Michele Miller dropped her 3-year-old daughter off at preschool on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001; she remembered it being a beautiful day outside. Her brother, Mitchel Wallace, was an EMT and court officer from Bayside, and when she heard the news of a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center, she knew he would be there.
Wallace was 34 at the time and on his way to work at the courts. When he got off the subway in downtown Manhattan, both planes had already struck the towers.
“That was always his thing — helping people,” Miller said. “If something was happening, he would run there. It was just his personality to help.”
Miller said she wasn’t at all surprised to hear her brother was one of the first responders at the towers. She remembered feeling relieved that Wallace was helping whoever he could amidst the tragedy — she never expected the towers to collapse.
“We weren’t even worried. We were thinking, ‘Thank God he’s there and helping,’” Miller said. “Nobody was even thinking in a million years what would eventually happen.”
With Wallace’s training as an EMT, he was doing anything he could to provide first aid to the victims of the attack. The last photograph ever taken of Wallace showed him helping a woman badly injured before he ran back inside — when the first building collapsed.
As the day went on, Miller and her family didn’t hear from Wallace. Miller said that photo helped her and her family know Wallace didn’t die for nothing — he died doing what he was meant to do.
“We just felt really good knowing that he was there for a reason, and he helped numerous people survive,” Miller said. “He was doing what he loved to do. We can’t say it makes it easier, but it puts it into perspective.”
Miller remembered hoping for weeks that her brother was one of the hundreds of unidentified victims in a hospital for treatment. Miller and her family were optimistic, but after weeks of no sign of Wallace, they all had to come to the conclusion that he had passed away and his body wouldn’t be recovered under the rubble.
Not only did Miller lose her brother, but she also lost her dad in 2016 due to lymphoma, one of the cancers caused by the enormous clouds of dust and smoke from the burning debris at Ground Zero. Kenneth Wallace worked across the street from the twin towers. Kenneth was able to make it out of the chaos on 9/11, but couldn’t escape the toxins in the air as he went to work in the years to come.
“He was a secondary casualty to 9/11,” Miller said. “They told everyone that the air was fine and that they could go back to work. Guess what: that was not the case.”
As Miller and her family look to the 20th anniversary, Miller just wants everyone to remember that day and the contributions so many brave people made. However, she also dreads this time of year as images and stories of the tragedy are hard to escape.
“People shouldn’t forget and kids should learn about it in school,” Miller said. “At the same time, when someone like myself who lost a family member, seeing these pictures and all I want to do is get the weather, for us it’s a trigger. But I want their stories to be told — you don’t want them to die in vain. Every year we listen for [Wallace’s] name to be called, and at least for that moment in time, people are thinking about him.”