WTC Survivors Find Strength in Each Other

A jetliner full of fuel and passengers was zooming toward the World Trade Center's north tower as Carmen Griffith ushered Cantor Fitzgerald employees into her elevator on the 78th floor.

She closed the doors and reached out to press the "up" button.

In the basement, her husband, Arturo Griffith, was operating a freight elevator as it began an ascent to the 49th floor.

His car was about a third of the way there when the nose of American Airlines Flight 11 pierced the 110-story building. Elevator 50A dropped a stomach-turning 15 floors back to the basement, where the doors burst inward, crushing Arturo Griffith's left leg and knocking him down.

Upstairs on the 78th floor, balls of fire darted into elevator 93A, scorching Carmen Griffith's hands, then her face.

Both were trapped, and both were sure the other was dead. They wouldn't know otherwise for more than 36 hours. Married for seven years, they thought they couldn't live without each other. In the six months since Sept. 11, they have discovered what that really means.

"When I came out of surgery, I found out that she was alive. They told me that she was burned on her face and her hands, but she was alive," said Arturo Griffith, 55. "So I told them, I don't care if she's burned, I love her the same."

The black jacket of her uniform was flaming as Carmen Griffith, 45, pulled open the elevator doors with her burning hands -- which are now too weak to carry groceries and not nimble enough to cook dinner.

She stood between the doors as people, some on fire and screaming, crawled out through her legs. When she turned to check that everyone had escaped, a tongue of fire lashed her face.

"All I could do was close my eyes," said Griffith. Other workers came to her aid, escorting her down dozens of flights of stairs and into an ambulance outside.

She is not sure what happened to the other people on her elevator, but many she transported earlier likely died. Griffith operated a car that took people to the upper floors after they had transferred on the 78th floor from another elevator.

Nearly six months later, the scars on her face are barely visible; only slight discoloration shows on her forehead and cheeks. Her eyebrows and eyelashes have grown back, but the new hair that sprouted along her hairline has to be smoothed down with gel. Her husband has to do this for her, because the hair feels like wire on the damaged nerves in her scarred hands.

"I feel the sensation coming back in my hands, but in the beginning I had none whatsoever," she said.

Now, the Griffiths do everything together, spending most of their time at home watching DVDs from their growing collection, and listening to salsa and merengue music. Workers compensation and charitable aid pay the bills.

During their physical therapy session three times a week, Carmen Griffith puts her hands in a machine that heats and massages them. A physical therapist then rubs the scars with cream and clenches Griffith's hands in a fist.

Flat on his back in another room, Arturo Griffith grimaces as a physical therapist bends his injured knee. He follows this with 10 minutes on the exercise bicycle, 10 minutes walking on the treadmill and five minutes walking backward. He finishes with squats, his wife by his side.

"She sits next to me and says, 'A little bit more, a little bit farther,"' he said, chuckling. "She's a good coach."

Arturo Griffith, a barrel-chested man who played baseball, soccer and "every other sport" growing up in Panama, furrows his brow as he concentrates on working his knee, which needs another surgery this spring. He grins broadly when he recalls the day he took a shower standing up by himself, rather than have his wife help him into the tub. That day was in February, after spending weeks in a wheelchair and months on crutches.

"In the beginning, I thought I was never going to be able to walk," said Griffith, who was moved to his wife's hospital in Brooklyn nine days after the attack. They stayed in the same room until Oct. 5.

"I work extra hard. I go the extra mile in my therapy," he said.

On the days they don't go to physical therapy, the Griffiths spend an hour each with a counselor at their Bronx home. Sometimes, they pepper her with questions.

He wonders what would have happened if his elevator had stopped a few feet higher or lower, between floors.

"There's nothing but a wall, I would have died there," Arturo Griffith said. "My knee will heal, but mentally, that will remain in me for the rest of my life."

Most nights, the Griffiths toss and turn in bed. When Carmen Griffith has trouble sleeping, she paces their living room. Sometimes she rocks back and forth in the rocking chair she bought for her husband in November. He found it impossible to wriggle from their plush navy blue leather couch to standing on one leg.

In her dreams she hears calls for help from people trapped in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond firm that lost more than 600 employees, and in the Windows on the World restaurant, which occupied the top floors of the north tower.

"I took those people up. To hear that they couldn't get out, it makes me think ... we brought those people up there to die," Carmen Griffith said. "All that torments you, you know? In a flash of a second, so much happened. You try to figure out why, and there's no answer."

The Griffiths don't want to mark the six months since the terrorist attack. On March 11, they plan to be on a beach in Panama during a monthlong vacation — Carmen in a sun hat and white cotton gloves to protect her new skin, and Arturo, walking slowly through the sparkling ocean in chest-deep water, to strengthen his knee.