Note: If you plan to read “Angel in the Rubble,” do so before reading this page. This story is an excellent follow-up to the book.
On August 6, 2011, four days after Angel in the Rubble was published, Genelle Guzman-McMillan received an unexpected visit at her Long Island home from Tom O’Brien. He had a bouquet of flowers and an incredible story to tell.
As Tom told Genelle, he was one of ten firefighters from FDNY Rescue 2 in Brooklyn who rescued her from beneath the World Trade Center rubble. It happened on September 12, 2001, after she had been buried alive for 27 hours.
Tom later told me that the other nine were Chief Joseph Downey, Dave Arcerie, Stan Brzenski, Tom Donnelly, Bill Esposito, Larry Gray, Larry Senzel, Tony Tedeshi, and Paul Somin.
Yes, Paul Somin is that Paul―the “angel in the rubble” who found Genelle.
Tom has an extraordinary story about his own life since 9/11. I will not share it here because it’s his story to tell. But I will say that he and Genelle spent about an hour together on her porch that day talking, laughing, and crying as she learned for the first time about who these men were and how they found her.
The meeting with Tom had a profound effect on Genelle; it took two days for her to digest it before she called to tell me about it. The day after she did, on August 9, I was in my kitchen telling the story to my wife, Deb, when our phone rang. The caller ID said “Brooklyn, NY.” Deb and I stared at each other, no doubt thinking the same thing. “You’d better answer it,” she said.
“Hello?” I said hesitantly.
“Hi. Is this William Croyle?” the voice on the other end said in a thick New York accent.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Are you the one who wrote the book with Genelle Guzman?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said again.
“My name is Paul. I wanted you to know that I’m real.”
These firemen are a humble group. They knew for ten years that Genelle was the one they rescued, but they never came forward because that wasn’t their way. Saving her was a “day at the office” for them, as Paul said to me. It’s what they were trained to do. They wanted no recognition. But after they saw the book, they thought Genelle should know the whole story.
“I’ve been telling people for years, ‘No, no, no,’” Paul said when I asked him if he thought about coming forward sooner. “I guess I just decided that it was time to say ‘Yes, yes, yes.’” It was a fascinating conversation that I felt privileged to have with him.
At that time, Genelle was about to leave for a two-week book tour in Australia. I told her we’d talk more about Paul when she returned. But when she did, toward the end of August, I had two concerns about publicly revealing Paul’s identity right away.
The first was that I did not want to overshadow any of the other victims or their families on the 9/11 anniversary, which was less than two weeks away. I know―that mindset does not sell books. But my priority since the day we started the project was to respectfully honor the victims and their families the best we could while telling Genelle’s story at the same time. As a journalist, I believed that Paul coming forward would have been one of the most sought-after stories by the media, and I didn’t want that to happen at that time. In fact, the week of the anniversary, Genelle would do only one national TV interview (in which the book was not mentioned), some radio interviews, and one private book signing.
The second was that I was afraid if the firefighters’ story were revealed just before the 9/11 anniversary, it might cast them in a negative light, as men seeking attention. I know if I were covering it as a reporter, one of my first questions would have been, “Why did you wait until the tenth anniversary to finally come forward?” I don’t know if the firemen recognized that perspective, but knowing what heroes they were, I felt a responsibility not to let that happen to them.
On September 6, Deb and I flew to New York City, and we met with Paul and his wife, Gina, at our hotel. Genelle wanted me to meet with Paul first to hear his story and give her my thoughts. The meeting lasted a few hours, and it was wonderful. Deb and I knew immediately that we were in the presence of a real American hero. Paul told us his story, and we also learned the unique perspective Gina had as she lived with the uncertainty of her husband’s well-being each day while he climbed the rubble searching for survivors. As we were about to part ways for the evening, Deb and I told the Somins, “We feel like we just made friends for life.” They agreed.
When we returned to our hotel room, I called Genelle.
“Genelle,” I said confidently, “we have found Paul.” She was speechless, feeling the same overwhelming emotions she felt after Tom O’Brien had come to her house four weeks earlier.
Two weeks after that meeting, I arranged for Genelle and her husband, Roger, to meet with Paul and Gina. They met at a restaurant on September 23 on Long Island for a couple of hours, and Genelle and Paul shared with each other their recollections of what happened the day she was found. I talked to both of them afterward, and I sensed that it went okay, but it didn’t sound as spectacular as I had hoped.
I think Genelle emotionally struggled with meeting Paul so soon after writing her book and believing that the story she had known for ten years was all there was to know. I understood her sentiment. After giving her some time to absorb it, I proposed toward the end of 2011 that we share Paul’s story with the media, maybe have him and Genelle do an interview together, but Genelle and the publisher turned down that idea. I’ve continued over the years to ask Genelle to tell their story, even suggesting that we update the book, but she has respectfully declined. It’s not something I fully comprehend, but it is Genelle’s decision. She and I are still friends today, and I respect all that she went through physically and mentally on and after 9/11; we simply disagree about this issue.
I text or email Paul on occasion, and I talk more frequently with Tom O’Brien. I posted this story here in November 2011 to at least give them their due on my page. It will always remain here, and I will always share their story when asked about the book.
There are two more things I want to mention, both regarding the book.
The first question some might have is: “The story in the book about how Genelle was rescued―is it true now that she has learned about these firemen?” My answer is yes, though we have since learned that it isn’t the entire truth. Understand this: Genelle was buried alive for 27 hours, unable to see or hear anything. All she knows about what happened above her during that time is what she has been told over the years by people who were there and by media reports. The book was the truth as we knew it then. As Tom O’Brien said to me: “If you had 15,000 rescue workers on the rubble that day, you will get 15,000 different stories of what happened” because of all the chaos of the situation. What I do not doubt today is that the “Paul” Genelle refers to in the book is Paul Somin, and he and the other nine firemen I mentioned were involved in her rescue.
The other question is, “Genelle says in the book that Paul said her name before she told him her name. How does that fit into the story?” Paul explained to me that Genelle did tell him her name first. He said that while searching for survivors, he yelled through an elevator shaft to see if anybody would respond. He said Genelle yelled back at him, and he asked her what her name was. Genelle has no recollection of that, which is not surprising given the trauma she suffered. Soon after she yelled her name to him, Paul found where she was, they locked hands and, well, you know the rest of the story.
What I found incredible after hearing Paul’s story was how compatible it was with Genelle’s story. One would think that after being buried for 27 hours, she would have been delirious or unable to remember much at all. And with the stress and pressure that Paul was under that day, he might not remember what happened with such detail. But they both recalled a lot, and their recollections were quite similar.
I will close with this:
A woman emailed me one day in the fall of 2011 after reading the book to thank Genelle and me for writing it. She said it gave her hope when she needed it most, which is precisely the theme of the book and was our purpose for writing it. And then she said something quite compelling, especially considering she didn’t know that I just met Paul. She said, “You know, it really doesn’t matter whether he was an angel from above or if he was human. I believe he was still sent to her by God, and he will always be her angel.”
To read more about what these heroic firefighters do, visit www.fdnyrescue2.org. Thank you for reading.