Life in the United States changed forever on the morning of September 11, 2001, when Al-Qaeda terrorists crashed two jumbo jets into New York City’s World Trade Center, killing thousands. Another jet attacked the Pentagon, and a fourth came down in Pennsylvania. The trauma was greatest for those most immediately affected: survivors, family, friends and lovers. Ask them how they got through the past decade, and chances are they’ll say, “I don’t know,” or simply, “Love.”
We spoke with three of them, brave Latinas who faced unimaginable tragedy and somehow found ways to reclaim their lives. These are their stories.
High school sweethearts Iliana Guibert-McGinnis and Thomas McGinnis had been married 10 years when she got pregnant in 1996. The Cuban American actress and former sales manager remembers buying blue and pink balloons and tucking her positive pregnancy-test stick inside a greeting card as a way of sharing the news with her husband. When he opened it, they cried.
The plan, of course, was to raise Caitlin together, marking all the milestones: first day of kindergarten, first boyfriend, quinceañera, driver’s license, high school graduation. Instead, on September 11, 2001, Guibert-McGinnis found herself on a phone call no one ever imagines receiving: It was Thomas, 41, a commodities broker, calmly saying that he and his coworkers were trapped above the plane wreckage in the North Tower; he wasn’t going to make it. “I love you—take care of Caitlin,” he said moments before the line went dead.
For Guibert-McGinnis, losing her soul mate, with his “great heart and sense of humor, off-the-charts intelligence and confidence,” meant losing “half of me” all at once. For their daughter, who was then 4, it has been a gradual process of discovery.
“When a child of that age loses someone, there’s only so much they can understand,” Guibert-McGinnis, 50, says. “She’s going to have different questions as she gets older. One year she’d ask me, ‘When’s Daddy coming back from his trip to Heaven?’ And then other times she’d ask, ‘I don’t understand, why weren’t the men on the plane looking where they were driving?’ Then she gets older and finally realizes, ‘My dad wasn’t just killed in an accident. My dad was murdered.’ It all takes time.”
To help Caitlin feel a continuing connection to her father, Guibert-McGinnis tells her stories about him, and points out how she’s like her dad, from how she holds her spoon to the shape of her feet. “She’s a big reader, and her father used to read five newspapers a day,” Guibert-McGinnis says. “Or I’ll say, ‘Caitlin, you have an incredible, innate sense of direction and you get that from Daddy,’ because Thomas would go somewhere once and five years later he could get there again. She’s the same way.”
Through the years, Guibert-McGinnis and her daughter, now 14, have developed a bond so tight that it goes beyond mother and daughter. “It’s almost like coworkers who went through the tragedy together, who don’t even have to speak to know what the other is feeling,” she says.
That bond has helped Guibert-McGinnis keep her sense of hope alive. In January 2010, she decided to pursue her lifelong dream—a full-time acting career. She has been in several plays, including two for New York’s highly regarded Spanish-language theater, Repertorio Español. “I love those feelings that you get when you’re watching a great film or a play,” she says. “Just the other night my daughter stayed up with me watching Titanic. All the joy, the pain, the crying, the laughter—it’s powerful. It’s magic. I always wanted to do that for people.”
Essie Lacay loves winter. In winter, there are no bright blue skies and sunny days, the kind that remind the 50-year-old Dominican of the morning of September 11, when she left home for her job as a recruiter in lower Manhattan. “That was the most beautiful day I’d ever seen, an Indian summer day,” Lacay remembers. “I didn’t know what was waiting for me at the end of that ride.”
What was waiting would change her life. Lacay was one of thousands to flee the World Trade Center as debris and human bodies fell from the sky. Running toward the Brooklyn Bridge, she was lifted off the ground by the force of the collapsing towers, smashed against a building and stabbed by glass shards as giant clouds of dust and ashes engulfed the area. She and scores of others took refuge in a restaurant, convinced they were going to die. “I now understand the Holocaust survivors who say they can still taste death,” she says, clutching her throat.
The effects of that day have left an indelible mark on Lacay, who endured four surgeries and was diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which causes severely debilitating depression and anxiety. Sometimes she relives the events of September 11. Other times she only becomes aware of her condition when other people notice it: Someone will point out that she is biting down on her lip so hard that it is bleeding, or that she is speaking so loudly and agitatedly that people are staring.
To look at Lacay is to see the face of ongoing trauma—but also the face of a fighter. On September 11, when rescue workers tried to tend to her profuse bleeding, she urged them to see to a nearby woman instead. “Take care of her, she doesn’t even have shoes,” Lacay said. Psychiatric treatment and family support have helped, and she’s now working for a human rights group and pursuing a master’s in journalism at Columbia University. “I am permanently disabled, but I’m reclaiming my life,” she says.
A major turning point came in May, when President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan. “My spirit was lifted,” Lacay says. “I didn’t know what closure meant up until that point because, c’mon, we’re Latinas—you just bear it and grin. Now I’ve got this sense of urgency to tell the world what people with PTSD go through so they understand.” A divorced, single mom of two grown sons, she has slowly begun dating again. “I’m out to get the old Essie back,” she says. “There is something very serene that’s happening in the midst of all this chaos, and I pray to God that it’s the healing that I’m eventually going to reach.”
Love like this doesn’t die.
It took Jimmy Pappageorge a year to even approach Gina Pinos at the gym where she worked out and he was a trainer. And it took him months to come back to her after he suddenly disappeared in the midst of their whirlwind romance. But when he did come back, it was for keeps. He said he had left because he didn’t have a worthy job. Now he was an emergency medical technician with hopes of joining the New York City Fire Department. But she was already pregnant from another relationship. “I was like, ‘Are you crazy? You’re 25, you’re beautiful’— ’cause the man was built like a body builder,” Pinos remembers with a laugh. “I told him to run for the hills! And he was like, ‘No, I fell in love with you.’ ”
Pappageorge, who was Argentinean Greek, said he wanted to take care of her and the baby on board for the rest of his life. “And he did,” says Pinos, 39, who is Ecuadorean American, and does outreach for New York State’s College Savings Program. “To this day, my son Justin [now 15] considers him Pop, and that’s it. He never really formed a bond with his biological father.”
On the morning of September 11, Pinos and Pappageorge kissed and parted for work, like thousands of other couples. By the time she emerged from her train after her commute, she found out about the terrorist attacks. She dialed Pappageorge, who was six weeks into his new job as a firefighter at Engine 23 in midtown Manhattan; he told her he was on his way to the site. “Be careful,” she said, but she never had a chance to tell him the reason to be extra careful before he hurriedly hung up: She had just found out she was pregnant with their first child together. “I was hoping that would hold him back a little, because he was the type of person who would race through fire to save someone, whether they were a bum or a Fifth Avenue socialite,” Pinos says.
A month later, when she was just beginning to accept that her loved one was not unconscious in a hospital or wandering the streets with amnesia, but simply gone, the stress and grief made her miscarry. “Not only did September 11 take away his life, it took my baby’s life too,” she says.
Months later, recovery workers found 29-year-old Pappageorge’s remains in the rubble. “I wanted to creep inside the body bag and go underground with him,” Pinos says. “He was truly the love of my life. He loved me unconditionally, for who I was, and was proud of me and made me feel like a queen. And I’ve never had that from anybody again.”
Pinos married five years after Pappageorge’s death and had two more children, but she divorced earlier this year. She is not sad about the split—and the reason is Jimmy.
“He’s always with me, I can always feel his presence,” Pinos says. “I’m going to live a full life. I’m going to enjoy my children. At the end, I know Jimmy and I will be together again.”