QUEENS, N.Y. (WVVA) — “It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years, but for me it’s like it was yesterday and I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life,“ said Shirley Staunton in a telephone interview with her nephew, WVVA-TV anchor Martin Staunton.
On September 10, 2001, Mrs. Staunton returned to her job as an administrative assistant in a top 50 fortune 500 company with offices in the World Trade Center in New York City. That was a special day in her life, as she was returning to lower Manhattan to work for the first time after a 10 month fight with cancer.
“Any time you’re taking chemo and every time you have surgery and you’re still dealing with chemo you always think, well that’s it. There are always points in your life when you think that, OK I’m not going to make it.” Staunton said as she recounts her return to work the day before the attack on America.
She talked about the mood in her office when she arrived. “There were flowers on my desk and it was a great time. I reacclimated myself to my workspace and fellowship with my coworkers. I didn’t get anything done on the 10th,“ Staunton said with a laugh, adding, “I was looking forward to the 11th because it was going to be my first real day back at work.”
The Oak Hill, West Virginia native recalls her arrival to the World trade Center on September 11.
She says 3 three things saved her from being inside her office at World trade when the first plane hit the first tower: A congratulatory call from her sister, window shopping for a pair of shoes, and an impulsive craving for a pastry.
“I put my feet on the plaza, I started towards my office and I had to get a muffin. I had to. And I was thinking, I had just passed the muffin shop and I said to myself I have to go get a muffin,” Staunton recalled. “I’m only going to be a minute, I’m only going to be a minute, I’m gonna go get that muffin and I turned around and I walked away from the trade center. If I had of kept in the way I was going I would have been right there in the middle of the plaza when the first plane went down. You know, in the place where that priest was killed. I would’ve been right there.”
Instead, Staunton was in the bakery across the street from where the catastrophic first strike in the attack on America was unfolding.
“I saw these people running and I was terrified,” she said. “Actually I hid behind the Coke machine because I thought, I thought it was someone with a gun or something on the street coming my way because people were running. And when I finally got outside I looked up and I see though, I could see the whole imprint of the plane in tower one.
“I could, I could see the imprint. I see the wings, the body of the plane and the wings again all the way across. It took up the whole span of the top floors of One World Trade Center and everybody stopped and they started looking up and was saying oh no that was an accident. For the life of me, I have no clue why I said that, but I said that looks like terrorists, but, I don’t know why I said that.”
Staunton says while other people were flocking to see the fire grow in Tower One, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed to run.
“And all I could think of was that the top floor of that building was going to fall. I thought it was going to fall down on me, I’m standing down,” she said, remembering every detail. “I couldn’t figure out how far I had to run to get away from it. That’s why I started running down John Street and I ran down John Street. And as I’m running down I heard the second plane and as I heard the second plane I turned and looked over my shoulder and I watched it go into tower two. I watched it. And at that moment that’s when I panicked. I couldn’t see anything. I started just running.”
In the rush of people, Aunt Shirley says it was a familiar face in the crowd that lead her to a safe place.
“My girlfriend grabbed me by the arm and said there you are. And we went into a building on John Street. And I went in the basement and hid until it was over.”
When asked what it was like when the collapse of the building happened, Staunton says, “I could hear the sound of those buildings going down today and it’s 20 years later. I can hear the whoosh the sound it made and the feeling I had when I knew that the people had died, that so many people were dying and I’ll, I’ll never forget it as long as I live. The sound of that building collapsing and then that huge cloud of smoke or debris that rolled down the street, down the, down the canyon as if it was pure terror.” Staunton said.
The space inside the sanctuary she found filled quickly and the doors were locked. She remembers people outside running up and pounding on the doors, to escape the toxic cloud of dust and debris that filled the air in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.
Staunton and the others were there for hours before they emerged to begin a solemn march off Manhattan Island, after witnessing and surviving the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil. She echoes the sentiment that emerged in the days, weeks, and months that followed.
“If I wanted to say any good thing happened out of 911 it was the feeling that we were all one, which we don’t have, we’re not experiencing today,” said Staunton. “We are, we had, we had great, the feeling of being United, a United States of America no matter who you were. No matter what your ethnicity or where you were from. We were one and that was a good feeling. That was…I felt, very close to all the people in the city and all those people. We felt as one America.”