Marcy Borders: Bank worker whose life spiralled out of control after she was caught up in the attack on the Twin Towers

Borders became known as the Dust Lady after an image of her covered in a thick layer of white dust and ash went round the world

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The Independent Online

On the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an image of Marcy Borders covered in a thick layer of white dust and ash went round the world. It was a day that changed her life forever. Borders, who has died of stomach cancer, became known as "The Dust Lady", but hers was not a fame that brought solace, and she never properly recovered from the traumas of that day.

On the morning of 11 September 2001 Borders was a month into her new job as a legal assistant with the Bank of America on the 81st floor of the World Trade Center in New York. "I was picking the junk off the desk, getting ready to start my day," she recalled 10 years later. "That was when the plane hit."

Her supervisor told her to stay at her desk until the emergency services arrived. Ignoring that advice almost certainly saved her life. "Hundreds of people were trying to get out," she recalled. "My stairwell was badly damaged and we had to move stairwells, I was convinced we were going to die. I'm so glad I had the strength to get to the bottom. There were wounded and the injured, it was too much for one to witness. I saw people with things sticking out of them, covered head to toe in blood. I couldn't understand it. What I saw was carnage, and I thought, 'God, I'm going to die anyway'."

When she got down to the street, she said, "Everything was falling, There was debris everywhere." At that point the AFP photographer Stan Honda took his celebrated picture. It was later named on a Time magazine list of the 25 most powerful images – but Borders didn't even know it had been taken until her mother told her she'd seen it.

 

Later that day, she caught the boat to New Jersey and began walking home to Bayonne. "I got about five miles and this woman called Janet offered me a lift. She drove me home and I took my clothes off and had a bath."

But though she was able to wash off the dust, the images and sensations of that day stuck with her, and normality was many years away. She became a recluse, refusing to leave her flat. Six months after the attack she gave an interview in which she described her struggles. "People call me the Dust Lady now," she said. "At Halloween, a lady who lives in my apartment building covered herself in flour and went trick-or-treating as the Dust Lady. I don't think they realise how much it hurts. I'm just tired of crying. My whole life has gone downhill."

She had no help, she said, from her mother, who castigated her when she felt unable to go back to work. "She gets on the phone and says, 'Are you just going to lay around forever? Are you going to be a bum?'"

She suffered from severe depression and became addicted to crack cocaine, losing custody of her two children. "My life became a garbage can," she recalled, "and my kids were taken away to my mom and aunt."

She began to reassert control over her life in 2011, checking into rehab, since when she had been free of drugs and drink. She reached a welcome turning point in May that year, when she heard of the death of the instigator of the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden, at the hands of US troops at his hide-out in Abbottabad, Pakistan. "It really did help me find some closure," she said. "I ran up to my counsellor and said, 'God is brilliant. Not only is He fixing me up, He's taken care of my biggest fear.'"

She regained custody of her children – her daughter Noelle, then 18, and her son Zay-den, then three – and moved back in with her partner, Donald Edwards. "The kids have got their Mom back," she said. On the 10th anniversary of the attacks she was able to go into New York. "I have been back to Manhattan and, instead of being a victim, I was a survivor, clean, sober and at peace," she said. "I ran from the situation but now I feel like I am rising above it.

Last summer, she announced that she had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and had undergone chemotherapy. She was due to undergo further treatment later this year.

At least 1,000 people are thought to have died from illnesses caused by the toxic air in the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers, and Borders believed her condition was probably directly related. "I'm saying to myself 'Did this thing ignite cancer cells in me?' I definitely believe it because I haven't had any illnesses... How do you go from being healthy to waking up the next day with cancer?"

In 2011, Barack Obama launched a fund to compensate emergency workers for health problems related to the attacks. In 2014 more than 2,500 police officers, firefighters, ambulance staff and sanitation workers reported they had cancer in 2013, twice as many as said they had the disease 12 months earlier.

Borders' daughter Noelle said of her mother, "Not only is she the 'Dust Lady', but she is my hero," she said.

CHRIS MAUME

Marcy Borders, legal assistant: born New Jersey 1972 or 1973; partner to Donald Edwards (one daughter, one son); died New Jersey 24 August 2015.

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