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Time has not taken away horror of 9/11

Published September 13, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Her first thought was this: What idiot could not see that building?

Then, after United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pa., close to the town where she grew up, her bones felt cold.

The realization hit her like a one-two punch: Terrorists had attacked the United States, and her sons would be going to war.

As Janet McGuire talked Monday morning, the sky outside her office was as brilliantly blue as it was that day in 2001.

McGuire's oldest son, Travis Miller, a 37-year-old Georgia firefighter who was in the Navy reserves, was sent to Iraq as a Marine medic.

Her youngest, 34-year-old Army Staff Sgt. Justin D. Miller, is due to return for a second tour of duty next month. He is with the 1st Cavalry Division, in charge of a Bradley unit.

McGuire, 56, fully supports the decision to go after Osama bin Laden, but she is not especially happy with the decision to invade Iraq.

Her sons' determination "keeps me from despair," she said, "and I'm so proud of them. A mother's love is stronger than a gun. That love has got to be greater than the hate that caused this."

On McGuire's desk is a photograph of a New York City firefighter who was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Though she never met him, she feels a closeness forged in tragedy.

"It seems like I can't remember what life was like before Sept. 11," she said. "I don't ever want to feel the anger that I felt that day."

The morning of the attacks, she was leading a disaster preparedness drill near the Port of Tampa.

A week after Sept. 11, she was called to New York. As public affairs and marketing director with the Tampa Bay Chapter of the American Red Cross, she had seen firsthand the destruction of natural disasters.

"I've seen three-story houses floating down rivers," she said.

Ground zero did not compare.

The first day, she went to Fresh Kills, the landfill where rubble from the World Trade Center site was taken. She spent several weeks between two respite centers set up for rescue and relief workers at ground zero.

McGuire and her husband, Bernie, a Red Cross volunteer, helped the people who sifted through airplane parts and paperwork and jewelry and bones.

"We had been warned. Before we even got there, we could smell it." The stench, the odor of fuel and decaying bodies, penetrated the respirators they wore.

"I was standing in the middle of hell," she said. The debris dwarfed the equipment used to clear it. In blown-out windows, paper spilled out of desk drawers.

The thick dust under their feet, she said, represented "a little tiny speck of somebody that somebody loved. You wanted just to scoop it up in your hands and declare it holiness."

Like 85 percent of the other people who worked those recovery details, she ended up seriously ill, with severe gastrointestinal problems.

As a result, she quit the Red Cross, worked for a couple of years with the Hillsborough County Bar Association and now is public relations coordinator for the Salvation Army's St. Petersburg area command. But ground zero is never far. She can still smell its stench. It comes to her in terrible dreams. Tears come easily.

Still, she said, her faith, tempered in the crucible of horror, deepened. "More than the evil, I saw so many people who cared," she said.

In those long days five years ago, McGuire saw fellow citizens display bravery, courage, strength, resilience and kindness.

"There's much more we're capable of in terms of compassion," she said.

Another tendril of hope: her 12 grandchildren. "They are the most precious gift I've ever gotten."

[Last modified September 13, 2006, 06:38:21]

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