Arlene Charles: A downward spiral to safety
WTC elevator starter relives tragic day
The following story is one in a series of profiles based on interviews from "Tower Stories," an independent project showcasing firsthand accounts from people directly and indirectly affected by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Everything around her was pitch black. But there was no mistaking the sounds.
The first -- a colossal "Boom! Like everything started shattering in the building" -- thrust Arlene Charles flat on her face by the north tower's 78th floor Command Desk, which she was working as an elevator starter the morning of September 11.
The lights went out, then came the screams. After a few petrified minutes, Charles recognized that the screams were coming from her friend and colleague, Carmen Griffith.
The two followed each other's voices and when they finally met up -- several minutes after Flight 11 slammed into the building, less than a dozen floors up -- Griffith was "bawling" and burning, said Charles.
"She was literally on fire," Charles, 46, recalled in her distinct Grenadan accent. "Her face was all red. Her fingers peeled back. No skin left."
Charles gathers outside First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, New York, with former colleagues after support group meeting for World Trade Center survivors.
Griffith later said a blaze surged into her face when she tried to open the door of the elevator she was riding. She managed to squeeze onto the 78th floor landing -- even as the flames continued to ravage her skin.
A man on that floor invited Charles and Griffith into his office as they tried to somehow assuage Griffith's pain and plot what to do next. Charles' colleagues radioed her constantly, urging her to head downstairs. But Charles wouldn't budge unless her friend, Griffith, went with her.
Then "Carmen told me, 'Arlene, I don't want to die like this. Let's get out of here,'" Charles recalled.
Aided by a Port Authority worker who had followed Griffith's screams from the 88th floor, they began the slow, grueling descent down 20, 40, then 60 floors. On the way, a stranger offered his shirt and water, and firemen opened their hoses to soothe Griffith, who was still crying out that she was burning, said Charles.
Charles reached the concourse and threw herself down on the floor, exhausted, until a co-worker came over and led her to an ambulance. Moments after she left the ambulance, the south tower fell -- and Charles was on the run again.
"I felt like the whole city was falling apart," she said. "I didn't see anybody I know. I saw this guy and I begged him, 'Please don't leave me,' because I was scared. 'No'... he said. 'I'm not leaving you.'"
After that, Charles walked and walked and walked -- eventually over the Brooklyn Bridge and over to the intersection of Dean Street and Third Avenue, where a cousin picked her up. They went to her aunt's house but Charles couldn't go home: Her house key, as well as her money and pocketbook, were by then somewhere in the Trade Center rubble.
In time, Charles did return home. She met up with her petrified 13-year-old son Jamahl who, thinking his mother had died, ran away from school at lunchtime, and she comforted her other son, 10-year-old Jaleel. And after fielding phone calls from concerned relatives, friends and school administrators, Charles finally gave herself time to breathe.
Her workplace of the last 21 years, the north tower, was gone. Her livelihood would have disappeared too, Charles said, if not for the earnest efforts of her union to keep her afloat financially.
But far worse, many of Charles' friends -- some close friends such as a colleague who died taking a group up to the 106th floor, other casual acquaintances like those from Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading firm based on the tower's 101st through 105th floors -- were also gone.
"We knew everybody in that building," said Charles. "It was like a family."
"This is something I'll never get over. Never," she added. "I came to this country 30 years ago [from Grenada]. I love this country. But this wasn't what I expected, you know?"
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