This article was written by BenitoLink intern Vivian Guadalupe Sierra
“Have you ever had a dream where you’re running, and you can’t feel your feet, you’re just floating? Well, let me tell you that’s exactly how it felt.”
These words came from Rosalinda “Rosie” Zepeda, Gavilan College’s public information officer, as she recounted her haunting experience just blocks away from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center towers.
In the late 1990s, Zepeda was climbing the corporate ladder, working only three blocks away from the World Trade Center. Her sister joined her in New York, securing a job in the towers. On Sept. 11, 2001, Zepeda, then 30 years old, and her sister had a meeting scheduled in the World Trade Center. Rosalinda asked to keep her sister’s name private.
“Everything about this day was off,” she said. “There was never a clear sky in New York, except for this day,” she said.
Zepeda, who lives in Hollister, said it was out of sheer luck that their meeting was relocated to her office building a couple blocks away instead of at the World Trade Center.
This fateful change in plans saved their lives. But it also meant they would witness from nearby the attack that caused the death of almost 3,000 people.
She recalls seeing something crashing into the trade center’s north tower at 8:46 a.m. Twenty minutes later, they witnessed a second airplane crash into the south tower. They watched as papers fluttered through the air, smoke rose from the towers and desperate, trapped people jumped from the burning buildings.
“First, it was only one or two people at a time,” said Zepeda, “and then it was in groups.”
Zepeda said that as the situation worsened, people in her office made the decision to flee the area. As soon as they made it down to the first floor, they heard a rumbling noise, followed by a large cloud of dust that chased the departing group, including her and her sister.
“Run!” Zepeda heard law enforcement yell. “Just run!”
This marked the fall of the north tower. Halfway across the Manhattan Bridge, they heard a second rumble. It was the fall of the south tower.
“No one ever thought the towers would fall,” said Zepeda.
During their escape, Zepeda said they heard fighter jets roaring overhead and, not knowing whose jets they were, they feared they could be bombed.
Zepeda said she and her sister realized they were trapped on an island. All public transportation had stopped, leaving no choice but to walk four hours to Queens. She said many of her coworkers walked an additional one or two hours to New Jersey.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Zepeda and her sister’s lives were permanently altered. She said that it took a day before they could regain access to phone lines, which had been overwhelmed by the flood of calls the previous day. They eventually managed to contact their parents, who had spent hours worried for their daughters.
For Zepeda and her sister the struggle was far from over. Zepeda said that sleep became difficult for the next two months, and the burden of survivor’s guilt weighed heavily on her.
“You would think that I would be happy that we were alive,” Zepeda said, “but instead, I questioned myself, ‘Why not me?'”
It would take Zepeda over a decade to find the strength to talk about her traumatic experience. Zepeda said that to this day, she and her sister have not been able to sit down and discuss what happened.
Zepeda is now writing a book, driven by a deep sense of duty to share her story. She said she believes it’s crucial to speak out, now that she can, as there were so many who lost their lives.
She said that COVID-19 , with its echoes of uncertainty and fear, was a stark reminder for her of the fragility of her lungs after inhaling the toxic fumes from the burning towers for weeks after the attacks. She developed pheochromocytoma, a type of neuroendocrine tumor that was removed in 2009. She now suffers from asthma and needs to wear an N95 face mask when the air quality is poor.
“I will forever deal with the aftershocks of 9/11,” Zepeda said.
The BenitoLink Internship Program is a paid, skill-building program that prepares local youth for a professional career. This program is supported by Monterey Peninsula Foundation AT&T Golf Tour, United Way, Taylor Farms and the Emma Bowen Foundation.