Michelle Bergstein-Fontanez will never forget the sounds of chaos, the smell of burning debris and metal, or the feeling of walking side by side among thousands of New Yorkers covered in soot and dust.
In the fall of 2001, she was 23 and working as an administrative assistant for Hakuhodo Advertising in a New York City skyscraper at 34th Street and Park Avenue. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the Brooklyn resident took the train into the city, as was her routine, but everything changed just as she was entering her office building. A coworker shared the news about an airplane hitting the World Trade Center, and they scrambled upstairs to find out what happened.
Because they had just moved into their new offices, the Hakuhodo employees didn’t have access to a television — only radios.
“Then the phone calls came in,” Bergstein-Fontanez said, and the next roughly 90 minutes were a chaotic attempt to learn details of the plane crash.
“It was like 10:15 (a.m.) that they let us leave,” she said. “It was that much panic.
“No one knew what was going on,” she said. “We got out of work, just hordes of people were asked to just evacuate the building. … It was so scary. I got down on the ground level, and people were running and panicking and trying to make phone calls and no one could get through.
“I hopped on the first bus I saw,” she said. “They weren’t going past 14th Street, and then you were like, ‘What do I do, where do I go?’” … I’ve got to get home. I started running with the people. … We were literally just running for our lives … I don’t know who I’m with. (And then) I started seeing the people who were covered with soot. They were crying, they were hysterical.”
She estimates she reached the Manhattan Bridge around noon.
“While we were running, we were seeing this like chimney of smoke,” she said. “We didn’t know anything that was happening until I got to that bridge. And even the people who escaped there were so confused and so shocked.”
She said her boss’ husband worked in the Marriott Marquis near the WTC and was one of the people who escaped from the giant dust cloud that erupted when the towers fell.
“He fell, and he said, ‘Someone reached down and lifted me up, and that’s how I got out of there,’” Bergstein-Fontanez said. “It was by the grace of God that he survived that.
“When we got to the Brooklyn side of the bridge, it was really amazing how the New Yorkers pulled through,” Bergstein-Fontanez said. “There were people, like construction people, offering rides in their trucks. … I hopped in the back with the rest of the people who were going in that direction, and they dropped me off like a block from my house. … I got home around 2:30.”
She tried to reach family members by phone, but there still was no communication available. She later learned her brother was stuck all night at Penn Station, and her mother, who worked in Jersey City, had to stay with her coworkers through the night in their office building. Her mother later shared the story of witnessing the entirety of the WTC attacks.
“The one thing that was so consuming was the air,” Bergstein-Fontanez said. “The smell — it was so potent, like that burning smell of metal. And even in the weeks and months that smell just lingered. I feel like they never really said that in the news.”
Bergstein-Fontanez said she returned to work the next Monday.
“We tried to move on; we had to keep going,” she said.
She was ready for a change after experiencing the Northeast blackout in summer 2003, which she said was nearly as traumatic as 9/11 for her. With no power and no subway service, Bergstein-Fontanez found herself walking down 31 flights of stairs. She didn’t think she could walk the 25 blocks to the bridge, so she and two co-workers began knocking on car windows looking for a ride home. They found a kind gentleman willing to drive them, and she was able to get to her Queens home and to her husband.
Not long after, they moved to Ocoee, where she has emersed herself in her family life and in her social media company, Beat Creative Marketing.
She has kept magazines and newspaper articles detailing 9/11 and the aftermath — but she has been unable to watch any of the documentaries.
“I can’t watch this; I was there,” she said. “It triggers me to have all these emotions. Looking at these (magazine) pictures gets me.”
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.