x
Breaking News
More () »

Remembering 9/11 - 20 years later: World Trade Center survivor from Northeast Ohio shares her story with Russ Mitchell

South Euclid native Sheilah Rosen was working on the 23rd floor of the South Tower on September 11, 2001.

SOUTH EUCLID, Ohio — This Saturday marks 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This week, we at 3News are taking time to remember and reflect.

Sheilah Rosen, a South Euclid native, was living in New York City on September 11, 2001. She was just five weeks into a new job on the 23rd floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center when her life was forever changed.

After the events of 9/11, Sheilah stayed in New York for 17 more years, before moving back home to Northeast Ohio in 2018.

She shared her recollections from that day with 3News' Russ Mitchell. Below is a transcript from their conversation:

Russ Mitchell: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today. Welcome home. It's been, what, three years now, since you moved back - Does it feel like 20 years to you. Can you believe it?

Sheilah Rosen: Yes and no. Some of the memories are still pretty fresh and yet I'm in a different place in my life, so, yeah. Yes and no.

Russ Mitchell: How often do you think about that day?

Sheilah Rosen: Well, that's a hard question. I think about it usually when something, when I see other people going through a crisis because I know the fear and the anxiety. I sometimes have little triggers, sometimes unexpected, loud noises, not very often anymore, but usually, it's mostly more of an empathy thing. Yeah. When I see other people in a crisis situation.

Russ Mitchell: So you were in the south tower on the 23rd floor at 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001. What's the first thing that goes through your mind when I mentioned those words?

Sheilah Rosen: Well, I was sitting at my desk looking at an Excel spreadsheet, drinking my iced coffee, and I heard a loud noise and there were often noises in the towers. They, they creaked a little, they would move, but this was a different type of noise. And it was set up so that the offices were in the perimeter, on the perimeter with the windows. And I was in the center in a cubicle and I stood up and I looked south over the cubicles through the window. And it was a beautiful blue sky if you remember. And I saw, I remember seeing papers floating down and we didn't know what had happened.

Sheilah Rosen: I had only been working at the company for five weeks. I didn't really know anybody. And I thought, well, it could be a fire. I better leave. And I grabbed my stuff and found the stairwell, which I now always look for the stairwell. Because I didn't know where it was. And I walked down the steps.

Russ Mitchell: Is everybody leaving at that time? Was it a mass exodus at that point?

Sheilah Rosen: There weren't a lot of people in my office yet. There were people in the stairway, nobody was panicking. We didn't know what had happened, but people were walking. There were a lot of people walking down the steps, but orderly, it wasn't a panic or anything like that. And I remembered later, it's funny the things come back to you later, that as we were walking down the people in front of me, every other floor or so would open the door to see what was happening. And I realized that that's a fire door and had, you know, it had been a little bit later that would have been catastrophic.

Russ Mitchell: Yeah. At what point did that fear set in?

Sheilah Rosen: Well, at this point I was just uneasy. I mean, there was some fear, but it was-- I just wanted to get out and I think it was when I got down, first, I came out of the stairwell and I was disoriented because I'd never walked down the steps before. And I remember seeing the entry to the observation deck up on top. And I finally realized where I was, and I realized I could walk out through the Plaza. There was a Plaza in between the two towers and everybody was coming back towards me and I'm thinking, well, why don't they just go out that way? And I walked to the door and that's when the fear set in, because it was covered in debris, something was burning. It was just shocking to see it.

Sheilah Rosen: So yeah, I think that that's when the fear really hit me, that something had happened, something bad had happened…I didn't go out [into the Plaza] because it was so…I don't even know how to describe it. I've just never seen anything like it. It was like looking at a movie set. It just didn't seem real. So I decided to go home and I went to the lower level, which was the shopping concourse. And it was funny because the stores were all closed and that was odd, it kind of was in the back of my mind that it was odd… but it didn't really register.

Sheilah Rosen: And I remember walking towards where the subway entrance was and there was a small, like a pizza shop or something that was closed, but they had monitors up here, which I would assume they would usually show the stock markets. And they were showing live footage of the North Tower that had been hit. And I stood there for a few minutes and I was talking to one or two other people, but thought that the, I thought that the bad thing had happened. I thought that it had happened and it was done. So, um, I thought that a lot during the course of the day. Yeah. And so I turned to go to the subway and that was the first time that I saw somebody from the building who said, come out this way.

Sheilah Rosen: So I came out the door and again, there's debris everywhere. Sorry. And I turned to go to the subway. I usually can tell the story pretty well, but sorry...

Sheilah Rosen: I saw people standing on the corner and they were looking up at the North Tower and I stopped and turned and was looking there. And then something appeared here and went into the building and the sky turned black and there was debris all around me. And I, it's hard to believe that I didn't know it was an airplane, but honestly I couldn't process it. And I remember looking at the North Tower and thinking, how did that cause that to happen? Like, I couldn't no idea what had happened.

Sheilah Rosen:  I just, I described it later as looking like an MRI tube disappearing into the building. And I don't remember seeing the explosion and I don't remember hearing the sound, but I must've. And then I just turned and started running down the street and thought, I don't know what to, and actually this was the only time that, um, another person was not kind. That's what I'll say. I was trying to get down the street and a man next to me, forearmed me out of his way. And I thought, oh my God, I'm going to be trampled. I'm just going to fall down and I'm going to be trampled, but that didn't happen. Of course. So, so I thought I have to get off the street. You know, you don't have training for this, so you don't know what to do.

Sheilah Rosen: And I have to get off the street. So I remember seeing a door and I said, I'm just going to go into this door. And it was a school. There's a couple of high schools right near the Trade Center site, just like maybe a block or two away. And I remember trying to catch my breath. I was breathing sort of shallowly and just leaning against the elevators. And, I thought, they're not going to let me stay because I don't belong here… And they couldn't have been kinder. They had several people had come in and they took us into their auditorium. Uh, they spoke to the parents that were there about what they were going to do about the children that were attending. I think it was a high school, but I'm not a hundred percent sure. Um, and I started talking to another person, another woman, we sort of bonded over this. And she said to me, and you want to go through this together? And I said, yeah, I do. So, then they told us they were going to evacuate us to Battery Park, which we weren't happy about.

Russ Mitchell: You were telling me earlier, you were in Battery Park and you got to Battery Park, you look back and you couldn't see the towers?

Sheilah Rosen:  That was actually later. That was later. When I got to Battery Park, the building came down.

Russ Mitchell: Were you aware of it, that the building was down, when you got to Battery Park, or not until later?

Sheilah Rosen: I knew something horrible had happened because I was in the dust cloud. I looked turned around and I saw it – at least that’s my memory. But I honestly didn't know what it was until that night. I didn't, I didn't know. I thought that they were dropping bombs on the city because at that time I knew that planes had been hijacked. I don't remember when I learned all of these things, but I knew that the planes had been hijacked. I knew there were other planes in the sky. There were rumors on the street about how many planes were in the sky. Because we didn't know… I didn't have a cell phone at that time. So yeah, when we got to Battery Park, the building came down.

Russ Mitchell: So you’re in Battery Park, and that's when the cloud of smoke hit you?

Sheilah Rosen: I wouldn't have been able to see you. I mean, you couldn't see. It's in your eyes, it's in your throat. Everybody’s running.

Russ Mitchell: How would you best describe what's going through your head at that moment?

Sheilah Rosen: That I have no place to hide. That people with machine guns are going to come out from the mist or the smoke and shoot everybody. That's what I thought was going happen. I thought that they were going to kill all of us

Russ Mitchell: Because you thought that New York was under attack?

Sheilah Rosen: Yeah, I really did. I really did. So that was, I have to say, that might've been the worst part of the day. Just not being able to see, I couldn't see where the water was. I couldn't see where the buildings were. You’re completely disoriented. Just, yeah, that was hard.

Russ Mitchell: You were telling me you made your way to the Manhattan Bridge?

Sheilah Rosen: Yes. So we started walking, and I kind of equate this to the Wizard of Oz because the woman that I was with, we were walking along and … there was a gentleman standing there in a three-piece suit with a briefcase. And he was a lawyer that had come in from [Washington] DC. He was supposed to take a deposition in lower Manhattan. And we said, 'yeah, come with us.' So he started walking with us and we slowly walked up Water Street. We decided to go past the Brooklyn Bridge because we were afraid of the Brooklyn Bridge. I don't know why the Manhattan Bridge was any better, but that was our decision. So yeah, we walked to the Manhattan Bridge and walked over the Manhattan Bridge and we met another woman along the way who joined us.

Sheilah Rosen: There were four of us and I remember a couple of things. So walking up Water Street, people came out of their apartment buildings and set tables up with paper towels and water. And they were handing us wet towels. So we could wipe the dust off, which was so kind. I remember, the second tower came down when we were on Water Street, and uh, it's like being, um, battle-worn or something because when people started running…we just kept walking because it was like, it was, it's hard to explain. It was almost too much. And then I remember walking, going into a bodega to get a bottle of water and I was so sure they were going to overcharge us for the water and they didn't. So that was also a nice thing.

Russ Mitchell: And as you made your way home, you got on the bus?

Sheilah Rosen:  I didn't know how to walk home from the Manhattan Bridge, because I'd never done it before. I lived in Brooklyn Heights and I'd only walked home over the Brooklyn Bridge… so I was trying to kind of look to see which direction I should walk. Because I knew where I lived from the bridge, just not which streets to take. And there was a city bus sitting there. It must've been her first stop and we got on the bus and I asked her and she said that she was going to the end of my street and we got on the bus. And after us came, all these other people covered in dust shell-shocked getting on the bus

Russ Mitchell: When you finally got home and opened that door, did you feel safe?

Sheilah Rosen: Oh no, no. It was very interesting. I remember, when I got to Brooklyn, everything looked so normal and I'm thinking, how is it possible that everything is so normal? Everybody was just going about their lives and everything was just normal. And the four of us went back to my apartment. And no one was in a hurry to leave. It was like we were each other's support. And, it was just, it was odd. And then, you know, um, where I lived, wasn't far as the crow flies from ground zero and, the wind would shift and we could smell it in my apartment. You could smell the smoke. Yeah. And I did not feel safe. No, no. I was happy to be out of there, but I did not feel safe.

Russ Mitchell: When did you finally realize and understand what had happened that day?

Sheilah Rosen: I didn't know the full extent of it, as strange as this may sound, until that night, when I put the news on. I knew that the planes had flown into the buildings. I didn't know the buildings had come down when I was on the Manhattan Bridge. I was trying not to look at them because it was just painful to know that… it's like some, someone or something that's familiar to you has been hurt. It's hard to explain, but that, that's how I felt. And, I was trying not to look, but I was trying to figure out where I was and I looked over and I couldn't see the buildings, but I thought it was because of all the smoke, because I remember I would stand on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights sometimes. And if the fog rolled in, you couldn't see the towers they would be covered. So, I didn't know. And then I got home and put the news on later, and that's when I knew that the, that they had come down, it was just unimaginable.

Russ Mitchell: Was there a moment in the days, weeks, months that followed that you were able to say to yourself, it's going to be okay?

Sheilah Rosen: That was a very gradual process. I can't say that there was a moment I can tell you that. I'm good now. I've been good for a long time, but, but looking back after a year or two, I realized that I wasn't as good as I thought I was as early as I was.

Russ Mitchell: So you stayed in New York-- another 17 years. Living in New York over those 17 years, were there moments where things would trigger that memory? Or take you back to that place?

Sheilah Rosen: For sure. Early on especially. Because the company I worked for opened up in a different building not far. And so I had to go back to lower Manhattan. And I remember I used to walk as far south as I could, so I wouldn't have to be on the subway very long. And I remember walking down the street and, I heard a loud noise and I saw people running and I stopped in my tracks. Froze. And what happened was the loud noise was a truck going over a sewer manhole cover, and the people running were just trying to make the light. So, so yeah, things like that. If someone took a flash photo and I wasn't expecting it, I would, I would get startled. Not so much now, but motorcycle noise would startle me. So that type of thing. Yep.

Russ Mitchell: Remember the blackout a few years later? What was the first thing you thought when that happened?

Sheilah Rosen: Oh, yeah and I walked from 30th street and First Avenue to 81st and Columbus, which is a very long walk, but that's exactly what I thought of. Actually, the clothes that I was wearing on 9/11, the blouse. I did not wear again until that day.

Russ Mitchell: The blackout day? Which would have been what, five or six years later?

Sheilah Rosen: Yeah, it was a couple of years later. And I said it's just a piece of clothing, so I, you know, it was washed and I put it on, but after that – trashed.

Russ Mitchell: You talked about those people that you were with, who got you through that day. Do you know what happened to them? Do you still stay in touch?

Sheilah Rosen: Well, we did for a little while. So the lawyer ended up sleeping on my sofa [that night]. His wife was back in Washington. They just had a baby. He couldn't reach her. We weren't sure if there was transportation, so he didn't leave till the next day. It was so good to have him there because we would sort of joke…just kind of gallows humor, I guess. But we were just trying to get through when he left, it was tough being by myself. And then the two women, we would get together once in a while. We'd have dinner. But, I think at some point, you know, you realize that the only thing that you have in common, isn't a good thing. So, we have emailed a couple of times over the years. You know, we're all connected in that way.

Russ Mitchell: You mentioned the weather on that day. I remember it's a beautiful day, late summer day, crispness in the air. Just gorgeous. When, those days come about now, does it take you back to that day?

Sheilah Rosen: There are certain days when the sky is a certain shade of blue and I call a "September 11 blue." Yes. Not always, but, it was a clear blue, beautiful sky. And when we, when I see days like that, I say 'September 11 blue.' Yeah.

Russ Mitchell: I do the exact same thing. And I think that too, I call it a September 11 blue. Beautiful day. You think everything's going to be fantastic.

Sheilah Rosen: Oh yeah. Nothing bad can happen on a day like this. And I can remember, when I finally walked out of the dust cloud, I realized that the sun was out and it was like, oh, I probably should put sunglasses on. I had forgotten because we were in, it was like walking through fog, I guess. That's the only way I can describe it…I don't know,  it was unpleasant.

Russ Mitchell: We hear the term every "September 11 - never forget, never forget," do you worry sometimes that people will forget?

Sheilah Rosen: Well, I don't know if it's so much as forgetting as it not being relevant to them. You know, I've heard people say, 'you know, you have to move on.'

Russ Mitchell: When people tell you 'you have to move on,' what do you say to them?

Sheilah Rosen: What can you say? I mean, really, what can you say? You know, you react the way you react and I have moved on. It’s just, you have to remember the people whose families never found them, that really breaks my heart. And the people on the airplanes. A lot of people lost a lot that day. So, you know, it honors them to remember, I try to watch when they have coverage every year and they read the names, I try to watch, because I feel that I really owe it to them because I was safe. And people should remember who they are.

MORE REMEMBERING 9/11 COVERAGE: