Note: If you plan to read “Angel in the Rubble,” do so before reading this page. This story is a good 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.
Tom, as Genelle and I would learn from him, was one of nine firefighters from FDNY Rescue 2 in Brooklyn who rescued Genelle from beneath the World Trade Center rubble on September 12, 2001, after she had been buried alive for 27 hours.
The other eight, Tom told me, were 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 of his own about his life since 9/11. I am not going to go into detail about 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 such a profound effect on Genelle that it took her two days before she called me 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,” he said. “I wanted you to know that I’m real.”
These firemen are a humble group. They knew for 10 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 wonderful conversation, one that I felt privileged to be part of.
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 serious 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 truly 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, some radio interviews, and one private book signing.
The second was that I was afraid if the firefighters’ story was revealed just prior to the 9/11 anniversary and received the attention that I thought it would, it may have cast them in a negative light. I know if I were covering it as a reporter, one of my first questions to them would have been, “Why did you wait until the tenth anniversary to finally come forward?” As I said, these nine men really are humble, and their intentions were nothing but good, but they may not have come across that way to the public if their story had been shared then. I don’t know if the firemen saw that perspective or not, but I felt a sense of responsibility―as an experienced journalist and knowing what heroes they were―to not let that happen to them.
On September 6, Deb and I flew to New York City, and we 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 absolutely wonderful. Deb and I knew right away that we were in the presence of a real American hero. Paul told us his story, and we also got to learn 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 definitely 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 helped arrange 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 got to share 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 thought and hoped it would be.
I think Genelle emotionally struggled with meeting Paul so soon after writing her book and believing that the story she had known for 10 years was all there was to know, which was understandable to me to an extent. I later proposed to her and our publisher that we share Paul’s story with the media, maybe have him and Genelle be interviewed together, but Genelle and the publisher turned down that idea. It’s not something that I fully comprehend, but it was Genelle’s decision to make. 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 how this issue should have been handled. I text or email Paul every now and then, and I talk more frequently with Tom O’Brien. I posted this story here in November of 2011 to at least give them their due on my page, and it will always remain here.
There are two more things I want to mention, both regarding the book.
The first obvious question many will have is: “What about the story in the book concerning how Genelle was rescued―is any of that true now that she has learned about these firemen?” I can only answer it this way: Genelle was buried alive for 27 hours, unable to see or hear anything going on above her. 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. 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 personally have no doubt about today is that the “Paul” Genelle refers to in the book is Paul Somin, and he and the other eight 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 what her name was―how does that fit into the story?” Paul explained to me that Genelle actually did tell him her name first, but it was prior to him grabbing her hand in the rubble. 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 absolutely no recollection of that, which is not surprising given the trauma she suffered. Soon after she yelled out her name to him, Paul found where she was, they locked hands and, well, you know the rest of the story.
What I found amazing after hearing Paul’s story was how compatible it was with Genelle’s story. One would think that being buried alive for 27 hours, she would have been completely 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 had given her hope at a time 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 that gave me chills―because she had no idea that I had 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.