An Unsung Heroine of 9-11

by Richard Poe
Friday, September 13, 2002

12:00 am Eastern Time
1 Comment

BONNIE ALDINGER is not the sort of heroine who makes headlines. Yet she and thousands like her turned the horror of 9-11 into victory.

I met Bonnie through my kayaking group. In 1998, we attended a water rescue workshop on Long Island. Afterwards, those who dared were encouraged to try kayaking in the three-foot surf.

Three times I plunged into the waves, and three times my kayak was thrown upside down.

“I can’t believe how brave you were,” Bonnie exclaimed. “I’m too much of a scaredy-cat to do that.”

But Bonnie is no scaredy-cat. She proved that on 9-11.

That fateful morning, Bonnie arrived at the World Trade Center around 8:45 am, bound for an outplacement seminar on the 93rd floor of the south tower. Bonnie had worked in that tower for two and a half years, at Fiduciary Trust. But this was her first time back since her lay-off in July.

Just as she was entering the mall, Bonnie heard the scream of a low-flying jet, followed by an explosion. There was no time to look up. Terrified crowds were running straight toward her. Bonnie feared that a rain of debris might be hurtling down from above. She ran inside, where all was chaos and confusion.

“What happened?” people asked. But no one knew.

Police blocked the north exit, so Bonnie went into the subway.

Commuters were leaving a crowded train and heading straight for the mall. “I knew the mall was filling up with smoke and being evacuated,” she says.

Taking charge of the situation — much as she takes charge of packs of novice kayakers, while leading tours on the Hudson — Bonnie stopped the entire trainload of people in its tracks and got them to turn around and walk north.

Bonnie walked with them. The public corridor of the Chambers Street station stretches north for blocks. Bonnie planned to walk underground until she was clear of the accident scene.

Then the second plane struck.

“It was a horrible noise, a huge roar,” says Bonnie.

People screamed and ran. Bonnie ran with them, lest she be trampled in the shoulder-to-shoulder stampede.

“I started thinking we were being bombed, we were under attack.” Bonnie envisioned missiles striking, and fireballs rushing up the tunnels.

She faced a dreadful choice. If she stayed underground, she might be trampled or buried alive in a tunnel collapse. But if she went outside, she might face something worse.

“I was thinking of mushroom clouds up there. I really thought I could die any minute.”

Taking shelter in a turnstyle, to escape the stampede, Bonnie noticed a train pulling in downstairs. “I pulled out my metro card and paid my fare like a good girl,” she recalls. Moments later, she was on a train, headed north.

She emerged at 23rd Street. Only when she ducked into a diner and saw the TV news did Bonnie finally comprehend what had happened. Outside, she turned away from the smoking towers, trying not to ponder the horrible deaths her former coworkers at Fiduciary Trust must be suffering. It later turned out that 95 were killed.

Not knowing where else to go, Bonnie took the bus over to Pier 63 on the Hudson River, and opened up the Manhattan Kayak Company office where she worked.

Manhattan was locked down. Bridges and tunnels were closed. Unless you were prepared to walk over a bridge on foot, boats were the only way out.

Thus Bonnie found herself smack in the middle of the biggest seaborne evacuation since Dunkirk. Thousands were lining up at the piers, waiting to cross. Boats and ships of every description served as ferries.

Bonnie volunteered to help. All day long, she walked up and down the lines, promising people they would get to New Jersey today, and that everything would be all right.

“I was really saying it more for myself,” Bonnie recalls. “It kept my mind off things. I think I had an easier time that day because there was something I could do.”

Maybe so. But a lot of other New Yorkers had an easier time because of Bonnie. As those stranded commuters listened to her soothing words, few could have imagined that Bonnie had spent the morning running for her life in a human stampede beneath the earth.

Bonnie still isn’t crazy about surf kayaking. But she doesn’t have to be. She has faced the ultimate terror and come out on top. People like Bonnie embody the spirit of a city that cannot be beaten.

Posted to 09.12.02
Cross-posted to 09.13.02


One Response to “An Unsung Heroine of 9-11”
  1. Richard Poe says:

    See reader comments at
    Posted on 09/11/2002 4:45:12 PM PDT

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