With Marcy Borders’s death from stomach cancer, aged 42, the picture is back again, of course: Borders, caked in dust on September 11, 2001, looking stunned at the camera, caught on the day that would come to define her far-too-short life.
When I see that famous image I recall meeting her nearly 10 years later, and us both standing in the living room of her apartment in Bayonne, New Jersey, looking at the dress she wore that day which she had kept unwashed. It still smelled of smoke and burning, it was still dusty, and had a soot-like film to it, a thick, claggy texture: a remnant of a terrible day that still reeked and felt of that day.
Borders, then a Bank of America assistant, was photographed by Stan Honda in the lobby of a building following her escape on September 11 from the 81st floor of the North Tower.
The picture was seen around the world, and the soubriquet of ‘Dust Lady’ was known more than Borders’ own name. It inspired, much to her horror and upset she told me, Halloween costumes.
“It’s very sad to hear about Marcy’s passing,” Stan Honda said in an email to me. “She seemed to have a tough life.” He declined to comment further, writing it was more appropriate for her family to do so.
Michael Borders, her brother, said on Facebook that he couldn’t believe his sister had died.
Borders herself—interviewed in November by the Jersey Journal—said of suffering from cancer: “I try not to cry—$190,000 already and I still haven’t had surgery, and I still need more chemo. Why can’t this be over? I’m tired. I’m just tired.”
She wondered if 9/11 had somehow caused the cancer.
“I’m saying to myself ‘Did this thing ignite cancer cells in me?’” I definitely believe it because I haven’t had any illnesses. I don’t have high blood pressure…high cholesterol, diabetes. How do you go from being healthy to waking up the next day with cancer?”
It was announced in 2012 that the Government would fund care for 50 kinds of cancers for those who worked at the World Trade Center site after 9/11.
Borders’ cousin John Bordes said on a Facebook posting that his “HERO” had died of “9/11 illnesses.”
Bordes wrote: “I’m not comfortable with sharing personal matters in this forum, however, due to the magnitude of her life and her documented legacy throughout her journey. I must further share my HERO and cousin Marcy Borders has unfortunately succumbed to the diseases that have riddled her body since 9/11. Thank you all for your heartfelt wishes and concerns… In addition to losing so many friends, coworkers, and colleagues on and after that tragic day. The pains from yesteryear have found a way to resurface…”
Whether her exposure to the dust and whatever else caused her cancer may be unknown, but the effects of that day had already been grievous for Borders when I met her in her modest apartment in August 2011.
To mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, The Times of London, the newspaper I then worked for, wanted me to track down those made famous in the photographs of that day—which would also include Ed Fine, the so-called ‘Dust Man,’ and Donna Spera, who was photographed being carried away from the dust and chaos of the scene by Dominic Guadagnoli.
It was a hot summer’s day when we met, and Borders was then 38. After becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs, Borders had attended rehab earlier that year. She spoke engagingly and openly about her experiences.
“This is the most clear-headed I have felt in a long time. I got out of rehab in May. I was there a month, after becoming addicted to alcohol, cocaine, crack and marijuana,” she told me. “I didn’t care about myself or anyone else. I couldn’t deal with life. I had become a garbage can. I dropped to around 90 pounds. My life wasn’t getting any better. I wanted to end it.”
She had two children, Noelle then 18 and a senior in high school, and Zayden, her then-3-year-old son. Both are now 21 and 6 respectively.
“I made a conscious decision to save my life for them,” she told me of her children.
Borders told me she “hadn’t been right” since September 11. “My life had been in tumult, on a spiral.”
Her partner Donald Edwards, Zayden’s father, was a huge support: “He doesn’t do drugs and he tried to help me even though I was horrible to him. Now I go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings every day.”
Before September 11 Borders said she was “spontaneous, outgoing, ambitious.” She was 28, making good money, she said ($32,000 a year), and working as an assistant in the legal department of the Bank of America. She had been in the job a month and felt she was, as she put it, “moving on up.”
“That morning I was at the copy machine when it happened,” she recalled to me. “I heard a whoosh and the building rocked back and forth. I started seeing paper falling outside the windows, chairs and computers and eventually people.
“I saw cracks in the wall, which made me worried the building would fall. I was scared out of my wits as I passed people on the stairs. Sometimes it seemed I jumped whole floors. It really beat up my legs. It felt like it was the end of the world and I had front-row seats.”
Three minutes after she got out of the building, the South Tower fell. “The smoke caught me and threw me on all fours,” Borders told me. “I breathed in and my mouth was coated. It was so quiet, like everyone in the world was checking to see if they were still alive. I couldn’t see my hand in front of me.
“I was saying, ‘I don’t wanna die,’ when this shirtless guy put me inside a building. I never saw him again and I want to thank him for saving my life. It was at that point that ‘the picture’ was taken.” Eventually Borders walked uptown, then got back to Bayonne by ferry, that evening. “I thought we would die, that the boat would be hit by a missile,” she said.
The first Borders knew about the picture was the next day when a friend of her mother’s called, saying she had seen it.
Borders asked her mother how she knew it was her: “It’s your nose,” Borders’ mother said.
“I was in newspapers all over the world, even Arabic ones—I started to think Osama bin Laden would come after me,” Borders told me. “I was just thinking crazy. The picture made me angry at first. Didn’t the photographer think about helping me? How could I be famous, but still poor? They called me ‘the dust lady’. I didn’t like that: it would be better to have said ‘the woman who was covered in dust who didn’t know what to do’. People dressed up as ‘the dust lady’ at Halloween, which upset me.”
After September 11, Borders’ life went downhill, as she put it.
“I was afraid to get on subways or go into state buildings. The last time I had been in a place of work it almost killed me, so I wasn’t interested in work. I had no income. My mother helped me. I drank to the point of blackouts. The drugs came about a year before I went into rehab. I didn’t care. I lost control. Despite my behavior, Donald stayed. I’m glad he did; if he hadn’t, this place would have turned into a crack hotel.”
When we met Borders said her “number one goal” was to get back to work, “so if anyone’s hiring, please help me,” she said. “I’m not going to let anything else screw me up.”
As a legacy, Borders said, she had written 60 pages of a book, which she had called ‘The Dust Lady After the Dust Has Gone,’ and she was looking for a publisher.
Near the end of our conversation, Borders told me, “I’ve kept the clothes I wore that day, unwashed: a black fitted top, cream fitted skirt and high boots. I’m not sure if they’re a good luck talisman, in that I survived in them, or a bad luck one for having worn them that day. Maybe I’ll clean them and wear them the first day I return to work.”
I asked if I could see them, and Borders bought them into the living room. They were coated in dirt, and maybe soot, and dust. They were thick and heavy, and they still smelt smoky and acrid.
We both looked at them, and I thanked Borders for being so open and wished her well as emphatically as was decent. She had had a terrible time—you wanted the best for her, and for her to make the best of a life from that.
We never met again. But last November she called me to tell me had just been diagnosed with stomach cancer.
In the Jersey Journal article, Borders said she had been diagnosed a few months earlier, that August.
She had stayed clean of drugs, she told the paper’s reporter, and to treat her cancer had already had chemotherapy. Surgery was to follow, then radiation and more chemo. She could not afford the $190,000 in medical bills she had racked up.
Whether Marcy Borders’ cancer was in any way caused by what she experienced on 9/11, given what she endured in its aftermath this warm, intelligent, and tough woman certainly can be counted as another of that day’s many victims.
Her death came far too early, its only thin consolation that Borders may now hopefully rest in peace.