PAUL SOMIN – THE ANGEL IN THE RUBBLE
On Aug. 6, 2011, four days after Angel in the Rubble was published, Genelle received an unexpected visit at her Long Island home from Tom O’Brien. The retired New York City fireman had flowers for her – and an unbelievable story to tell.
O’Brien, as Genelle would learn, was one of nine firefighters from FDNY Rescue 2 in Brooklyn who rescued her from beneath the World Trade Center rubble on Sept. 12, 2001 after she had been buried alive for 27 hours.
The other eight were Dave Arcerie, Stan Brzenski, Tom Donnelly, Bill Esposito, Larry Gray, Larry Senzel, Tony Tedeshi, and Paul Somin.
Yes, Paul Somin is that Paul – the “Angel in the Rubble” who found Genelle.
O’Brien has an incredible story of his own about his life since 9/11. I am not going to go into detail about it here because I feel it is his story to tell, and nobody can give it the justice it deserves like he can. But I will say that he and Genelle spent about an hour together on her porch that day talking, laughing and crying as she learned for the first time about who these men were and how they found her.
The meeting with O’Brien had such a profound effect on Genelle that it took her two days before she called me and told me about it. The day after she did, on Aug. 9, I was in my kitchen telling my wife the story when our phone rang. The caller ID said Brooklyn, NY. I told my wife, who said exactly what I was thinking: “You better answer it.”
“Hello?” I said hesitantly.
“Hi. Is this William Croyle?” the voice on the other end with a thick New York accent said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Are you the one who wrote the book with Genelle Guzman?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said again, with a pretty good idea of what was coming next.
“My name is Paul,” he said. “I wanted you to know that I’m real.”
When Genelle and I wrote her story, we did it for the purpose of trying to give hope to others. Never did we imagine it would bring such hope – and even some closure – to her.
These firemen are a humble group. They’ve known for 10 years that Genelle was the one they rescued, but never came forward because that’s not their way. It was a “day at the office” for them, as Paul told me. It’s what they are trained to do. They wanted no recognition. But after they saw the book, they wanted Genelle to know what really happened.
“I’ve been telling people for years ‘No, no, no,’” Paul told me when I asked him about not coming forward sooner. “I guess I just decided that it was time to say ‘Yes, yes, yes.’”
The timing of this revelation posed a bit of a problem for Genelle because she was preparing to leave that week for a two-week book tour in Australia. Not only was she emotionally unprepared to meet Paul so quickly, but she simply did not have the time to do it. I told her to go to Australia, enjoy her trip and if media there asks if anyone has ever come forward claiming to be Paul, tell them someone has and that she is looking into his story and trying to confirm it. It turned out nobody asked, so it remained quiet.
When Genelle got home, she had about two weeks before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 – and now she had another dilemma. As much as she wanted to meet with Paul and tell the world his story, we both had a serious concern – again, with the timing.
While it would seem logical to aggressively promote a book about a 9/11 story on the 10th anniversary, we did not want to do that. I know – that mind set does not sell books. But our number one priority since we started this project was to honor the victims and their families the best we could while telling Genelle’s story, and we did not feel we would be doing that by heavily promoting the book that week. In fact, that week Genelle did only one national TV interview, some radio interviews, and just one private book signing for a company. There were no public book signings or appearances in New York or anywhere else. Sounds crazy, but our hearts told us we were doing the right thing.
Now that we knew Paul’s story, how could we come forward with it when 9/11 was almost upon us? As a journalist, I truly believed it would have been one of the most sought-after stories by the media. It was fresh, unique and very positive, all the elements for a compelling story. In fact, I believe it may have become the 9/11 story that week, and would have sold a ton of books for us. But we were not going to overshadow the victims or their families. Absolutely no way.
We were also afraid that if the firefighters’ story was revealed the week of 9/11 and had gotten the attention we thought it would, it may have cast them in a negative light. I know if I were covering it as a reporter, one of my first questions would have been “Why now? Why wait until the 10th anniversary, a day that is supposed to be dedicated to the families of those who lost loved ones, to come forward and shine the spotlight on yourselves?” As I said, these nine men really are very humble, and their intentions were nothing but good, but they may not have come across that way to people who did not know them if their story had been revealed then. I don’t know if the firemen saw that perspective or not, but I felt a sense of responsibility – as a journalist myself and knowing what heroes they were – to not let that happen to them.
On Sept. 6 my wife and I flew to New York, and a couple interesting things happened that week. First, I had written a column for the Sept. 7 edition of the paper I worked for, the Cincinnati Enquirer, telling people about the book. At the end of the column, I mentioned that someone claiming to be Paul had come forward, and it was something we were looking into. I wondered if that would create any kind of buzz. It turned out I received several emails from people congratulating me on the book, but not one comment about Paul. I found that fascinating because here I was revealing bits of such a great story, yet nobody was picking up on the hints I was giving.
On Sept. 9 the second interesting thing happened that week: my wife and I met with Paul and his wife, Gina, at our hotel. The meeting lasted a few hours, and was wonderful. Genelle wanted me to meet with him before she did to hear and verify his story, and to just let her know how I felt after meeting with him. I called her right after the meeting and said without a doubt: “Genelle, we have found Paul.” She was speechless, feeling a lot of the same overwhelming emotions she did after Tom O’Brien had come to her house four weeks earlier.
For my wife and me, we truly knew we were in the presence of a real American hero when we met Paul. He told us his story, and we also got to learn the unique perspective Gina had as she lived with the uncertainty of her husband’s well-being each day while he climbed the rubble searching for survivors. It was an evening we will never forget, and one which we were very honored to experience.
Two weeks after that meeting, I helped arrange for Genelle and her husband, Roger, to meet with Paul and Gina. They met at a restaurant on Sept. 23 on Long Island for a couple hours, and Genelle and Paul got to share with each other their recollections of what happened that day. The following Monday, our publicist with Simon & Schuster began looking for a media outlet that would get Genelle, Paul, and the other eight firefighters together for a reunion. We had one very big network interested, but with all of the other events going on in the world, they never could get a date worked out. And so here we are. Not wanting the firefighters to have to wait any longer to receive their due credit, what you’re reading now is the beginning of us spreading the word on our own.
There are two more important things I want to mention, both regarding the book.
The first obvious question many will have is: “What about the story in the book about how she was rescued – is any of that true now that Genelle has learned about these firemen?” We can only answer it this way: Genelle was buried alive for 27 hours, unable to see or hear anything going on above her. All she knows about what happened above her during that time is what she has been told over the years by people who were there. As Tom O’Brien said to me one day: “If you had 15,000 rescue workers on the rubble that day, you will get 15,000 different stories of what happened” because of all the chaos of the situation. What we have no doubt about today is that these nine firemen located and pulled Genelle from the rubble. For 10 years her wish was to find out who Paul was, and now she knows.
The other question is that Genelle says in the book that Paul said her name before she told him what her name was – how does that fit into the story? Paul explained to me that Genelle actually did tell him her name first, but it was prior to him grabbing her hand in the rubble. He said while searching for survivors, he yelled through an elevator shaft to see if anybody would respond. He said Genelle yelled back at him, and he asked her what her name was. Genelle has absolutely no recollection of that, but it is not surprising given the situation that she would not remember everything that happened. Soon after she yelled out her name to him, Paul found where she was, they locked hands and, well, you know the rest of the story.
What I personally find amazing is how compatible Paul’s and Genelle’s stories were with each other. You would think that by being buried alive for 27 hours, she would have been totally delirious or unable to remember much at all, and that with all the pressure Paul was under that day, he might not remember what happened with such detail. But it is incredible how much they both recall, and how accurate their recollections are in relation to each other.
I will close with this: A woman emailed me one day after reading the book and thanked Genelle and me for writing it. She said it had given her hope in her life at a time when she needed it most, which is precisely the theme of the book and our purpose for writing it. And then she said something I found very interesting – interesting because she had no idea that we had just come in contact with Paul. She said “You know, it really doesn’t matter whether he was an angel from above, or if he was human. I believe he was still sent to her by God, and he will always be her angel.”
To read more about what these true heroes do, visit www.fdnyrescue2.org/home.php. Thank you for reading.