After Sept. 11, an Eight-Year Delayed Reunion Between Strangers

PHOTO Arnulfo Ponce hugs Leigh Gilmore upon reuniting for the first time since 9/11.

Leigh Gilmore and her mother, Faye, would have likely died in the 9/11 attacks if not for the quick thinking of two strangers.

"They are total heroes," Faye said of Greg Frederick and Arnulfo Ponce, two hotel employees who helped evacuate them from the World Trade Center complex.

On that day, the two women were among hundreds inside the 22-story Marriott Hotel, which was located in 3 World Trade Center in between the twin towers.

When the attack occurred, the Marriott's elevators and phones stopped working. Leigh, who has multiple sclerosis and depends on a wheelchair, had no way to escape. She and her mother waited in the hotel's fifth floor hallway as other guests fled.

"Everybody that came past I would say, 'Please tell them in the lobby that I'm up here,'" said Leigh, 50. "I felt like no one knows I'm here."

An agonizing half hour passed, but still no one came to help Leigh and Faye.

Suddenly, with the situation growing desperate, Marriott engineer Greg Frederick appeared. He and his boss, Arnulfo Ponce, had helped Leigh with her room two days earlier. Despite everything that was happening around him, Frederick remembered where Leigh was.

"It was chaos," said Frederick, 43. "For some reason, I thought of Ms. Gilmore, and I had a bad feeling that this lady is up there."

Frederick used the hotel's freight elevator, which was still working, to bring the women down to the lobby. They separated, and moments later, the first twin tower collapsed on top of the hotel, decimating it.

Faye and Leigh had barely escaped with their lives.

"Good Lord, these men saved our lives," said Faye. "They took the time to come and check on us. They could have easily just run for their lives."

In the years after 9/11, Frederick and Ponce talked often about Leigh and Faye, though they did not know the women's names or what had happened to them. The mystery haunted them.

"I thought they were dead, but I knew they had a chance of surviving," said Ponce, who was the hotel's chief engineer. "But I never heard from them."

It would be eight years before Ponce and Frederick would get their answers. Last month, they saw Leigh and Faye featured in the History Channel documentary "Hotel Ground Zero."

"Tears started coming out of my eyes," said Ponce, 49.

The four eventually got in contact, and this weekend, the men flew from New York to Chicago for a reunion party at Faye's home.

"I'm alive because of you!" said Leigh as she hugged Frederick for the first time.

There were tears and laughter at the reunion. And for these four people joined by fate, there was also a sense of relief.

"It brought closure to an emptiness inside my heart," said Ponce. "I feel like these two [women] are part of my family now."

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