"A Dark You've Never Seen"

Bonnie Giebfried, former Flushing Hospital Medical Center EMT, at her home in Oceanside, N.Y., Aug. 30, 2006.
By's Stephen Smith

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.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for