza and started talking to Matt and I before the North Tower fell. He said ‘the banging you hear are people hitting the ground that are jumping to their death, some people are making it out of the tower alive only to be killed trying to escape on foot from falling debris.’ 

“We had survivors bloody coming into my Plaza enclosed glass building—that’s why I came outside. I couldn’t take the trauma of it all. But I ended up almost dying because I was outside when the tower fell. 

“On the plaza there was a beautiful fountain and four sets of stairs. Two sets were only 5 steps, the other two were full flights of steps. When the first tower fell I was thrown down the flight of stairs from the plaza and landed at the bottom on William Street. My friend saw me fall and ran over and tapped the ground until he found me. We knew the side of our building had marble. We felt the wall until we got to the glass wall with revolving doors. 

“The noises were unbelievable. The smells were crazy. That jet fuel made your eyes water. When we made it through the revolving door, we turned around and attempted to look outside and all we saw was the black of night and palms pressed up against the glass of people looking for the same revolving doors. Our co-workers that saw us from inside the glass walls of the building on the plaza level ran down the internal escalator to find Matthew and I covered with debris. We looked like human snowmen. 

“It took a group of 12 to talk Matt and me to leave our building. But we all knew the other tower was going to fall. We waited 10 minutes until we could somewhat see outside and walked as a group to The Yankee Clipper. The owner let us go into the basement where he let us use the phone to call family members. It was before cell phones. 

“When the second tower fell we all huddled together because it felt like an earthquake was splitting the restaurant in half. Once it was down it took A LOT of talking me into it but we left the place and walked down South Street where the workers from the fish markets held up their hoses to let us wash off. 

“We walked over the Brooklyn Bridge as a group. I will never forget what it looked like when we all stopped for a moment hugging. As we looked toward our building, we realized it would not be the tallest building downtown.

“9/11 happened on a Tuesday. My law firm had us come back to the building on the Monday right after. Not even a week later. We had to come in through Brooklyn and take a subway to Battery Park. It was the only downtown subway stop. From there we had to go through 5 military checkpoints showing our work ID to get to our building. 

“We were given a mask to wear at our desks because there was dust everywhere. The fans on the roof of our building were pulling everything in. We could not see outside our windows. It looked like night time. It smelled like burning bodies. It was a horror scene.

“My building was the only building that you could view Ground Zero from with a clear view. It felt like the world was flooding to take photos. All I could think of was all of the people that had died. The ones I watched above the plane’s entrance probably held hands and died in terror. 

“I watched a video for the very first time last year with my daughter because she asked about my experience. I jumped when I watched the second plane hit and burst into tears. It was as if it was happening again. I will never in my life forget that sound. Ever. It was horrible. We watched debris land near our Plaza from the 55th floor windows when the second tower was hit. The fire that burst out the other side of the building pushed heat towards the window we were all standing at.

“I had survivor’s guilt for five years. I couldn’t wrap my head around why so many people had to die and I lived. I went to a counselor for years. I didn’t start talking about my experience for 10 years. My thought was that if I was still terrified, talking about it may terrify others. And I didn’t want to make them live it with me. But when I realized that speaking set me free, I realized that some could gain from hearing my experience. I knew I had a purpose when I gave birth to my daughter and named her Faith. I had to have Faith to have her. I still look at downtown and see the towers.

“ I truly believe that the fountains represent that those two spots on the earth are burials. They are graves. They did not deserve to have buildings built there again and I am so at peace that the footprints are memorials. I still have not ever gone to the museum. It may take another 20 years for me to go.”