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New York survivor: 'Uh-oh, here we go again'

Queens woman says brushes with disaster were life-changing

Twilight falls on Manhattan after electrical power has been restored.
Twilight falls on Manhattan after electrical power has been restored.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Lifelong New Yorker Annette Tow has had front-row seats to nearly every catastrophe to strike the city for decades -- and survived unscathed.

"I would say I have had a run of good luck," Tow, 62, said from her home in Flushing, Queens.

Tow's Zelig-like flirtations with disaster include New York's 1965 and 1977 blackouts, and the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The latest was Thursday, when another blackout struck the city and much of the Northeast, the Great Lakes region and portions of Canada.

After her company's offices were destroyed September 11, 2001, the firm moved to Hoboken, which was where Tow was Thursday -- seated on a commuter train bound for Manhattan -- when the lights went out and the air conditioning failed.

"I started thinking, 'Uh-oh, here we go again,' " she said.

She made her way to a ferry, which carried her to Manhattan. From there, she walked to a church near Chinatown and spent the night in a pew.

It wasn't until Friday that she was able to get a ride back to Queens.

Two previous blackouts

It was a far more comfortable experience 38 years ago, when the James Bond thriller "Thunderball" was in theaters and Tow was in the last trimester of her first pregnancy.

She had taken time off from her job teaching at a New York City junior high school and was home when the power failed.

Her husband, Chuck, stayed overnight at a hotel in midtown Manhattan.

"He got to watch 'Thunderball.' I wanted to watch it so badly. I was so taken with Sean Connery then."

By the time the next blackout hit, on a sweltering night in July 1977, Tow had three children. She spent the night seated outside, keeping an eye on her brother's drugstore to ensure that no one broke its windows and looted it.

But the next day, she discovered that someone had broken through the roof, apparently searching for drugs.

That was about the time of the city's budget crisis, and Tow lost her teaching job and entered the business world as a securities analyst with a reinsurance brokerage house.

Terrorist attacks

On February 26, 1993, Tow was working on the 53rd floor of the World Trade Center's south tower, eating a salad at her desk, when she heard an explosion.

"The building shook a little bit, and then my computer went out, then the lights went out," she said.

When smoke reached her floor, her supervisor told her to evacuate, but the emergency stairwell was dark. Tow was one of the few with a flashlight, and she used it to avoid tripping over high-heeled shoes that office workers had discarded in their flight.

Smoke permeated the staircase and Tow, who is asthmatic, began to cough. Once she reached the street, public transportation was halted and cabs were unavailable, so she had little choice but to walk.

"I remembered coughing my way up to Chinatown, where I knew there was an express van to go back to Flushing," she said.

After a month in Midtown offices, she was told to report back to the World Trade Center. "Some of my coworkers quit; some refused to go back," Tow said. But the job market was tight, and she returned.

On September 11, 2001, Tow had been at her desk on the 54th floor of the south tower for about an hour when the north tower was hit by a hijacked jetliner.

"The building shook, and I heard my coworkers yelling to get out, to run," she said.

Seated far from any window, Tow did not immediately grasp the magnitude of what had happened. Instead, she continued working until a coworker returning for her purse yelled at her. Looking up, Tow found the work area was nearly empty.

"She says, I better get out. I looked out the window and saw a lot of debris falling. It was in flames. I ran towards the door."

Then, realizing she had left her sneakers and pocketbook containing her asthma medication, she returned and grabbed them, then headed downstairs. This time, the emergency stairwell was lighted -- one of the changes the building had undergone after the 1993 attack.

Around the time she reached the 30th floor, the building shook again -- "a very hard thump."

"We hung on to the banisters and railings, because it really shook the building. It swayed," she said. Soon, the smell of jet fuel permeated the staircase, searing into her consciousness.

Empty sky

After she reached a church across the street she looked up. The north tower, where her company also had offices, was shrouded in smoke.

Tow decided it was time to go. When she reached Chinatown, several blocks north, she again looked up "and there was empty space where the World Trade Center was."

She made her way to a relative's apartment on the Lower East Side, where she was given a cup of tea and sat in front of a television to watch the events unfold.

It was not until that night, when a niece gave her a ride over the river, that she got back to Queens.

Tow said the catastrophes she has witnessed have changed her life.

"I will not put things off now," she said. She also resolved "to do more good deeds, in the sense that you think about your mortality. I wanted to be more positive, and leave a positive memory on other people."

Would she consider leaving New York?

"No. I just feel that one doesn't run away from one's problems, and I still feel that I can contribute," she said. "I can make the place better."


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