Coming Down from the 46th Floor
Annabel Quintero in West Seattle.
Upon impact, the floor seesaws. A roller chair crashes against one side of a cubicle, then the other. Doors strain. Walls shake. An earthquake from above, Annabel Quintero thinks.
But moments later, the tremors stop, and on the 46th floor of the 110-story One World Trade Center, the 25-year-old Quintero rises from her desk. She’d arrived late that September morning for her job as an operations analyst at Telligent Capital Management, a boutique hedge fund. When she walked in, she saw a sweater draped over her boss’s chair, but no sign of him. His son was off at a conference in Midtown. She was the only one there.
Seizing the stillness now, Quintero darts from the set of six cubicles at the center of the room—the firm was just getting off the ground—to a window. She expects to see a collapsed building or an explosion somewhere—a gas line, maybe. Instead, the city shimmers back at her, peaceful as it ever was above the thrum below.
It’s a fleeting thought. Soon the funhouse effect returns, tilting the floor as the building sways beyond any fathomable oscillation. Quintero snags her purse and sweater and scrambles for the entrance of the office. Poking her head into the hall, she locks eyes with a man in the same stance adjacent to her, peering out from his doorway. There are no announcements, no sirens. His frozen eyes are the only alarm.
Quintero grew up preparing for disaster on the other side of the country. She practiced drop-and-cover drills in Bellevue and Seattle schools, in the event of an earthquake. But inside the North Tower, this feels like something different, like something has been dropped atop the skyscraper. Like a bomb.
A grayness dims the room. Quintero breaks for the hall, the uneven floor forcing her body to contort in unprecedented ways even for a young person with a B-girl background. In her haste that morning, she opted for a pair of Easy Spirit ankle boots instead of heels. When the building steadies temporarily, she bolts for the only stairwell she knows.
Its door is closed, and Quintero’s mind races back to her West Coast schooling. She presses one finger against the metal knob and remembers guidance from fire drills at Stevenson Elementary in Bellevue. If it’s hot, find another way out. But she’s so scared, she can’t feel anything. She grasps the whole handle, directions be damned, and tells herself to breathe.
Quintero’s fingers used to trace the Manhattan skyline. Growing up in Seattle, she’d run her hand over a picture of New York City’s towers on her bedroom wall. She imagined a day when she could live in a place so teeming with life, a multicultural orb of aspiration that first drew her parents to the U.S. from Ecuador, before they settled in Washington.
She captures this dream in the opening scene of her memoir, Step Step Jump, published earlier this year. The book chronicles her journey to New York and her 9/11 survival, both on that fateful day and in the years immediately after. The introduction foreshadows the obvious, but it also teases the thrills of her time in the Big Apple: the modeling, the clubs, the hip-hop dancing with a crew that included someone named Fever. The Before. “New York is just like the Disneyland for adults,” Quintero tells me, a bit sheepishly, on a recent Tuesday evening.
We’re sitting on a wooden bench along a path in West Seattle, gazing out at Puget Sound. A pair of kayakers idle near shore. A seal, possibly of the elephant variety, pokes its head above water before disappearing into the depths.
Outwardly, Quintero is as tranquil as this aquatic stretch of her neighborhood. She runs a coaching practice that focuses on public speaking and wellness—her face carries the glow of someone who drinks enough water—and integrates diversity, equity, and inclusion work. She speaks assuredly, hearty laughs mixed with somber introspection, veering into spiritual abstractions born from a Seventh-day Adventist upbringing and variegated by revelations after her traumatic ordeal. She liberally recounts her experiences on “the 11th,” her reference of choice for a catastrophe that, in this shorthand, doesn’t sound as far in her past, or as distant from her future.
It’s surprising she’s so open about it. For 15 years, she didn’t tell a soul outside her inner circle about the details of that day. People had their own painful stories, even if they were in other parts of the country. And she didn’t want listeners to treat her narrative as entertainment. But mostly, she felt incapable of articulating her emotions, her crippling sorrow and guilt. “I was so devastated by all the people that had passed,” she says. “And so, in many ways, my silence was a reverence to them.”
She started encountering other people in the North Tower stairwell shortly into her descent. As the memoir details, she flew by them at first. With a hand around the rail, she’d skip steps, leaping from landings. Her footwork’s cadence—step, step, jump—informed the title of her book.
Some of its most riveting passages arrive when Quintero’s evacuation halts at the 33rd floor, an orderly scene that defies an outsider’s assumption of mass panic inside the crumbling tower. At that time, a line of people hugged the right banister, leaving a space for firefighters to make fateful climbs upward. But it was only a trickle of these responders for a while. More people could fit across the stairwell, it seemed to Quintero. They could all reach the bottom quicker with a wider line, with more urgency. “Patience felt like a critical mistake,” she writes in the book.
When she asked others why they weren’t moving, someone told her to calm down. She can’t hide her ire talking about the standstill. “Oh my goodness, that killed me!” she says. “Because here we would, every morning and evening, squeeze in like a bunch of sardines in the subway. And then it wasn’t even like that in the stairwell.”
A choking, mysterious stench permeated. Quintero held her brown cardigan against her face and listened as someone relayed the news: a passenger plane had hit their building. Not long after, they’d learn another one had hit the South Tower.
Injured people from higher floors started to be escorted down the steps. Knotted sweaters covered one severely burned young woman’s bare body. At the same time, more firefighters ascended. Quintero met one’s eyes, saw the acceptance in them. She cries thinking about it, about all of those who ran into danger as others ran from it. “They allowed me to have a second chance at life,” she says.
In the tower, Quintero didn’t let sympathy or etiquette override her flight instinct. She started darting down the open side of the stairwell, drawing side-eyes as she passed. When a firefighter would enter her path, she’d tuck into the line of people.
Unlike a woman who stopped in a hallway for air, or a fireman who joked about the building’s impending collapse near a vending machine, Quintero never dallied. By the 10th floor, a stream of water from the sprinkler system accompanied her journey down. She was soaked, freezing, when she reached the lobby. Someone advised her to stare straight ahead once she got to the ground, to avoid seeing the debris and blood splatter that still managed to enter her peripheral vision.
She made her way through the World Trade Center mall, into a Borders bookstore, and then, finally, through a pair of doors and onto the street. Compared to the stairwell’s gaseous ventilation, the smoke-diffused air outside was blessedly fresh. She swallowed it in as she walked. Eventually, she turned back toward the towers. One moment surviving the disaster, the next processing the spectacle at a distance, and none at all.
It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure a similar act of terror in Seattle, even from its serene western flank. Across the Sound, skyscrapers gleam during golden hour. Cover the Needle with a hand and squint a bit, and the view evokes an eerily familiar vantage of all those videos and photos that emerged in the aftermath of the Twin Towers’ collapse, of the people on patios documenting the buildings’ destruction from safe havens across the twinkling Hudson, the ones muttering shit under their breath, simultaneously riveted and mortified. The accused architect of those strikes, both of which deployed Boeing 767s, confessed in 2007 that Washington state was among the group’s other targets. He said al-Qaeda planned to hit “Plaza Bank.” That such a structure did not exist offered little comfort. In 2001, 76-story Columbia Center was known as Bank of America Tower, and Bank of America Fifth Avenue Plaza also loomed across the street.
This city of transplants already felt close to the attacks. A kaleidoscopic next-day Seattle Times story chronicled local angst on 9/11—the frantic cell phone calls to check on loved ones, the bar patrons’ eyes glued to TV news at the downtown Westin before lunch hour—but also its devotion. Donors lined up for hours to give blood. An estimated 1,500 people filled pews and aisles at St. James Cathedral on First Hill that afternoon to pray. And the author of that Times story, a restless, Pulitzer-winning journalist named Alex Tizon, prepared to hop in a rented Ford Expedition for the first leg of a cross-country reporting trip that profiled Americans of differing stripes, hawks and dissenters, all the way to ground zero.
Two days before my interview with Quintero, a cacophony of opinions on foreign policy were once again dominating the news cycle. Afghanistan’s government had fallen to the Taliban during the American withdrawal from the country. A conflict prompted by 9/11 was ending ignominiously, with people clinging to planes in hopes of fleeing a place the U.S. government once aimed to make more inclusive.
Quintero, who studied political science and government at the University of Washington, began thinking about the 11th’s sociopolitical significance while still in shock, ruminating during an hours-long cab ride back to her Bronx apartment from lower Manhattan. She shared the taxi with a construction worker, Anthony, who’d been on a job at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Together they watched a smoke cloud envelop the area when the South Tower collapsed at 9:59am. When they discussed the attackers’ motivations, Quintero narrated her conscience: She described America’s oppression of other cultures, chastised Western ignorance. She wondered about her own complicity working for Wall Street.
Today, it pains her to see the suffering of Afghans and American veterans, as well as other victims in the sprawling war on terror. She can’t watch the coverage. “Every single time we would go to war, it would devastate me again,” she says, “because I experienced one day of war, and it was so terrible…the cruelest thing that we can experience as a human.”
The fighter jets were one of the first triggers. Quintero, who’d spent much of the previous 24 hours in bed, curtains closed, heard them pierce the air and jolted upward, grabbing a bag and running for the door of her Bronx apartment. An explosion felt imminent.
After the taxi had dropped her off on the 11th the day before, Quintero found a church, stood behind a pew, and closed her eyes. She could feel the blood coursing through her veins, attuned to each part of her body. For the first time, God appeared to her as not just some omniscient external being, but as a force within her. It was restorative.
But when she returned to her apartment that night, her earlier trauma resurfaced. She flicked on the TV and learned that the North Tower had buckled and fallen as well. Those people who’d followed the crowd, slowly making their way down the stairs—had they made it?
With phones tied up, she couldn’t reach anyone until the next day. Her mother, who lived in upstate New York, said she’d tried and failed to find a bus or train to join her in the city. Her father, still in Seattle (the couple divorced when Quintero was five), said family had come by the house, but he’d never lost faith. She learned her brother, Paul, had rented a car in Miami. He was on a business trip there, but he wanted to get back to New York to see his sister. Her boss, meanwhile, had been in the fitness center of a Marriott tucked between the Towers when the first plane struck. He’d survived.
Others left voicemails, asking for specifics. She’d return their calls, but she wouldn’t get into the details. They couldn’t understand. Common sights and sounds, like planes overhead, had acquired crushing associations. Racked with survivor’s guilt, she couldn’t find purpose in even the most basic tasks. “You try to do something simple in a day, like wash dishes, and you’re like, Oh, my God, what am I doing with my life?” Quintero recalls thinking. “People can’t even call their loved ones anymore, and here I am washing dishes.”
She cried hysterically, yelled a lot. Squirmed as she relived the trip down the tower in her dreams. Quarantined herself from the city’s gradual uplift.
She didn’t know what post-traumatic stress disorder was, not until she started seeking help from therapists. While research on PTSD in 9/11 survivors has been oddly scarce, studies have found that somewhere between a tenth and a quarter of people escaping or witnessing the Towers’ collapse have experienced PTSD symptoms years after the attacks.
In the immediate aftermath, Quintero found comfort in her brother’s visit. But a medical tent run by the Federal Emergency Management Association and American Red Cross would later deny her care, Quintero says, because she missed the deadline to submit a letter from a counselor vouching for her PTSD. Workers were surprised she’d been inside one of the towers. “People kind of looked at me like I was a ghost.”
Where could she go where they wouldn’t?
It seemed like everybody at the Evergreen State College was talking about a different campus at the dawn of the new millennium. Students were flocking to a constellation of nondescript buildings less than an hour south of the progressive Olympia school, off a country road in deep-red Lewis County.
At the Northwest Vipassana Center, or Dhamma Kuñja, they learned an ancient form of silent meditation to achieve equanimity, or a sense of composure to help balance oneself through life’s ups and downs. For 10 days, nobody can speak, socialize, or even make eye contact, really. Women sit and sleep in residence halls with the other women. Men do the same. Today it’s one of only about a dozen such centers in the U.S., and back then, it attracted hippie college kids in part because it was free, though donations supported the next batch of students (as they still do).
Dalya Perez had just graduated from Evergreen when she decided to give Dhamma Kuñja a shot in the fall of 2001. A social type in school, she was down for some soul-searching. “I had never meditated before,” she recalls. “It was literally the party girl who’s feeling lost in life and throws herself into tense silent meditation.”
On the first day, leaders arranged people’s positions in the spartan meditation hall. Perez noticed the woman in front of her sat remarkably straight, session after session. “It was kind of silly,” says Perez, “but I admired her, or I had some kind of affection for her, without any words and without knowing her.”
At night, though, she’d hear the woman crying in her sleep. She wished she could comfort her but—no speaking.
At the end of the 10 days, students could chat before departing. Perez approached her meditative inspiration and reflected on the experience with her. They exchanged names. Hers? Annabel.
Quintero hadn’t noticed her admirer. She’d flown from New York to her home state in November of 2001, fending off fears of boarding an airplane to see her family. She spoke for hours with her father, staying with him for a few days in Seattle before traveling a little under two hours down I-5 to Dhamma Kuñja. An old boyfriend had sworn by it.
The center helped restore the connection between her mind and body she’d summoned inside that church in New York. About halfway through, she sat with her pain from the 11th and abusive relationships in her more distant past, breaking into tears. But gradually, she regained her strength, sensed her stomach. Found that venerated equanimity. On the final day, Perez’s affirmation provided one last lift. It wouldn’t be long before she could offer another.
A couple decades ago, Carolyn Hartness embarked on a real estate search that would dizzy even the most ardent Zillowhead. Over many months, she viewed 72 homes from “Bellingham to Rainier.” She wasn’t too picky, with one caveat: She wanted to build a sweat lodge on her new property. Raised by a Norwegian mother and Eastern Band Cherokee father, Hartness had become well-versed in Lakota traditions. Gathering beneath blankets placed over a circular willow structure, praying, singing, and pouring water over scalding rocks—it was a centerpiece of her life.
A sylvan six acres in Indianola, an area of the Port Madison Indian Reservation once only reachable by boat, presented plenty of potential spots for a small dome structure. When Hartness moved in, she hiked with some friends up a hill and along a deer path until they found a clearing. They stood in the Four Directions, then prayed and sang. Hartness dropped to the ground. This was it.
After securing permission from Suquamish Tribe elders to construct the lodge on their ancestral land, she started inviting people to join her sweats. At some point, she learned that an old friend, Annabel Quintero, was a 9/11 survivor. “When I found out that she had been through the whole tower experience,” says Hartness, “I thought, oh, she needs to get in the lodge.”
She called Quintero, who didn’t know much about the practice, according to Quintero’s memoir. Hartness explained that the ceremony, Inipi, means “to live again” in Lakota. It purifies. It heals.
The concept intrigued Quintero. It would give her an opportunity to explore part of her complex identity, something she discusses at length in her book. Though her family identifies as Ecuadorian, she has African and Native American ancestors.
So shortly after wrapping up her Vipassana meditation, Quintero ventured to Indianola one late November morning. Hartness’s sweat lodges, which involve prep time and a feast, can last all day (“I’m famous for talking”).
The mystical arrived before the ceremony did. When Quintero scanned the roughly dozen other participants, she was stunned to find a familiar face, especially this familiar face. It was Dalya Perez, the young woman from Dhamma Kuñja. The Evergreen alum’s expression mirrored her surprise.
Perez had met Hartness through a youth program years earlier. Still, the coincidence of Quintero and Perez attending the same sweat was enough to throw even a veteran of spiritual gatherings. “That was just such a wild thing,” says the 77-year-old Hartness.
Quintero, Perez, and the others crawled into a space too low to stand in and maybe eight feet wide, she estimates in the book. Hartness referenced the Creator as she described the significance of various items, like an eagle’s wing, in Native culture. The group chanted as steam rose from heated rocks doused with water.
Fire had been Quintero’s nemesis long before the 11th. During childhood, she witnessed a friend’s apartment in Bellevue burn. But in the sweat lodge, she appreciated it as a healing mechanism, a part of her Native heritage. Other natural elements celebrated during the ceremony, like trees, were too often missing from her New York life. She found herself thanking Mother Earth in this setting. “It’s kind of hard to do that in an apartment on the 14th floor in Manhattan,” Hartness quips.
Afterward, Quintero didn’t talk much. Hartness took that as a sign the sweat had made a major impact; Quintero was normally chatty like her.
Quintero says the ceremony “changed her forever.” It proved she had room for another type of faith. She’d long assumed a connection between her and the natural world, but her Washington trip had solidified it. She could sustain that appreciation 3,000 miles away from all those mountains and trees, she thought. At least for a little while.
Upon her return to New York City, Quintero worked prayer and meditation into her mornings, thanking God for the natural wonders in her midst. Yet her professional life was still a testament to the diffuse occupations of a 20-something striver in the throes of capitalism. She landed a gym trainer gig at Equinox, sought modeling opportunities, launched a body oil brand. She didn't want to abandon the propulsive New York grind of her childhood dreams.
Even though she didn’t tell anyone, she still harbored certain anxieties from the 11th. Working in a tall building, for instance, remained out of the question. Telligent Capital Management found a new space and invited her to come back, but she declined. It would be too much.
Eventually, New York felt that way too. The constant stimulation that had drawn her across the country in her early 20s didn’t have the same appeal once she wanted to start a family.
In 2008, she and her then-husband moved to West Seattle, with daughter Sophia in tow. Her youngest daughter, Selene, would arrive shortly thereafter. Quintero kept running her body oil business for a while, but she’d ultimately throw herself into her kids' education. She fashioned herself as something of a cultural broker on the PTA, bridging the gap between the white staff and communities of color they were teaching. She rose to the district level, working on equity and language access, before going back to school to get her master’s in education at the University of Washington.
Which was cause for another serendipitous brush with Dalya Perez. Unbeknownst to Quintero, her long-lost friend had pursued the same degree at UW (she’d go on to earn a doctor of philosophy in higher education). During grad school, Perez volunteered to call incoming students of color. One time, she came upon Quintero’s name on her list. Could it be her? “No way,” she recalls thinking.
The phone call relaunched their friendship. They caught up on the 13 years since the Vipassana retreat and sweat lodge, since Quintero mentioned she was a 9/11 survivor. She hadn’t gone into details then. But when Quintero invited Perez to an event at her church after reconnecting, she’d hear it all.
Quintero’s pastor had gotten an inkling about her 9/11 history. After many conversations with him, she agreed to share her story with a broader group at 24-Seven Ministry Center in Bellevue. In front of a rapt, diverse audience, Quintero described her journey down from the 46th floor of the North Tower, physically and emotionally. “It was like a TED Talk,” says Perez.
Initially, Quintero aimed to apply her public speaking skills in the political realm. In 2018, a year after graduating, she ran for state senate. It didn’t go as planned. While she’d enjoyed working with policy makers at the local and federal levels before, campaigning was “a whole other beast,” like launching a startup in six months. She finished ninth in the primary.
Part of her rhetorical power, she’d come to learn, was in recognizing the trauma she’d experienced and her difficulty in sharing it. At a Lisa Nichols motivational speaking and writing conference in California, Quintero got on stage and spilled her 9/11 story to strangers. Others said they had their own untold tales. “I realized, wow, if I can share my story, maybe other people will feel like they have permission to do so as well.”
She connected with a book coach and editor through the event. She’d tried to write her story before the 10th anniversary of the 11th but wasn’t ready then. Now she was.
Quintero still gets triggered. Blue Angels flying overhead at Seafair? Not fun for her anymore. Or a fan vibrating loudly behind her ears in a meeting. She ran to the door that one time and then had to apologize.
But she’s better at working through her trauma, understanding why and how her body responds to certain thoughts. The meditation and spiritual practices gleaned during that Washington trip two decades ago helped her finish writing a 200-plus-page memoir during a mind-throttling pandemic. Our current public health crisis consumes much of her thinking these days. “The fear that I’m seeing reminds me of the fear that I had after the 11th,” she says.
She was doing okay until the shelves started emptying at the grocery stores. She geared up for those trips in mask and gloves. Survival mode, again. Then she remembered what she’d learned from the 11th. “This is going to be a long haul,” she thought. “Don’t misuse your imagination, don’t worry, just be super safe and stay home.”
She isn’t ignoring the 20th anniversary of 9/11. On that day, she plans to visit Carolyn Hartness’s six acres in Indianola for the first time since her transformative trip in 2001. Dalya Perez, now a diversity, equity, and inclusion program manager at Microsoft, will perform “schedule acrobatics” to be there too.
Hartness hopes to host a traditional sweat lodge. But if Covid is too rampant, they may have to settle for gathering around a fire, she admits.
No matter the group’s arrangement, it’ll be full circle for Quintero. She’ll reunite with the friends who supported and propelled her healing journey. And two decades removed from fleeing the flames inside a faltering steel tower, she’ll sit with embers in the province of mountains and trees, fully, gratefully, in her element.