The woman who couldn't shake off 9/11's dust

On the night of Monday, August 24, Marcy Borders died. As recounted in The Washington Post, she was only 42 years old. She had died after suffering from stomach cancer; but that was only one of the many other ailments that she had undergone: she also suffered from other illnesses, including those of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, depression and chemical addiction. Not many people would have known who she was, but if you remember a particularly searing image from the tragic time of September 11, 2001, you would. 

Apart from Father Mychal Judge, who would posthumously became known as the first victim of the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers, Marcy Borders became a living embodiment of the suffering that people would endure as a result of that horrific day. She was 28 years old at the time and had just started working for the Bank of America at the World Trade Center. As the lifeless (and seemingly sleeping) Father Judge would be immortalized in that photograph of his being carried in a chair by firefighters to a nearby church, Marcy Borders would be immortalized by the photograph taken by Stan Honda of AFP (Agence France-Presse): she would emerge from the crumbling Towers covered from head to foot in a gray dust; still as a statue, frozen in shock and disbelief as she escaped from the scene of devastation, a literal “hell on earth.” Because of the photograph taken of her, she would become known to history as “The Dust Lady.”

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In the wildest imagination, nobody—including Ms. Borders—could have imagined how incomprehensible that terrible day would become as a result of two planes crashing into those two Towers. And yet, she became the living embodiment of the aftermath that affected people: survivors, victims, families, friends and colleagues. In a true sense, she represented everyone, victim and survivor alike. Ms. Borders’ health problems—and eventual death—were the results, as she believed, of the dust that enveloped her back then on that day. As she said, “I’m saying to myself ‘Did this thing ignite cancer cells in me?’ I definitely believe it because I haven’t had any illnesses. I don’t have high blood pressure…high cholesterol, diabetes. How do you go from being healthy to waking up the next day with cancer?” 

The Bayonne, New Jersey resident deeply believed that her subsequent health problems were directly related to what happened to her on that sunny, pleasant day that suddenly turned into an unbearable abyss of pain, suffering and death. Though she was not killed then, she would die almost 14 years to the month of the anniversary when the world—her world—changed. In a report from The Irish Independent, it was recalled how she remembered when the plane hit the building and when it started to sway: “I lost all control, and I went into a frenzy. I fought my way out of that place.”

How hard she fought to get “out of that place.” Her instincts for survival kicked in and helped her to get “out of that place,” but she could never escape it—like the thousands upon thousands of other people who were either survivors, relations, friends or just ordinary people who were also emotionally affected by what that day had wrought.

However, it was a battle she could not win. Along with the health issues she endured, she suffered from severe depression and an addiction to crack cocaine. She was forever haunted by the tragedy; she panicked if she saw an airplane or saw a man on the top of a building, convinced that she would be a target. And she believed that Osama bin Laden was planning more death and destruction. She would lose custody of her two children, her son and her daughter. For almost ten years afterwards, she could not work because of those myriad problems. And after losing custody of her children, she went into rehabilitation in April 2011 in the hopes of regaining her life. She regained her sobriety, but became a victim to another malady: stomach cancer. She had been treated with chemotherapy last summer and was due to have further surgery, radiation and chemotherapy this coming December.

In an interview with Britain’s Telegraph newspaper in 2011—some 10 years after the Tower attacks—Ms. Borders recounted that she still had the skirt, blouse and boots she wore to work that day, “still unwashed and coated in the dust of the Twin Towers.” She said at that time that she tried to avoid looking at that photograph of herself; she hoped that she wouldn’t always be known as “The Dust Lady,” and that she didn’t want to be “a victim anymore.”

Unfortunately for Marcy Borders, she became a victim, and as a result of the numerous illnesses that she endured afterwards, became a victim for a second time. She was also a survivor, for deep down, she never wanted to die, certainly not then and certainly not now. Her fight for survival was a very human impulse and one that could not be easily be eradicated. Though she was nearly overcome by those dark forces of destruction beyond her control, she called forth her reserves of courage to deal with it all, as best she could. 

For some, she might have failed in dealing with these demons; but it is more important to remember what she did not do: she did not give in or give up. If anything, she personified what Ernest Hemingway once said about courage, suffering and endurance: “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.”

Marcy Borders deserves to be remembered, but not just for being the woman who couldn't shake off 9/11's dust. She was the representation of what happens to ordinary people who go about their lives in ordinary ways until, when they are forced through circumstances not of their own doing—or choosing—they somehow manage to call upon those inner resources of determination and courage (which they might have thought they never had or possessed) to deal with what life (or fate) has handed them. She had endured her Calvary; may she, along with everyone else from that day, know the joys of the Resurrection, and may we never forget such faith and fortitude of people like Marcy Borders.

 

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