Juneau nurse Ruth Perez-Matera was taking a shower in the Marriott Hotel across the street from the World Trade Center on Tuesday when the building shook and her mother saw a body fall outside a window of their room.
Perez-Matera, a nurse at Bartlett Regional Hospital, was in New York on vacation with her mother and sister and planned to go to the Trade Center that morning to shop. When the first jetliner struck, her mother, Jan Perez, ran to the hotel window and saw debris and the man's body fly by.
"I thought 'Where could he have come from?' I just couldn't understand it," said Perez, who lives in California.
"My sister started screaming 'Fire!' said Perez-Matera, who was still in the shower and covered with soap. "She said 'Get out of the shower, don't rinse off.'"
Perez-Matera pulled on some clothes and the trio ran from their room on the 16th floor. In the lobby, they saw bleeding people stumbling into the hotel. Perez-Matera ran to the victims to give first aid.
"One woman had a chunk of building or something heavy fall on her back," Perez-Matera said.
At that point, they still did not know what had happened. Then they heard an explosion, and a man ran into the hotel and said a second plane had struck the towers.
"Then all of us knew it was terrorists," Perez-Matera said today from Brooklyn. The hotel employees "told everybody to calm down, stay put."
But Perez-Matera's mother would not stay put and ventured outside where she heard police telling people to run to nearby Battery Park. She ran back into the lobby.
"I told people 'Get out of the building now,' " said Jan Perez.
She and her daughters ran from the hotel, which later collapsed, and that's when Perez-Matera saw the carnage.
"I could see intestines and different parts of people's bodies laying around. And I ran with my mom and my sister," she said.
They ran nearly a mile to Battery Park and turned to look at the towers just as one began to fall. They had run far enough to escape the lethal rubble, but now Perez-Matera wondered if the smoke would kill them all.
"You couldn't see in front of yourself," she said. "You just felt this heavy soot, you couldn't breathe. People started panicking at that point."
Some people jumped into the water, while others ran, trampling a fallen woman. Perez-Matera stopped to help the woman up, then turned to a police officer for guidance. He told them to run toward the bridges leading off Manhattan Island. With shirts over their mouths, they headed for the Brooklyn Bridge and the air finally cleared halfway across.
But her agony was just beginning. She and her sister had lost their mother in the chaos, and Perez-Matera worried the severe asthmatic would suffer a deadly attack in the smoke and fumes.
"We searched for my mom all night," she said. "We thought she had died because I didn't think she could breathe."
Her mother was not the victim Perez-Matera had imagined. As it turned out, the 64-year-old chose to stay behind to help tend to people. For the next 24 hours, she washed faces caked with soot and helped police guide the fleeing crowds to safety. She was struck by the civility of the people in chaos.
"I was holding up the ribbon for them to pass through and each one said thank you," she said. "Very influential-looking people in business suits just humbling themselves."
The three women were reunited on Wednesday at the Jehovah's Witnesses world headquarters in Brooklyn, where Perez-Matera and her sister, Joni Vasquez, had taken refuge.
"We all held each other and cried and cried," Perez-Matera said. "It was so scary to have thought you lost somebody you love. So I know how these people feel. It's so horrible for them.....
"We're pretty shaken up. We're doing OK though. We're better off than many people."
Perez-Matera is stuck in New York but hopes to fly to California on Saturday to meet with her husband, Dr. Greg Matera. She plans to return to Juneau on Sept. 22 not a second too soon for her friends at the hospital who anxiously await her safe return.
"We love her so much," said nurse Trish Whitman. "And we want her back."