The Dust Lady: another 911 tragedy.


On 911 I was standing in a subway that had been stopped between stations. The reason that our train wasn’t moving is because the Twin Towers were collapsing above us. No one told us that but the timing was unmistakable.

I have told this story before. But this blog is not about what happened to me but about a relationship I’ve had with a certain lady for years. Each year it’s tough to watch T.V. as the parade of rehashing documentaries pass across my T.V. screen; I become a bit depressed and those feelings come back from that day. But I have made my piece with what happened to me (though not with what happened to my city). With a little avoidance of the television and stressful situations, I can make it through the week or two that I have come to call “the 911 season”.


There has always been one thing that throws me off my game.  A picture of woman in what looks like a business suit, covered with dust. I didn’t realize that she had been dubbed “the dust lady” in the news until a couple of weeks ago. In fact I didn’t know anything about her until recently. For me she was just that one picture that still took my breath away and took me back to that day.

And then, recently,  I read about her and learned everything that, it seems, everyone else had known about her for years. Her name was Marcy Borders. Like me she became covered with dust. It entered her mouth and her ears. And when she tried to wash the dust off it fomed little balls and strings in her hands, refusing to come off. I know because I did the same thing. And if we’d ever had the chance to have a conversation, we would have had a lot to discuss.

But there is a lot that happened to Marcy that didn’t happen to me. Perhaps it’s because she was out in the street longer than I was, that she watched the cloud of dust bear down on her as the towers collapsed. My friends who had the same experience told me of people screaming as the cloud overtook them like their death was at hand. Perhaps it was seeing people jump from the towers to avoid burning to death. There are things that people are not meant to see.


Marcy’s life as an active city worker ended that day. She refused to leave the dubious shelter of Bayonne New Jersey and return to Manhattan. Tall buildings and planes sent her into a panic. She never worked again. And as the weight of what she’d seen and what she knew tipped the scales, Marcy turned to drugs and alcohol.

Many people downplay the effects of PTSD as weakness. If you look at the record of returning military personnel and, more specifically, the effects of 911 on people, we learn that certain experiences will can destroy a persons ability to face day to day life. I know someone who also was forced to watch people jumping from the towers because he was too frightened to leave his office building, directly behind the twin towers. His life was destroyed and he never returned to his lucrative position in the financial industry. There are countless other stories that I’ve heard from my friends that show various levels of fear based reactions to things that push you beyond the sanity we all depend on.

Marcy Borders’ damage can be seen in the “dust lady” picture; it’s in her eyes and in the expression on her face. I experienced only a part of what she did and I can own, to a smaller extent, everything that she suffered. I never got lost in drugs or alcohol and gave up on my life, but I am lucky, not brave or a Darwinian success. To understand Marcy, you’d have to have been in the subway where I was and seen the people the with me and their heart-breaking reactions. You’d have to have friends who left New York City as quickly as possible days after 911. You’d have to know someone who collapsed in on themselves and could never come out.


The thing about the picture of the “dust lady” is that so much of what made 911 what it was is there in her face. The numbing shock, the fear, the destruction of confidence, the soul crushing sadness, the loss of the American dream. For all of us in the New York area, not just those who got covered with dust, that was the way we felt. And I realize now that, despite the walls I’ve put up about 911 and the accommodations I’ve made to my fear and depression, seeing Marcy Borders covered with dust, mouth open, stupefied and in shock, brings it all back and destroys my defenses.

Marcy manifested all the evil I’ve mentioned in her life, against her will,  which make her an incredibly important figure. Look at it this way: a devoted mother, an ambitious woman happy to be working for a large reputable company, a solid citizen, this person, in a period of a few hours became an empty shell, unable to work, barely able to leave her house. That was the loss of 911 embodied in a young woman.

What hit me most and made me cry when I read about Marcy a few days ago was the end game. Marcy Borders died of stomach cancer three years after she came out of rehab. Catching up with her when she had always been my 911 muse and nothing else after all these years was devastating To have Marcy become a real person in seconds and have all this back story wash over me was horribly disturbing. What was worse is that it seems likely that her illness came from the asbestos, glass dust, and other toxic substances she breathed in for hours on 911. As she said, despite her efforts, it had finally caught up with her. She had lost.


All of us are ordinary people, fathers, mothers, workers, and all of us were what you saw in Marcy Border’s life: she was the most ordinary person you could think of who was gut-punched and robbed of her humanity and her future. And that is the essence of terrorism, destroying culture and destroying faith In culture. Marice died days before the 911 anniversary in 2014. On 911 her circle celebrated her life.

As odd as it sounds I would have wanted her to be there and it galls me that she wasn’t. Because Marcy Borders could have been me and most of the people I know who comes from the New York area. After looking at her picture for years I had always hoped that I would meet her. But that won’t happen.

Here’s to Marcy. And all she wanted for herself and her children. I won’t forget her.


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