ARDSLEY, N.Y Suzanne Lesters voice often falters, and when that happens she has to stop talking, spray her mouth with the nebulizer and take deep breaths.
She said that it was not like that before 9/11, when she was caught in the cloud of dust from the collapsing World Trade Center and then worked for days as crisis council, driving back and forth the contaminated site to pick up and drop volunteers.
I wasnt sick a day before 9/11. I was like a bull, she said, mentioning that she used to run and teach tennis.
Sitting in her two-story house at a quiet street in Ardsley, where she has lived since 1979, Lester, 59, recounted with vivid images what happened to her in the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
As a representative for the union for non-pedagogical school workers, she went to visit a school at Warren Street in lower Manhattan, just three blocks from what its today Ground Zero. But after the first plane hit the World Trade Center and the commotion started, she decided to go back to her car, parked by the Hudson River. It was then that she saw the second plane.
It was so fast and so low, she said.
United Airlines flight 175 hit the south tower at 9:05 a.m.
I could see all the debris flying, and the screams, Lester said.
Halting the car at a traffic light on West Street, she looked at the towers and was puzzled by what seemed to be balloons, red, yellow and pink balloons hanging on the windows. Until she understood that people were jumping from the building.
I realized that they were not balloons, because they were not going up, they were coming down, she said.
She wanted to go back to the union office at the nearby Barclay Street, but a policewoman wouldnt let her pass, so she drove north, parked her car near Watts Street and started walking down Greenwich Street. Suddenly, people started running, she said.
The south tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m.
I hear a rumbling. I see a whole block of smoke coming out to me, and I am sure I am going to die, she said.
The next thing she remembered was her waking up inside her car, with three men knocking on the window and repeating, Lady, you have to get out of the middle of the street.
It was past noon and she was covered on debris. How she ended up there remains a blank in her life.
I had cuts in my forehead and my arms, but I dont know what happened to me, she said.
She was still shaking when she arrived at home. But her boss at the union called and said he needed her, so after a nap she went to the Javits Center on West 34th Street, where she spent the next days counseling 9/11 volunteers, driving them to their homes and back and forth Ground Zero.
Ten years later, she suffers from respiratory and digestive illnesses, as well as an autoimmune disease that affected her nerves and condemned her to walk with a cane. She said that she is sure all her ailments came from her exposure to the toxic materials liberated by the attacks.
I know how healthy I was before 9/11, she said.
Lester said that only her medical bills were three times the $25,000 she received from the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, and that she is applying for more.
Even though she regrets being sick and thinks that the government should have done more for 9/11 first responders, Lester, who has two daughters, considers herself lucky to be alive.
There are 3,000 people that dont get to see their children, she said.
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