NEW YORK, NY -- If only that meeting had not run late.
Thirteen years ago today, Iliana Guibert-McGinnis received a phone call from her husband Thomas McGinnis, from the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center. McGinnis, a commodities trader, and his colleagues were trapped in a conference room in the North Tower.
Somehow, in the chaos that followed American Airlines flight 11 crashing into the building, McGinnis was able to reach his wife one last time. “This looks really, really bad,” he said. McGinnis told his wife that he loved her and to take care of their daughter before the line suddenly cut off.
McGinnis was 41. Ironically, he had been working in the World Trade Center during a bombing in 1993, and survived. By 2001, he no longer worked in the World Trade Center; he was only there for a meeting which should have been over by the time the plane hit. Unfortunately it ran late, and McGinnis did not make it out alive.
Iliana Guibert met Thomas McGinnis in the 9th grade, when they were both growing up in New York City’s Washington Heights. “We were together for a long time,” she reminisced. “All through his going away to college, while we both finished school, and then while we got started in our careers.” The couple married in 1986, and their daughter Caitlin was born in 1997.
An actress of Cuban descent, Guibert-McGinnis said that in the first few years following 9/11, “I did things that I didn’t understand or remember.”
“That first Christmas after Thomas was gone, in 2001, I had 60 people over at my house, I had presents for everyone, and I cooked a huge dinner,” she said. “I don’t remember any of it. My daughter thanked me for her gift and I didn’t even know what I had got her. I was in pure survival mode, like a kind of auto-pilot,” she explained.
Since then, Guibert-McGinnis has participated in numerous public and private memorial services. “I went to the reading of the names at the WTC site, I went to memorials at Thomas’ office, I would go every year to these ceremonies. Yet last year, emotionally, I just couldn’t do it.”
“You would think it would get easier, as the years go on,” she said. “But the last couple of years were harder, because my daughter is growing up and she has a fuller understanding of what happened.”
“When a tragedy happens to a four-year-old, they don’t fully grasp it. They are so innocent. But as your child gets older, you have to start explaining things and discussing things that they wouldn’t have understood before. So even though we (the parents) might be in a better place now, for kids it is like it is happening for the first time.”
“You would think it would get easier, as the years go on. But the last of couple years were harder, because my daughter is growing up and she has a fuller understanding of what happened…Even though we might be in a better place now, for kids it is like it is happening for the first time.”
For Guibert-McGinnis, sharing her private grief with the public has been part of her healing process.
“September 11th is a day that everyone remembers, like when Kennedy was shot, people remember where they were. Everyone feels a connection to it. So it doesn’t bother me when people ask about my husband, or 9/11. It can be therapeutic for both sides. People are surprised that I can talk about it and not feel bitterness or hatred in my heart,” she said.
“Right after September 11th, I was at the bank and the teller told me I needed my husband’s signature for some document,” Guibert-McGinnis said. “I looked at her, and I just started crying… and the teller put her “Window Closed” sign up and came around to me. I didn’t have to say a word to her, but she knew. And we sat there in the lobby of the bank and we cried together. And as strange as it sounds, these small gestures, from total strangers, have been a great source of strength to me.”
These days, Guibert-McGinnis stays busy raising her daughter, now 17, and managing her career and charitable work. Recently she has shot several commercials, appeared on TVs “The Carrie Diaries,” and even played a role in a “Sesame Street” video. She is also involved with the Julia Butterfly Foundation, which serves chronically- and terminally ill children, and Opening Act, which brings the performing arts to New York City public schools.
"I have experienced love from total strangers," Guibert-McGinnis said. "“I realize that, with all of the evil in the world, the good is still there.”
Despite the ups and down in her life, Guibert-McGinnis said she is still optimistic. “I know it sounds corny, but I believe in the power of love. I have experienced love from total strangers, reaching out to me with prayers and thoughtful gestures, everyone from world leaders to neighbors down the street.”
“I realize that, with all of the evil in the world, the good is still there,” she said. “It is so unbelievably powerful to know that – that the good is still there.”