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by Corine Gatti
Jean Potter’s 9/11 experience is a beacon that shines on one of America’s darkest moments in history. Eighty-one flights of stairs stood between the former Bank of America executive assistant’s survival before the North Tower reportedly collapsed around 10:28 a.m. Time was waning, as people, including Potter, just regained their balance at 8:46 a.m. after being rocked off their feet from the second plane crashing into the tower. There, people gunned for the stairs for safety. In the midst of facing mortality, Potter heard a remarkable voice. God told her it was not her time to die as she raced down the staircase. Against all odds, Potter lives to her story, and live a life of serving others in her new book By the Grace of God.
Potter has sweetness to her voice, the kind that permeates from a loving mother to a child. It’s a presence that makes even a stranger gravitate towards her, and long to learn more about her journey. Her story started on 8:46 a.m. shortly after she was contemplating whether to run errands on the concourse. Suddenly an explosion ripped through the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the second plane crashed into the ninety-third floor and the ninety-ninth floor. Debris, tiles, smoke started billowing into the floor and the building swayed furiously as Potter made her way to the staircase. The Bank of America executive assistant was staring at 81 flights for survival. Time was precious as the North Tower reportedly collapsed around 10:28 a.m.
The Brooklyn, New York native heard a whisper, through the heavy black soot and stench of jet fuel.
“This is not your time,” said a still voice among the havoc. “We are with you and your brother is with you.”
Potter didn’t understand where the voice came from, but those simple words wrapped around her like a blanket as she vacated made her way to the stairs.
“Smoke filled the air. Things were falling from the ceiling. I was literally thrown out of my chair. People were trying to regain their balance. An associate yelled out to get to the staircase and fortunately I was right by a staircase. We made our way down to the Sky Lobby on the 44th floor, which at that point in time I heard another massive explosion. I looked in the corner of my eye and saw flying debris, paper, and things flying in the air and thinking: “What is going on?”
Potter found herself stuck in the Sky Lobby, until she was able reach another stairwell. An associate directed her to another staircase. Then she started seeing firemen come up the stairs—she knew one of them. Potter was acquainted with the rescuer since her husband Dan was a New York City fireman. Potter grabbed his arm and told him “Please be safe.”
He didn’t make it out that day and left behind a wife and four children.
Potter was then escorted to an upper mezzanine level and looked down at the devastation done to the lobby. When the North Tower was hit, the building from the compression blew out the lobby glass and Potter thought she heard the sound of bodies dropping, but was unsure due to her state of shock.
Then she was guided through the concourse where all the shops and restaurants were. All the windows were blown out and water was pouring from the ceilings.
The human chain of relief workers screamed, “Run, Run!”
Potter cleared the building by three minutes and managed to phone her husband Dan’s firehouse in the Bronx to tell him she was fine. Dan was studying for the Lieutenant’s test in Staten Island, and someone busted into the class screaming that the WTC was just hit. Dan Potter could see the smoke streaming out of the WTC from the window and frantically jumped into his car and sped over the Verrazano Bridge. Torn, Dan wanted to look for his wife but had to do his job as a first responder. Later they were united at the main fire station in China Town. Dan’s life was also spared as he survived what was called the black zone twice. The black zone was located at Liberty Street where the towers collapsed.
Both would live to tell their stories
“We lost so many people that day,” Potter explained from her home in Lords Valley Pennsylvania. “The grief is on such a deep level and He [God] pulled us through. If can pull us through this, He can do that for anyone. It’s important that people never forget the people who perished.”
Jean survived. Her life like many others after the tragedy seemed like a dark pit filled with unanswered perplexing questions. One question that haunted Potter was: “Why did she survive and not the others?”
“I couldn’t understand why I survived that day. I feel that He was there with us. With those that survived and those that were passing,” Potter said. “Over 3,000 souls perished that day… we must never forget.”
Potter has found a greater purpose since her life changed following that day in 2001. After experiencing depression and the loss of her career—she got involved in a women’s prison ministry where she helps others find their purpose in Jesus Christ.
“I tell them when I meet them that on 9/11 Jesus gave me another chance at life and I tell them that incarceration is giving them another chance at life. And they truly get that. It’s part of his plan for us. It’s just so amazing. We are so blessed.”
Potter tells that there is more work to be done as people are still suffering from the aftermath of 9/11 and will be donating proceeds of her book to the Wounded Warrior Project that provides services help injured service members. She also will send proceeds of her book to the FealGood Foundation, which is working with lawmakers to create a nationwide-broadband system for emergency crews to communicate across state, city and network lines. During 9/11, communication was down. Through it all Potter, who begins each of her seven chapters with a biblical scripture said she is deeply humbled to be used despite the darkness at the nucleus of 9/11.
“Just as Jesus is with us, he is here with all of us. We are living proof of God’s plan. I believe reading this will help those still suffering.”
Potter recalls one of her favorite scriptures.
“…we went through fire and through water but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place,” Psalms 66:12.
You can read more about Jean Potter and her story in By the Grace of God: A 9-11 Survivor's Story of Love, Hope, and Healing
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