COVER- Bearing witness: Local couple lived 9/11 up close

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Cheryl Sanborn boarded the N Train from her home in Astoria, Queens at 8:15am, earlier than usual. An administrative assistant at a lower Manhattan law firm, she intended to make a detour on her way to work. 

"Every Tuesday and Thursday in the summer," she explains, "they used to set up a green market in the World Trade Center parking lot. So I'd usually cut through there for a big pumpkin muffin and a cup of apple cider."

Lost in her newspaper, the 40-something Sanborn barely noticed that the train was moving more slowly than usual when she heard an announcement that there was a "police action" at the World Trade Center. Since such delays were common, she thought little of it other than deciding to transfer to another train that would take her to the Wall Street station, a few blocks short of her usual stop, to give her enough time to grab her muffin and cider.

As she emerged from underground around 9:15, Sanborn's notions of a normal day were shattered by what had happened at 8:46am and again at 9:02.

"I just remember office papers falling from the sky and covering the street," she says. "I would pass people on the street, and everyone was silent, just looking up as these papers came down."

Meanwhile, her husband, Bruce, had just begun to realize the horror unfolding in lower Manhattan. Now a reporter with WINA news radio in Charlottesville, Bruce was then freelancing in New York as a writer and tour guide. He was working from home that morning.

"I got a call from my mom in L.A. sounding panicky and asking if I was okay and telling me to turn on the TV," he says. "None of the channels were working except for CBS, and within about 10 seconds I saw the second plane hit and made the leap to 'My wife is down there getting her f***ing muffin!'"

After a security guard barred her from entering her office building at 120 Broadway, Cheryl Sanborn met coworkers who had evacuated the building a block away on Cedar Street. Now that she was standing back from the stricken buildings, she could see the fires raging in the South Tower. 

"Our office was catty-corner to the South Tower, and my coworkers told me a plane looked like it was heading for our building but then made a turn for the World Trade Center," she says. 

Sanborn describes the moment as sheer disbelief.

"I couldn't comprehend it," she says. "All I knew was that I kept hearing this crashing sound that didn't sound like anything I'd ever heard before. I now know it was people jumping."

Meanwhile, Bruce frantically called his wife's office and cell phone– to no avail.

"You can't verbalize that kind of panic," he says. "You have no idea what's going on, you're on an emotional razor's edge every second, and there's no room for any other thoughts except 'Oh, f***!'"

 After roughly 35 minutes of trying to get their bearings and figuring out what was going on, Cheryl and her coworkers decided to begin walking north.

About five minutes later, at 9:59am, Sanborn heard a rumbling.

"I turned around and saw the South Tower coming down," she says. "You'd think you'd have your wits about you in a situation like that, but I just stood there transfixed until my office manager grabbed my hand and yelled at me, 'Run!'"

As she sprinted north clutching the office manager's hand, several images burned into her memory.

"I remember passing a girl just standing there transfixed and screaming," she says. "I saw men standing on the sidewalk yelling 'Run! Run!' but not running themselves. I always wondered if they got out."

Sanborn and her colleagues didn't stop running until they reached Chinatown, on the Lower East Side, about a mile from from her office. Then, before she had a chance to catch her breath, she went into panic mode again.

"We saw this gray mass rising and we had to start running again," she says. "It was just group panic, everyone screaming at the same time, and you're thinking, 'Run for your life,' literally."

Though never engulfed by the cloud of dust and debris caused by the collapse of the South Tower, she saw its effects from nearly two miles away when she finally felt safe enough to stop running.

"It looked like those pictures of refugees you see on the news," she says, "just a mass of people with blank faces moving north. No talking, no stopping, covered in dust."

Minutes later, she heard the same rumbling she'd heard a half hour earlier and knew it could only mean the collapse of the North Tower.

"I couldn't turn around," she says. "I had temped on the 80th floor at one time, and I just thought of the tens of thousands of people I knew were in there and how catastrophic the loss of life was going to be."

When she arrived at last at a New York University dormitory at around 10:30am, Cheryl Sanborn finally found a public phone with a dial tone and called her husband.

"The first thing I said was, 'I'm fine,'" she recalls. 

"I felt like I'd been waiting forever for that call," says Bruce. "As soon as I heard her voice I knew it was her, and I just remember thinking, 'F***, yeah!'"

By 1pm, Cheryl had made her way all the way up to 42nd Street and the Queens Midtown Tunnel, nearly five miles from Ground Zero. After a day on which she'd seen so much horror and desperation, it was here she found a bit of hope.

"I saw a cardboard sign that said, 'Free Rides to Queens,'" she says. "Police were pulling cars over and not letting them go through the tunnel. They would let them through only if they were willing to take people with them back to Queens."

A woman of Arab descent insisted on transporting only women in her car, so Sanborn piled in with two others in their twenties.

"The driver was talking a blue streak: 'How could this happen?' 'What's wrong with the world?'" Sanborn says. "But I was just numb by that point and could only nod my head."

While officials debated the collateral damage, her office building was declared off-limits, so she stayed home for a week, a period she describes as a "foggy haze."

"There wasn't anything to do but watch things unfold," she says. "I'd turn on the TV, watch as much as I could, and then turn it off. None of it made sense. The World Trade Center doesn't collapse! It's too big. It's like saying Mount Everest collapsed. It just doesn't happen."

But the unthinkable was all too real. In its final report, the National Institute of Standards and Technology concluded that the two buildings lost dozens of steel supports in the attacks and that fires ignited by jet fuel subsequently fed on hotter-burning combustibles within the building, weakening the rest of the structures' skeletons. That the burned and broken buildings stood for as long as they did is credited with keeping the death toll below 3,000 in a complex that could hold approximately 50,000 people.

Cheryl Sanborn says that what she encountered coming out of the subway upon her return to work was a completely different world.

"Seeing the site was beyond horrific and beyond comprehension," she says. "The smell in the air was like burning jet fuel mixed with that heavy, musky smell of death. There was military everywhere. There were people with masks. The aftermath was worse because now it was real."

Since her office overlooked Ground Zero, watching the ongoing chore of picking up the pieces became part of Sanborn's daily life.

"There was a siren that would go off whenever they found a body or some part of a body," she says. "And every time it went off, everything would stop. We would all go to the window and watch it be covered with a blanket and passed down a cordon of rescue workers who would carry it down into a waiting ambulance. We watched it play out over and over again. We thought it was the least we could do to honor what was going on."

Since moving to Charlottesville just two months after the attacks, the Sanborns haven't talked much about that day. Bruce says he usually gets frustrated when he tries to communicate what 9/11 felt like to him.

"If you weren't there, you don't know," he says. "Maybe you have a story about a business meeting being cancelled or a flight getting cancelled, but it didn't happen in your city, to your friends, and people just don't understand that."

For a long time, Cheryl would look up every time she heard a plane "just to make sure it stayed up." She still won't wear the outfit she was wearing on 9/11 because "It just doesn't seem like the right thing to do." 

But if there's one way the events of September 11, 2001 affected Cheryl Sanborn more than others, she says it's the way she looks at everyday life. 

"Life just happens," she says. "It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I was looking forward to a big pumpkin muffin and hot apple cider, and it turned into that. It just makes me think to enjoy life every second."


SIDEBAR: Cheryl Sanborn's path

8:15- Sanborn boards the N Train in Astoria, Queens*

8:46- North Tower hit

9:02- South Tower hit

9:15- Sanborn emerges from Wall Street subway station*

9:17- Sanborn arrives at 120 Broadway; security guard tells her she can't go in the building or in the direction of the World Trade Center*

9:20- Sanborn meets her coworkers on Cedar Street*

9:55- Sanborn and her coworkers begin walking north*

9:59- South Tower collapses

10:28- Standing outside an NYU dormitory, Sanborn hears North Tower collapse 

12:45- Sanborn carpools to Queens through the Queens Midtown Tunnel*

*Times approximate

Finding Susan: Remembering a sister on 9/11

Standing alone in a Chicago apartment one September Sunday evening nearly five years ago, Barb Pemberton was learning little things she never knew about her sister. 

In the closet, she found a red cape lined with fox fur, and laughed to herself, unable to fathom what use her sister had for such a garment. In the bathroom, she found a prescription stomach medication and worried her sister, 48, had been working too many hours. They were pieces of Susan Sauer's life as a high-powered businesswoman with financial giant Marsh and McLennan, a life that was unbelievably different from Pemberton's own as a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Albemarle's Burley Middle School. 

Her wonder faded quickly, though, when she picked up the phone and remembered the even more unbelievable reason she was standing by herself in her sister's apartment. Sauer's voicemail box was full of days-old messages from her coworkers asking about a meeting in New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

When Pemberton stepped out of her first-period class on that Tuesday morning and heard about what appeared to be terrorist attacks in New York, her sister didn't come immediately to mind. That Sauer would even be in New York occurred to her only when she got a call from her son, Tim, then a student at William & Mary. 

"He had received a care package from her that morning," Pemberton says, "and he called and asked, 'Didn't Aunt Sue say she was going to New York?'" After making repeated calls to Sauer's cell phone and to Marsh and McLennan's midtown Manhattan office, Pemberton figured that the phone lines in New York must be down as a result of the attacks.

"I remember being on edge, thinking, let's get this day over and find out where she is," she says. "I was getting angry with her for not calling because I thought there was no way she was down there in lower Manhattan."

When she came home from trying to give blood at an impromptu Red Cross blood drive, Pemberton got a call from her brother.

"Her meeting had been moved from midtown to the World Trade Center," she says. "They needed a bigger conference room."

Even when she heard this news, Pemberton refused to believe her sister could have died.

"I just kept thinking I wasn't hearing from her because she got a bump on the head and was wandering the streets confused," she says. "I stayed up calling New York hospitals until 3am. I kept hoping she'd snap out of it and call."

Pemberton spent all of Wednesday, September 12, making travel arrangements to go to Sauer's home in Chicago and calling everyone she could think of to find out more about her sister's whereabouts. By Thursday, September 13, she went back to school. While she did her best to treat it like any other day, she did address the elephant in the room with her students.

"I just told my kids that we knew she was in the World Trade Center, but that I wasn't afraid and that they shouldn't be afraid either, because we as adults were there to protect them," she says.

The next morning, Pemberton found herself sitting in front of her sister's attorney, unsure of how to respond to the situation.

"The lawyer was talking about establishing power of attorney, finding Sue's will, closing her accounts," she says. "But I wanted to pay her bills so she wouldn't get bad credit. I thought she would walk through the door any minute. I didn't want to believe she was gone."

Painful as those days were, Pemberton says she found comfort in going back to Sauer's Chicago apartment. While exploring her sister's home, one item in particular caught Pemberton's eye: an address book filled not just with names and numbers but also Christmas cards Sauer had received.

"I remember picking one card out and calling the number," she says. "The woman who answered said her husband worked with Sue and that he'd died in the World Trade Center, too."

It wasn't long after that phone call that Pemberton was on a plane to New York to join the friends and relatives of the other 294 Marsh and McLennan employees who died in the attacks. 

"Flying into JFK, you could see the dust rising from the ground in lower Manhattan," she says. "At that point, you know she's dead, but you still hold out hope."

When she arrived in New York, officials from Marsh and McLennan informed Pemberton that Sauer had probably died instantly. Her meeting was on the 99th floor of the North Tower, just three floors above the 8:46am point of impact of American Airlines Flight 11. 

"The image I have in my mind is that she just floated down to the rubble, or at least that's what I think," Pemberton says. "I just pray she wasn't alone and that she didn't see the plane coming."

What brought Pemberton the most peace during her time in New York was going to the Hotel Sofitel on 44th Street, where Sauer stayed for her twice-monthly visits to New York. Pemberton says she was looking for the last person to see her sister alive and found the man who works the front desk.

"He and Sue had become friends because she was there so often," she says. "And after giving me a big hug he told me that she had left at 7:30 for a 9 o'clock meeting wearing a navy blue suit, pearls and a big smile."

When Pemberton finally felt ready to visit the site now known as Ground Zero, she did so to take the first step to carry out her sister's wish to have her ashes scattered on the Seine River in Paris.

"I went there with a plastic bag," Pemberton recalls. "But the police wouldn't let me within three blocks of the site. So there I was scraping ashes off the ledges of the closest buildings I could find, hoping that a little of her was in there."

Days later, Pemberton's DNA was used to positively identify Susan Sauer's body. Not long after that, rescue workers found the building pass, burned at the edges, that Sauer had been given when she entered the North Tower just after 8am on September 11.  

In the years since that day, Pemberton has honored her sister's memory in several ways. At the October 7 funeral in Chicago, she hired a bagpiper  because Sauer had wanted a bagpiper at the wedding she never had. She's gone to New York for two of the four 9/11 anniversaries.

She's used funds from 9/11-related charities to establish the Susan M. Sauer Memorial Scholarship, $1,000 given each June to a female high school student in the family's hometown of Wheaton, Illinois who plans to pursue a business career.

Pemberton also spearheaded an effort to display an American flag in Burley Middle School emblazoned with the names of all the 9/11 victims. She's gone out of her way to personally thank everyone– from Rudolph Giuliani (whom she met by chance in Times Square's ESPNZone restaurant/arcade), to a group of American soldiers in Richmond International Airport, to police officers and firefighters she sees around Charlottesville.

But Pemberton's daily remembrance is a card she carries in her wallet that reads, "Do what you find you are most passionate about, Trust in yourself, Leave a place better than when you arrived, Love openly, and Have fun." 

"It was Sue's philosophy of life," says Pemberton. "I've tried my best to share it with people by living by it since then."

Susan Sauer wrote those words in a thank-you note to a coworker dated September 8, 2001. 


Sauer's name is one of nearly 3,000 on an American flag hanging in Burley Middle School emblazoned with the names of 9/11 victims.