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Williamsville woman cherishes symbols of her Sept. 11 survival

She still has the shirt, a white short-sleeved shirt bearing the soot stains.

Lisa Amatura hasn’t washed that shirt for 15 years.

It’s a symbol, a painful reminder of Sept. 11, 2001. But it also is a reminder of her survival during the worst terrorist act in our nation.

It’s the shirt Amatura wore the day the planes hit. The shirt she held to her face as she fled down 78 floors of stairs at the World Trade Center. And the shirt she wore around her neck, like a boxer, as she walked away from the war zone.

“For me, it’s a symbol of survival, but there’s that fine line between being able to understand that, yes, it helped me survive … but it’s hard for me to feel gratitude and relief when so many people lost their lives that day,” Amatura said.

She also has another more important and cherished symbol of that day – her now 14-year-old daughter, Francesca.

What Amatura didn’t know at the time, as she cheated death that day, was that she was pregnant with her second daughter, “Frankie.” So when Amatura escaped from a 78th floor office in the North Tower, about six floors below the dividing line between death and possible survival, she also gave her daughter a chance at life.

“She was definitely my guardian angel,” Amatura said.

“We try not to emphasize to her too much that, ‘You were the miracle, a survivor, the one that saved me,’ because that was the feeling I had toward her,” Amatura said.

Her family tries not to put that pressure on Francesca, to force her to live up to such lofty standards.

“But certainly she’s a fighter,” her mother said. “I consider her one of maybe the youngest (Sept. 11) survivors.”

Amatura, a former Lancaster resident now living in Williamsville, re-told her story this week, on the first day of the StoryCorps initiative that has come to Buffalo for a month, giving pairs of people chances to tell their personal stories.

She certainly has one of the most dramatic.

A day destroyed

Amatura remembers the gorgeous blue-sky day, as she rode in a taxi to the World Trade Center for a morning meeting, while working for Ingram Micro. She looked up at the majestic towers and said, “Wow, that’s so cool that we get to go up there today.”

On the 78th floor, before the meeting, she chatted with friend and colleague Sheri Leach, while standing and taking in the view. She looked at the Statue of Liberty and all the little boats, thinking that she seemed to be almost a mile up in the sky.

The time was 8:46 a.m.

“I was looking out the window at the time, and I remember feeling the impact of the plane hitting the building, and catching out of the corner of my eye, sort of an orangish, red, black smoke explosion, and then looking to my left and seeing the ceiling tiles come down.

“It was almost as though you were waiting for the building to stop moving, to stop listing to the side, and then just paper, tons and tons of paper, out of the window to my right,” she continued.

And then came her immediate reaction.

“First I said, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to die. Oh my God, this is how it’s going to end.’ And then my thoughts went to my 2-year-old daughter at the time (Campbell).”

And what was she thinking about Campbell?

“Who’s going to braid her hair?”

Escaping

Amatura headed for the stairwell and the long, fairly slow parade down 78 floors, as her boss, Patrick Dempsey, helped lead her and a few other colleagues.

She tried not to think of the full 78-floor descent, instead counting each floor one by one, marked by a black stamp bearing the floor number.

“I just kept my eyes on the numbers.”

Battling her own touch of claustrophobia, she focused on staying calm, as more people joined the procession at each floor. People were pushing, not in a mean way, but the group, sticking to the right side of the stairwell, could go only as fast as the slowest people below.

Around the 50th floor, word spread that the first strike had been an airplane, but Amatura and others assumed it was a small plane. Somewhere around the 40th floor, they felt the second plane hit the South Tower.

“You feel the impact of something, the building kind of moving,” she said, reverting to the present tense. “I kicked into this mode where I was almost watching a movie of myself. We are so accustomed to seeing violence on the movies that looks so real that I’m thinking I’m watching this from afar.”

The second plane proved this was no accident, but Amatura marvels now at how naive she was at the time.

“I didn’t really know what terrorism was.”

Meanwhile, the heat and stench were overpowering.

“It got very hot in the stairs very quickly, and the smell of the jet fuel was everywhere, in your hair, in your nose.”

That’s what prompted Amatura to take off the shirt she wore over her pant suit.

“I used it as a rag to cover my face, and then I passed it on to anyone who would need it,” she said.

Firefighters came up the left side of the stairs, toting axes and oxygen, each wave seeming younger and more handsome than the previous one. And one said he was doing this for $35,000 a year, “and he was happy to do it.”

“I felt so proud of them and so protective.”

But Amatura now knows that most, if not all, of those firefighters were climbing toward their own deaths.

Seeing the light

Throughout the descent, Amatura went through emotional peaks and valleys, at times believing her group wouldn’t make it out alive and at other times feeling a sense of calm, preoccupied with counting down the floor numbers.

When did she know she would survive?

“As soon as I put my foot on the ground and saw the sunlight,” she said.

Security implored the fleeing workers to move away from the building as quickly as possible and not look up. Amatura and others couldn’t help looking up.

“That was when we realized the magnitude of what was happening,” she said. “There was that gaping hole in the building and the smoke pouring out and the people jumping. They looked like tiny, little pretend rag dolls falling.

“That’s when my heart broke, because I thought, what was the choice that they just had to make? – ‘Maybe somebody will catch me, or maybe there will be a big trampoline at the bottom.’

“I don’t know, but I’m just horrified that someone had to make that choice.”

Providing perspective

Amatura walked back to her midtown hotel, her soiled shirt wrapped around her neck, and left New York City the next day to return home.

Two days later, she went into a drugstore for a pregnancy test. She learned she was pregnant with her second child. But that didn’t seem as thrilling as it should have been.

“I thought there’s no way this baby is going to make it after what I went through,” she said.

Frankie, of course, did survive, and she’s now starting high school, at St. Mary’s in Lancaster, joining her older sister, Campbell.

Amatura admits to having some survivor’s guilt. Why did she survive when so many others with the will and determination to live didn’t?

But that feeling is accompanied by an obligation to share her story, including the pregnancy angle.

“I think in the beginning, she was kind of embarrassed by the attention of her mom talking about it,” she said of Frankie. “But I think deep inside her, she carries that strength and understands the magnitude of what it means for us to be a family that was thrown into this without any training.”

Amatura has different emotions every Sept. 11. Some years, she feels like crawling into bed and ignoring it, while other years she can’t get enough of the old footage. But she has one constant, a tradition of speaking to St. Mary’s seniors each year on or near the date.

It’s a way for those students, most too young to have remembered Sept. 11, to learn history from someone who lived it.

“They just sit there and stare,” she said, “often being visibly moved.”

Amatura now has three daughters, including 5-year-old Ellie, and she works as a software sales executive for Zerto Inc.

As a survivor, she’s felt pressure to do something great with her life. But the last few years, she’s felt more satisfied with her role as mother, friend, daughter, sister, wife, professional worker.

“I’ve let go of the idea that I am supposed to be X, Y and Z,” she said. “I’m perfectly flawed, like most of us.

“And I’m OK with that.”

email: gwarner@buffnews.com

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