Remembering 9/11 WTC escape

Published 6:00 pm Sunday, September 11, 2011

When United Airlines Flight 175 struck the south tower of theWorld Trade Center 10 years ago, Brookhaven native LaToyaWilcher-Smith narrowly escaped.

“It’s amazing it’s been 10 years,” Wilcher-Smith said from hernew home in Philadelphia, Pa.

Since the attacks, Wilcher-Smith has coped with the traumatic,tragic experience and moved on the best way she can.

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The 1997 Brookhaven High graduate, now 32 years old, was workingat her new job as a catastrophe analyst for a re-insurance companyon the 52nd floor of the south tower on what she recalled as anormal New York City day.

She arrived at her office early, which was usual, from her hotelresidence in nearby Jersey City, N.J.

“I was kind of an over-achiever in those days,” she explained.She had just graduated that summer from Columbia University armedwith a mathematics degree.

“There were not many people there (in the office) at that time,”she said. “I remember the suit I had on and the boots with heels. Ican remember having my leather briefcase with me that I got as agraduation gift. And I was sitting at my desk eating peachyogurt.”

Then she heard a sound she thought to be a large copy machinefalling over somewhere nearby in her building.

“It felt like something heavy hit the ground, and I just kind ofshrugged it off, you know, ‘Whatever, just another day,'” she saidof the noise that turned out to be hijacked American AirlinesFlight 11 crashing into the north tower.

She had an office with no windows. But she discovered someco-workers looking out into the New York City skyline, where theysaw the air littered with debris.

“I see all these different things flying out in the air. Ithought ‘tornado’, being from Mississippi,” she said.

She decided to follow the small group of co-workers to thestairs to make their way out of the building.

“We were going down (the stairs) at a quick pace, but calm, notlike our lives were in danger,” she said.

Soon, announcements were made saying people in the second towerwere safe and should remain in their offices. However,Wilcher-Smith’s group decided they would continue down and returnif necessary.

“If I was by myself I might’ve gone back up,” she said. “I wasglad I was with those people who said we should just leave and comeback if we needed.”

When the group was around the 14th floor, Wilcher-Smith’s towerwas hit.

“That’s when people started panicking,” she said.

After making their way to the ground floor, the group navigatedthrough a ruckus of chaotic people trying to get out. Peoplereaching the outside were met with tumbling rubble, and forced backinside.

Coerced to divert, the group finally found their way through asubway system exit. Wilcher-Smith said she never looked back.

“I think that was maybe my way of protecting myself (mentally),”she said of choosing to move forward while others stopped to watchthe destruction.

The group marched north, toward Greenwich Village, with noparticular destination in mind.

They passed a shop with televisions in the window. The TVs weretuned to news channels showing the planes smashing into the TwinTowers in the now infamous images of smoke and flame.

Wilcher-Smith finally had clarity of what happened for the firsttime since eating her peach yogurt peacefully in her office.

“This was the first time I knew what was really going on,” shesaid. “It was a crazy breaking point for me. That’s when I kind oflost it.”

It was not until later that evening that Wilcher-Smith made ithome safely to Jersey City.

In the weeks that followed, she found it hard to stay in thecity she had grown to love. She returned to Brookhaven and enjoyedspeaking to some of her old teachers’ classrooms about herexperience.

“I was just happy that I knew I had somewhere to go, and glad Ihad a car to get there,” she said.

For the next several years, she moved to several states beforesettling in Philadelphia as the director of infrastructuremanagement systems for Amtrak Engineering. She also spends time inLexington, Ky., where her husband of seven years, Maurio Smith,works. Smith, also a Brookhavenite, is a West Point graduate andserved in Iraq following the attacks.

Wilcher-Smith’s memory of that day stays with her, and she saidshe is not ever afraid or hesitant to talk about it withanyone.

“It’s watching anything on TV that has to do with it or seeingimages of it,” she said. “That’s what makes me really emotional andso sad. I can’t even read the scrolls at the bottom of the screenor even just see a soldier in uniform sometimes. I try and stayaway from it as much as I can.”

Wilcher-Smith said she watched no TV at all for a year after theattacks.

She said she usually plans to be off work when Sept. 11 rollsaround, and this year will be no different.

“I typically just shut down,” she said. “I plan on staying in myapartment, not watching TV and turning my phone off. I just have todo my own type of private thing.”

Wilcher-Smith said the years following that day in 2001 haveseemed somewhat surreal, almost as though she herself had died inthe tragedy along with the thousands of other victims.

She recalled a year or so after the attacks meeting with a lifeinsurance agent. She misspoke and told the agent she wanted herashes when she died to be sprinkled at the World Trade Center. Shemeant to say the Empire State Building, the building that made herfall in love with the city years before.

The mistake from her own mouth gave her chills, she said.

“I literally pinched myself because I thought I was already deadand this was a flash of what my life would’ve been like if I hadgotten out safely.”

“In some ways,” she continued, “I still feel like the last 10years have just been a flash into what life could be.”

In the end, she still lives. She still escaped.

“I feel so immensely blessed and thankful,” she said. “I’m stilltrying to take advantage of the second chances that have beenafforded to me. At any point in time, my life could be verydifferent.”