Woman describes escape from 9/11 terror attacks

Originally Published: 11 SEP 21 14:37 ET

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    MARS HILL, North Carolina (WLOS) -- Twenty years ago, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, etching Sept. 11, 2001, in history forever.

A Mars Hill woman was there that day.

Shelley Willis Vergara was a liquidation consultant who was in New York for business. The 34-year-old had been hired to close a cosmetics store in the basement level of the North Tower.

“It’s just really hard to believe that I was actually there,” Willis Vergara recalled.

Cup of coffee in hand, Willis Vergara said she entered the office as normal. She said she threw her new Tumi backpack on a desk and got to work.

“The lights blinked, and I’m pretty sure that’s when the first plane hit,” she said.

Coming out of her office to see what was going on, Willis Vergara said the door shut behind her. Her ID and wallet were locked inside. She immediately realized the packed store she recently walked through was empty.

“I looked around and thought, this is really strange,” Willis Vergara said. “Then, I walked around the counter, and I could see hundreds of people running out of the building.”

Her first thought: a mass-shooting.

“I was kind of grabbing people, yelling at people, ‘What’s going on, what are you doing?’ There was one lady that just said, ‘Hey, you need to get the eff out of the building, like right now.’ So, I panicked at that point,” Willis Vergara said. “I got in line with everyone that was running and out the building we went.”

Outside, Willis Vergara’s story of survival is brimming with gruesome memories she’s since tried to forget.

“I didn’t want to dream about people jumping out of the building,” Willis Vergara said. “I didn’t want to dream about people on fire.”

Some of her memories haunt her more than others.

“I jumped over a lady that had fallen, and people were running over her,” Willis Vergara recalled. “I still beat myself up because I didn’t stop to help her.”

Willis Vergara said she was in shock. The scene playing out like a movie before her was not her own life. Fortunately, she was able to call her mother, Naomi Willis, who was able to help her navigate through the crowd of panicked people.

“She was writing where I was at what time I was,” Willis Vergara said. “How many blocks I had walked, and how many I had to go.”

The phone call was cut short, though.

“When the second plane hit, the explosion was so powerful, I felt like it hit my nose,” Willis Vergara said. “The buildings started to crumble, and I watched it. I watched the towers fall.”

Naomi Willis said she felt helpless not knowing what was happening to her daughter.

“I can’t even tell you. It’s like one of those moments where every bit of energy in your body drains out,” Naomi Willis said. “You just had to pray that everything was going to be OK.”

On the street, Willis Vergara said it was chaos.

“Everybody just panicked, and we ran,” she said. “We didn’t know where we were running, and we didn’t know where we were going.”

Willis Vergara said she didn’t stop running until she made it to her cousin’s apartment 100 blocks away.

Six months later, she got a surprise from the FBI. Her driver’s license and credit card, which she had long forgotten about, had been plucked from the rubble.

“These are extremely special to me,” Willis Vergara said.

Now, the framed mementos serve every day as a reminder to look forward.

“I’m extremely happy that I was able to survive through it,” Willis Vergara said.

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