A Diamond Is Forever


Four months after a miracle escape on 9/11, and long before that damage took its full toll, a pair of one carat brilliants raised from the ashes augur the miracle of healing.

On September 12, 2001, Johanna Goldman stood in a line at a Chase Manhattan branch in Queens, New York still in a state of shock. She had cleaned off the last of the soot and dust that had covered her when the World Trade Center’s south tower went down half a block behind her, 26 hours before. Credit cards, cheques and ID lost on the 89th floor of the north tower, where she was when the first plane hit, had to be reported. In the face of total and unnatural loss, Goldman, a Communications Director for a New York company, stood in line to report her loss.

Then she saw three words on a sign, SAFE DEPOSIT VAULT, and was transported back to the sound of nearly two million tons of steel, paper and plastic hitting the ground. “Oh, no,” she yelled, “my safe deposit box was in the World Trade Center.” After somehow surviving a half-hour’s entombment on the 89th floor, then escaping the concourse only 30 seconds before the south tower went down, the thought of additional loss hadn’t occurred when she’d watched 7 World Trade Centre collapse later in the afternoon, taking the Chase Manhattan branch and its vaults with it. She thought of the contents of her box: a birth certificate from Zanzibar, two opal rings, a pin with pearls from Zanzibar, a gold pin, a silver knife. And a matching pair of one carat brilliant diamonds, the centerpiece of a Tiffany platinum ring her grandfather had given her future grandmother one day early in the 20th century. They were the family jewels, and Johanna had worn the ring for much of her adult life, until for fear of losing it, she’d rented her small box a few years earlier.

And now it was gone, with the building it was in. As was her office of three years and its building. That was yesterday…

Goldman was in her office at 8 a.m. on the morning of September 11 for a meeting with the firm’s creative director, Thomas. This meeting was special as her firm had pitched a huge account the evening before and won it. They always met in Goldman’s office, with its views of the Empire State Building and the Hudson river, but that morning they met in Thomas’ office. As was the case with so many casual happenings that day, it saved both their lives.

At 8:48 a.m. the building veered five degrees amid a deafening noise as the hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 ripped through the tower, igniting 10,000 gallons of jet fuel, a mere two flights above them.

Goldman is not sure how much time passed, but she knew she had to find stairs and air as she frantically tried to find others trapped on her floor.

Shortly thereafter, United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower. The building shook quite noticeably again and on a nearby radio they heard the news of what had just happened above them and less than 100 metres away. Two Port Authority guys had hacked their way through jammed doors and led them to the stairwell. About ten of them headed down the darkness, lead only by the light of someone’s cell phone. They were joined by many others streaming down to two exit signs, and a fatal game. One group said “Go this way” and another was saying, “Go that way, those stairs don’t go all the way down.” Some went the ‘wrong’ way and they later learned they had to retrace their steps. Given the timing, it probably meant they didn’t survive.

Goldman and four of her colleagues stayed together and followed a man in the group they joined who seemed to really know which staircase lead all the way down to the street. All the way down they played a kind of Survivor Bingo, where people called out what floor they were on when the plane hit. Goldman soon realised that they were on the highest floor and there was no one higher than 89.

At roughly the 50th floor, they saw their first exhausted fireman, carrying amazing amounts on their backs. They only stopped to ask what floors the fire was on. Everything had been orderly down the stairs, until they hit daylight in the plaza. People were shouting, “Please hurry. Run as fast as you can. Don’t look up. Don’t look down.”

Goldman estimates she was a mere 30 to 40 seconds out of the concourse when she heard the noise of an explosion – the south tower collapsing. She had just told her colleagues, “Don’t leave me. I have no cell phone, no money. All my stuff’s up there.” But when the building went down, it was everyone for themselves. She lost the others as the cloud of dust and debris entombed them all. She eventually found herself walking uptown following crowds of dusty people. A few blocks past Chinatown she turned to see ‘her’ north tower coming down. Goldman felt totally numb and just kept walking in the opposite direction. She managed to get through to her family on a borrowed cell phone. They were convinced that from the 89th floor, she had no chance of survival.

Throughout the fall and early winter, Goldman received letters from Chase Manhattan: “The vault has been destroyed. Nothing has been salvaged.” And then a certified letter arrived right at the end of the year that her safety deposit box had been found. She was asked to bring her two keys, but that was tricky, as one was in her desk at work, and the other in her wallet.

On a bleak, wintry Tuesday, it was Goldman’s first visit back to the site. She was a wreck as she relived every moment on September 11. She was trying to put as much distance between herself and that as she possibly could and didn’t even want to be there or see the box. She was told of the extreme heat and pressure the box had been subjected to. When she opened it, all she saw was a mass of tarred ashes and she burst into tears.

Sitting right in the middle of that black pile of melted pearls and molten, blackened gold and opals and platinum, smiling up, just like two headlights, were her diamonds, her mother’s before her, and her grandmother’s before, just shining out from the rubble as the tears kept burning down her face. Goldman cannot describe the euphoria she felt. She was so happy to see them, although she hadn’t seen them for several years. She used to wear her earrings all the time, but feared losing them, so put her precious diamonds away into the vault.

On that Tuesday in January, Johanna Goldman received the greatest gift she could at that point in her life. She began to grieve.

(reprinted with permission)