A British survivor of the 9/11 terror attacks has said the friends she lost “deserve to be remembered” on the 20th anniversary of the day she is “never going to forget”.
Janice Brooks, then aged 41, had been in New York for just under three weeks when she was caught up in the chaos that unfolded on September 11, 2001.
Two decades later, she is still brought to tears when remembering the trauma she endured in her escape from the World Trade Centre and the tragic loss of 61 of her colleagues, among the thousands killed.
Speaking to the PA news agency, Ms Brooks, now 61, hopes that sharing her story will help ensure those who died are not forgotten by future generations.
Now living in Norfolk with her two dogs, Ms Brooks said counselling helped her process the events but she still finds it difficult to talk about it.
She said: “I’m just a very ordinary girl… all I did that day was go to work, all any of us did was go to work, and if something like that can happen to me it can happen to anybody.
“I can close my eyes and be back there in an instant. The sights, the sounds, the smell… oh my god, the smell that stayed in your throat for months afterwards.”
At 7.30am on the day of the attacks, Ms Brooks, originally from east London, arrived early at her 84th floor office in the South Tower where she worked as executive assistant to the chief executive of Euro Brokers, a financial brokerage firm.
She recalls a “dull thud” that sent paperwork swirling, but was not “unduly concerned”. She and colleagues were unaware that American Airlines Flight 11 had hit the North Tower.
Someone on her floor suddenly screamed for people to evacuate and a “casual” Ms Brooks decide to inform her former London boss before leaving.
His concerned reaction over the phone left her alarmed: “F****** hell, Janice. A plane’s gone into the building. Get the f*** out of there.”
But as she tried to evacuate, an announcement told workers to return to their offices and Ms Brooks got caught with others in a corridor on about the 78th floor as United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south tower.
Ms Brooks recalled a “really, really loud thud”, flickering lights, the ceiling come down with bits of metal and wiring and people being thrown to the floor.
Nearby there was “one of those horror movie screams” from an injured woman that “went on forever”. Ms Brooks said: “If I really concentrate I can still hear it now.”
Her group cleared debris, helping to rescue workers covered in cuts and glass, but discovered the stairs they had come up were gone and all that could be seen was “darkness and flames”.
Thankfully, a door was found to another flight of stairs and the battered group “coughing and crying” climbed down through the dust, glass and running water.
Ms Brooks remembers a scream “building up inside me” after noticing blood from the walking wounded on her shirt and “oozing” through her toes on the floor.
After finally exiting the building she eventually looked back: “Where our floor should have been there was a big gaping hole and I could see flames”.
It was 9.43am and within the next 46 minutes both towers had collapsed.
Ms Brooks was back at her Battery Park City apartment just 10 minutes away and remembers the windows turning “black” and the building “trembling” as the North Tower fell.
“I sat there and rocked backwards and forwards and I was crying and I thought I was going to die. The building’s going to fall for sure and I’m going to die and I’m by myself,” she said.
In the hours that followed, Ms Brooks spoke on the phone to colleagues and friends and waded through “thigh high” debris to escape from her apartment building into the “utter silence” of lower Manhattan.
“All the trees were white, I looked across the road, there was cars tumbled on top of each other and strewn across the highway,” she said.
Helped by numerous “wonderful” strangers she travelled to the safety of a colleague’s home.
“I remember coming out of the shower and just looking at myself in the mirror and knowing my life would never be the same,” she said.
The next day she helped field inquiries from missing colleagues’ “desperate” families, saying the calls were “heartbreaking”.
Today, Ms Brooks knows that had things been different, if she had followed colleagues more quickly back up the South Tower, she would be “dead for sure”.
“Survivor’s guilt brings you to your knees… and I’ve often looked back and thought… why did I get out and other people didn’t, and I can’t answer that,” she said.
Ms Brook said she had to “let that go” when asked if she bears resentment to the 9/11 attackers, adding: “If I let that eat me alive, they’re taking my life as well.”
“If I live my life haunted with that and obsessed with that, I’ll have no life,” she said.
She now supports Since 9/11, a UK charity which runs educational programmes for children to learn about the history and legacy of the attacks and encourages them to reject violence and extremism, giving talks about her experience.
She finds sixth form pupils are “so keen” to learn and hear her story and said she imparts on them a message of “hope that tomorrow will be a better day”.
“My friends deserve to be remembered, it’s that simple,” she concluded.
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