An Interview with Jean Potter, WTC Survivor

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

Ten years have passed since 9/11, and to preserve the memories of that day Undicisettembre is continuing to collect the accounts of the people who witnessed that dramatic day directly.

Today we are publishing an interview with Jean Potter with her kind permission. When the first plane hit, she was on the 81st floor of the North Tower, where she worked for Bank of America. Her husband, firefighter Dan Potter, had been assigned temporarily to Ladder 10 and was on the scene of the disaster.

On the tenth anniversary of the attacks, Jean Potter has published a valuable book, "By the Grace of God", which Undicisettembre reviewed here (in Italian). The book is a detailed account of her experience.

We thank Jean Potter for her kindness and willingness to share her thoughts.

Undicisettembre: What do you remember, generally speaking, about that morning? Can you give us a brief account of your experience?

Jean Potter: The day began as usual, except I needed to be at work a bit earlier, arriving at 7:30 AM instead of my usual 8:00 AM to prepare for a breakfast meeting with executives from our North Carolina office. Everything was up-to-speed and I was debating if I should run downstairs to the concourse to do some errands or stay at my desk in case I was needed for anything. As I am thinking "should I stay or should I go".... a thunderous explosion louder than anything I had ever heard ripped through our building. What came to me was "this is not your time, we are with you, your brother is with you" (I lost my brother in 1999).

The building swayed from side to side and we were afraid it was going to topple over. Smoke filled the air immediately, ceiling tiles were falling from the ceiling, lights were swaying, people were trying to regain their balance...the smell of jet fuel filled the air immediately. One of our associates yelled "get to the staircase". Fortunately I was right near a staircase. We made our way down to the 44th Floor Sky Lobby when all of a sudden another horrific explosion happened and we couldn't ascertain if it were our building or where it was coming from.... I was afraid to look out of the window, but out of the corner of my eye I could see fireballs, flaming debris and paper littering the clear blue sky....it was horrifying. We were gridlocked on that Sky Lobby and one of the associates who I was coming down with got us onto another staircase. Again, smoke was filtering in, it was warm and sticky.

We started seeing Firemen come up the stairs somewhere around the 25th floor, one of whom I knew, Lt. Vincent Giammona. My husband drove Lt. Giammona at Ladder 5. I grabbed his arm and said "Vinny be safe". Vinny never made it down that day, which would have been his 40th birthday. He left behind a wife and 4 beautiful daughters.

I came out of the North Tower at exactly 9:55 AM, just 3 minutes before the South Tower collapsed. I walked one block and all of a sudden I heard this horrible "rumbling" sound and thought "maybe this is my time, maybe I am going to die, which way is this building going to fall? how can I outrun this thing after walking down 81 flights in heels?..." and a NYC Police Officer pulled me into a subway station.....

My husband Dan survived what they refer to as "the black zone where everyone was killed", not once, but twice. He was underneath both building collapses and survived, By The Grace of God. There is a very famous photo of him taken 10 years ago seated on a bench outside of our apartment in Battery Park City, at which point he thought I had perished as the North Tower had just collapsed. He had to break into our apartment and a call came in from his father telling him that I was safe and at a firehouse in Chinatown, at which point he came to get me. When he arrived, not in civilian clothing as I expected, he was in his bunker gear, with blood-red eyes. I asked him "where were you?" and he responded "you don't want to know"....

We couldn't get home for several weeks as we lived in Battery Park City, where the Towers stood. He was injured on 9/11 and had to retire the following year. He does suffer from pulmonary issues and asthma as well. We moved in December of 2001 to Bronxville, NY and then in 2005, we moved to Lords Valley, PA.

Jesus had a plan to save my husband's life which began on Good Friday of 2001. Dan had gone into Ladder 5 after being on vacation. His first day back was Good Friday. There was this other fireman (not a typical fireman of course) who was always giving Dan a hard time about one thing or another, the most recent being was the fact that he parked his vehicle at the firehouse as we lived a few minutes from there and it is impossible to park in NYC. Dan walked into the firehouse with newspapers and cake for the "boys" when this guy comes downstairs and starts to push and shove my husband (who is a lot bigger and stronger than this guy) and is looking to start a fight with him.

My husband dropped everything, told his bosses what was happening and left the firehouse. He was AWOL (absent without leave). You never leave the firehouse... its run like a military organization, but my husband could have easily done a lot of harm to him if he hit him and my husband is no fighter, he is an absolute gentleman. Thus began a very tumultuous time for us, as he had to go on medical leave, and decided to transfer out of Ladder 5. I do discuss this in the book...I would leave the house in the morning saying "Jesus said 'I am always with you, I will never leave you'". I knew in my heart there was a very powerful reason for all of this happening. This guy was the tool Jesus used to get Dan out of the firehouse. If he were still at Ladder 5, he would certainly have been killed as he was scheduled to work that day.

What is so important and the reason why I wrote this book as to honor those who perished, to tell the message of Jesus, that not only were we spared, but HE pulled us through our darkest hour and if He can do that for us He can do that for anyone, and to donate a portion of the proceeds to The Wounded Warrior Project and The FealGood Foundation.

Undicisettembre: What can you tell us about people who were leaving the building? Were they panicking or did they remain calm?

Jean Potter: Everyone was pretty much in a state of shock. There was no panic. When we were brought down under the Towers in the Concourse of The World Trade Center there was a human chain of security workers screaming at us to "run, hurry, run". We had to follow this human chain out of the building.

Undicisettembre: During Tower 1's evacuation, it took you a long time to get out of the building. In that time, what were the conditions of the building?

Jean Potter: The staircase became very warm and smokey with the smell of jet fuel (of course I did not know what that was at the time). We didn't sense destruction but whenever someone opened one of the stairwell doors leading onto the floor, there was smoke down on the lower floors. The jet fuel had run down the elevator shafts igniting fires on lower floors. The only other explosion I heard was when I was in the Sky Lobby on 44, that is when the South Tower was hit. My boss has said that when he went to his office to retrieve his cell phone he was actually running "down hill", that's how close we, on the 81st floor, were to the impact zone. Also when we got to the lobby, there was complete devastation with all of the thick lobby glass windows blown out, as the building had twisted upon impact.

Undicisettembre: How was the evacuation: orderly or chaotic? I guess evacuation and fire drills were very frequent: did this training somehow help?

Jean Potter: The evacuation was very orderly, but as they say "all bets were off". We often had fire drills, but we had no time to follow the standard operating procedures of calling down to the lobby to get info, we just had to evacuate immediately. All of the communication was cut off in our building anyway, due to how the plane entered.

Undicisettembre: What can you tell us about the firefighters and the rescuers?

Jean Potter: I had a tremendous sense of relief when I saw the Firemen, I just knew they would take care of the situation. 16 - 17,000 of us survived due to the heroic efforts of the Firemen and First Responders and also civilians helping other civilians.

Undicisettembre: In your account you mention hearing a second explosion, do you know if it was the second plane crashing into the South Tower or if it was another kind of explosion?

Jean Potter:It was definitely the second plane going into the South Tower.

Undicisettembre: Throughout the day were you aware of what your husband was facing? Where you receiving any news from or about him?

Jean Potter: I kept thinking my husband was still in Staten Island at his Lieutenant's Study Course. I am a fairly intelligent person, but God kept me thinking that he was safe in Staten Island and that kept me walking in a different direction. If I thought for one moment he would be on-scene, I would have walked to 10 House, the firehouse on Liberty Street, and I certainly would not be here today.

Undicisettembre: After 9/11, you had to stay a few weeks in a hotel because your home was seriously damaged. What happened to you in those days and how were the city and its citizens in the days after the tragedy?

Jean Potter: We could not get home for 3 weeks. It was a very difficult time for us....eerie....frigtening...we were so filled with post traumatic stress. My husband, although injured continued doing rescue and recovery. It was a very grief-stricken time. Words can never really describe it fully. I believe the City and the country came together though, to help one another. God Bless America!

Undicisettembre: You came out of the North Tower a few minutes before the South Tower collapsed. How did people react after it collapsed?

Jean Potter: I cleared the building by 3 minutes before the South Tower came down. Fortunately for me, a Police Officer pulled me into a subway station, as I could not have outrun that collapse after walking down 81 flights in heels. People were like zombies, I know I was. Again, you can never express what it was actually like.....but I will say it was Hell on earth. I was walking in grey falling snow, and my husband was in the black cloud.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories that claim that 9/11 was an inside job? Most of them say that the Twin Towers were filled with explosives (not seen by anyone) that caused them to collapse. Some more extreme theories say that no plane ever hit the towers and what we saw on TV were just fake images; they believe maybe missiles hit the buildings or a bomb exploded from inside. What's your opinion about them?

Jean Potter: THIS MAKES ME CRAZY AND I WOULD ASK THEM "WHERE WERE YOU ON 9/11?" This is absolutely disgraceful.

I would like to say how God pulled Dan and I through our darkest hour. He pulled us through and if He could do that for us during this horrific time in our lives, He can do that for anyone going through anything.

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