Bonnie Giebfried desperately gasped for breath on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
The emergency medical technician and two dozen others had just been buried alive in the 1 World Financial Center building at the World Trade Center.
A fireball had sucked a mountain of smoldering debris on top of them. Entombed in rubble, they were unable to break the window panes that led to oxygen outside.
"There was no way out. It got very quiet. You could hear everybody breathing and the breaths got less and less," Giebfried recalls. "At that point, I heard my heart beat and I just closed my eyes and resigned myself that I was gonna die right there."
Moments later, Giebfried heard a pop, pop, pop. One of the trapped police officers had managed to get to his service revolver and shoot out the window of the alcove.
The group broke through two thick panes of glass and escaped. Giebfried and the others had ingested a toxic mixture of pulverized metal, asbestos and unimaginable debris. She and her partner, Jennifer Beckham, emerged into a black abyss. "A dark you've never seen before," she says.
They had no idea the south tower of the World Trade Center had collapsed.
Today, Giebfried, who lives on Long Island with her grandmother, is among tens of thousands of responders and residents who have reported lingering illnesses from exposure to the toxic air at ground zero.
A new health study released Tuesday shows that 7 out of 10 recovery workers who responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center suffered lung problems because of their work there. Yet, many are still not getting the treatment they need.
Five years after being buried alive, Giebfried, 41, still struggles to breathe — and to be heard. She suffers a litany of ailments: asthma, gastrointestinal reflux disease, hiatal hernia, damaged vocal chords, nerve damage, sciatica, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a surgically reconstructed wrist.
"I'm a 41-year-old woman and I feel like I'm 90," she says.
Like many other 9/11 victims, the former Flushing Hospital Medical Center EMT and volunteer firefighter has fought a losing battle with New York City bureaucracy to get treatment for her physical, emotional and mental trauma.
That toll began mounting just moments before being buried alive by the south tower's avalanche of debris. Giebfried and Beckham had helped three women out of the south tower's lobby, carrying one physically disabled woman to safety on a stretcher.
Debris and paper swirled in the streets; cars and trees were on fire; human limbs were strewn on the ground. She could hear bodies explode like gunshots as they hit the ground.
Giebfried had worked as a crisis counselor at the scene of a 1990 Avianca plane crash on Long Island. But nothing prepared her for this. "It was a war zone," she says.
Fewer than 30 minutes after being buried in the financial building, the ground started trembling again. Giebfried and Beckham raced to a parking garage; they were once again overwhelmed by a deluge of debris. Again, they were buried in rubble and, again, they could not see that the north tower had fallen.
Ten hours, three asthma attacks and one boat ride later, Giebfried found herself in New Jersey at Bayonne Hospital. She could hear sirens, jet fighters and helicopters.
On TV, she saw the ambulance she had driven that morning, buried and crushed. Close to midnight, she was transported to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. Outside her room's window, there was one visible beacon: an animated billboard of the Titanic sinking.
Giebfried returned to work just three months after 9/11, but her deteriorating health forced her to walk away in April 2004. She lost her pension because she fell six months shy of qualifying. She lost her medical and prescription drug benefits because her union cancelled them. Before Sept. 11, 2001, she took two medications; soon after, she was on 22.
"I don't want a medal," she says. "Just give me the treatment I need."
Last month, New York Gov. George Pataki signed several bills that expanded benefits for the city's rescue and recovery workers who died or became sick from the toxic dust at ground zero. None of the legislation, however, gives benefits to sick voluntary hospital workers such as EMTs. Pataki vetoed that bill yet again, Giebfried says, partly because the city's Emergency Medical Services is overshadowed by the police and fire departments.
"EMS is seen as the band-aid people, but I'll tell you, on 9/11, they weren't yelling for the fire department or the police. They were yelling for techs and medics," she says. "It's scary because people don't realize we put our lives on the line very single day."
Since there is no separate fund for EMTs like there is for firefighters and police officers, Giebfried pays for the majority of her medical coverage and therapy. She used to work two jobs, making over $60,000. Today, she takes home a total of $2,500 a month in social security disability and workman's compensation.
But the emotional toll has weighed on Giebfried more than the financial. Flashbacks and anxiety attacks come without notice. For the past five years, she has watched her fellow emergency responders' families torn apart by drinking, divorce — and slow deaths.
Giebfried knew 40 people who were killed on Sept. 11; one of her closest friends, fellow EMT Tim Keller, died last year from 9/11-related illnesses.
The plight of EMTs has gone largely ignored, but Giebfried refuses to remain silent. Among other efforts, she's recently joined the board of Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes, an organization devoted to helping ground zero rescue workers get the health treatment they need.
Giebfried says she has altered her focus. Last June, she was ordained as an inter-faith minister. Weeks later, she presided over Tim Keller's wake and continues to work with families of 9/11 emergency responders.
But as the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, draws near, Giebfried will not be at ground zero; she will be at her Oceanside home. The EMT-turned-reverend vows to stay away from the city where she lost more than just her colleagues.
"Part of me died that day," she says. "I will never retrieve that part. It's gone."
By Stephen Smith