A 9/11 survivor who was captured in a harrowing image after escaping the North Tower has spoken out to reveal the terror of that day and said she puts ‘my best foot forward every day now because we can’t let terrorists win.’
Joanne Capestro told DailyMail.com in an exclusive interview that she ‘saw my life flash in front of me three times’ in the 102 minutes on September 11 2001 between the moment the first hijacked plane struck a few floors above her office in the North Tower and when the two towers had collapsed.
Capestro, then 39, was photographed that day covered head to toe in thick dust and debris as she fled from the World Trade Center with a coworker.
The image, taken seconds after the collapse of the South Tower and captured by photographer Phil Penman, was among some of the most shocking pictures showing survivors helping each other escape the area around Ground Zero.
Capestro, now 59, returned to the same spot two decades on to be photographed by Penman – who is now a close friend – to mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
She told DailyMail.com it has taken time for her to deal with the trauma of her escape from the 87th floor, running out of the tower to see ‘all the jumpers, the blood all over, the dead people’ before the South Tower then crashed down around her.
But now, 20 years on, Capestro said the horrific experience has given her ‘courage and resilience to put my best foot forward every day’ and ‘wake up with a genuine smile on my face.’
She is now happily married with nine grandchildren, still lives in her native New York and still works on Wall Street after 40 years.
Joanne Capestro (on left with a coworker) is photographed by Phil Penman on 9/11 covered head to toe in thick dust and debris seconds after the South Tower fell as she fled from the World Trade Center
Capestro, now 59, returned to the same spot two decades on to be photographed by Penman – who is now a close friend – to mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks
Capestro in 2021 the same area on Park Row where she was captured in the harrowing photo (left). Capestro in 2021 outside Cortlandt Street station – the same subway station she commuted to the morning of the attacks (right)
Capestro told DailyMail.com September 11 began like any other day in the city as she commuted to work at the May Davis Group offices on the 87th floor of the North Tower.
‘It started off as a beautiful day and I took a train with my girlfriend Anna and got off at Cortlandt Street and went up to the building,’ she said.
‘And we were just hanging out waiting for the market to open when the plane struck at 8.46am and my life changed forever.’
The hijacked plane had struck the tower just a few floors above – between the 93rd and 99th floors – and smoke was pouring into the offices.
Two of the three exits to the office were melted shut from the heat of the fire above, she said.
Then, minutes later at 9.03am, the South Tower was struck by the second hijacked plane.
‘We were rocked again when the second tower was hit and that made me run,’ Capestro told DailyMail.com.
‘When I got to the stairwell no one was coming down from above and we were like “Where is everybody? They must have left already!”. We had no clue what was going on.’
Capestro recalled how she ran down the stairwell as quickly as she could, passing floors where some had been impacted by the plane’s striking them while others seemed almost like nothing had happened.
‘Every floor was different – some were on fire, some there were people bleeding, some there was glass on the floor,’ she said.
‘Then I heard dentist music on one floor – like that soft, calming music.’
Capestro photographed in front of One World Trade Center in 2021 – 20 years after surviving the 2001 terrorist attacks. She told DailyMail.com in an exclusive interview that she ‘saw my life flash in front of me three times’ that day
At this point, Capestro said she had ‘no clue’ as to the extent of the disaster.
She revealed it was only when she came out onto the concourse at ground level that she saw the true scale of the devastation.
‘I got down the steps to the concourse level and couldn’t believe what was going on,’ she said.
‘I saw all the jumpers, the blood all over, the dead people – and I passed out.’
When she came around, she tried to leave the area and a police officer spotted her in distress and struggling to run in her high heels – which she had to put back on because of the broken glass and debris everywhere.
Capestro said he carried her out of the concourse and she recalled thanking him and telling him she would bring him a snack later as a thank you.
‘I was only out of the building for about 30 seconds when the South Tower collapsed,’ she said.
‘I ran like Forrest Gump.’
Capestro said she took refuge inside a car, where she fainted again from the trauma.
Dark flames and thick smoke pour from the Twin Towers after they were both hit by hijacked planes on 9/11. Capestro said it has taken time for her to deal with the trauma of her escape from the 87th floor, running out of the tower to see ‘all the jumpers, the blood all over, the dead people’ before the South Tower then crashed down around her
New Yorkers stare up at the Twin Towers from the corner of West Broadway and Canal Street on 9/11 after two hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York City
‘I woke up and thought I was in heaven,’ she said. ‘I saw my life in front of me three times that day.’
When she came around, Capestro recalled stumbling into a coworker and they fled together, turning a corner and seeing a man ‘covered in blood.’
It was this moment that Penman captured the image of the two women – a look of shock and terror on their faces.
Moments later, the North Tower fell.
To this day, Capestro said she doesn’t know if the officer who helped her survived.
‘I would love to meet with him but I can’t remember his name,’ she said. ‘I’ve tried but I can’t remember.’
Capestro told DailyMail.com she walked through Lower Manhattan and traveled back to her home in Brooklyn covered in dust and debris.
‘I just showered and put my clothes in plastic bags and put them in a bin in my basement and left them,’ she said.
In the days and weeks after the attack, Capestro said she was so traumatized that she would return to the area to watch the clear-up of Ground Zero and would constantly watch news coverage of the attacks.
‘I would sit at the site and watch them dig the rubble – that’s how traumatized I was,’ she told DailyMail.com.
Capestro is pictured in 2021 near the new World Trade Center complex. She said she now puts ‘my best foot forward every day now because we can’t let terrorists win’
‘I felt like I needed to be there. I had survivors’ guilt and felt like “why didn’t God take me?”‘
She added: ‘I felt hopeless. I never want to feel like that again.’
However, at no point did she ever feel like fleeing New York City to escape the daily reminder of that day, she said.
‘I’ve lived my whole life in New York, my parents came from Little Italy and I didn’t want to run away,’ she said.
‘I remember as a young girl we would go and look at the new buildings being built in the city. I’m a true New Yorker.’
Capestro said it took her a long time to come to terms with what had happened but a major turning point came with her first meeting with Penman.
Capestro said she didn’t know the photo of her existed until Penman donated it for display inside the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and a staff member recognized her in the image and put them in touch.
She and Penman instantly became close friends and she donated her own belongings from that day to the museum (the heels she was wearing are on display).
‘Once the pictures were in the museum, and I met Phil and I had donated my belongings recovered from the 9/11 site I turned a corner,’ she said.
Capestro pictured on her wedding day. She is now happily married with nine grandchildren, still lives in her native New York and still works on Wall Street after 40 years
Capestro with husband Robert Vasquez on their wedding day in 2018 (left). Capestro with Phil Penman on her wedding day (right). The two are now close friends and he photographed her wedding
‘I took an enormous turn and I’m very grateful for that as I get to tell my story to educate children who weren’t born yet what a horrific act it was.’
Capestro told how she has ‘worked on myself’, read a lot of self-help books and met with a lot of other survivors over the years.
‘I love to talk to other survivors as it makes us feel good,’ she said.
‘There is a bond among survivors – we’re like brothers and sisters and we’ll get through it together and always be around for each other.’
This bond is especially strong with Penman who photographed Capestro on her wedding day to husband Robert Vasquez in August 2018.
‘He was with me for one of the best days of my life,’ she said.
‘We have a great friendship. He always has an open ear for me and I do for him as he was also part of the attack.’
Capestro also spoke of her gratitude for her ‘great husband.’
Now, 20 years on, Capestro said the horrific experience has given her ‘courage and resilience to put my best foot forward every day’ and ‘wake up with a genuine smile on my face’
For Capestro, the memorial at Ground Zero is now a positive place which she goes to spend time in around six times a year. She is marking the 20th anniversary by joining fellow survivors and family members of victims at the memorial ceremony
‘I found a great partner who understands who I am – everybody has some sort of past and mine is 9/11,’ she said.
‘I’m happily married, have a great husband and thank God every day for him.’
Going into the 20th anniversary, Capestro said she feels ‘really good’ about her life and jokes that she is ‘forever young.’
‘After 20 years I really feel really good about where I am in my life and how I’ve come a long way mentally,’ she said.
Capestro, who now lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, is happily married, has nine grandchildren through marriage and is still working on Wall Street in a job she finds ‘very rewarding’.
She is also a team leader at American Cancer Society and does real estate property management on the side ‘as a hobby because I like finding people apartments’.
‘So I put my best foot forward every day and I wake up with a genuine smile on my face and I just want everyone to keep smiling and love one another,’ she told DailyMail.com.
Capestro said she ‘can’t believe it’s been 20 years already’ as she said she hopes people will remember how the city and the nation was in the days after 9/11 when people came together to help each other in their darkest hours
‘Life is short and people don’t realize how short it is. You have to put your best foot forward every day, because you can’t let terrorism get to you.’
Capestro said she is marking the 20th anniversary by joining fellow survivors and family members of victims at the 9/11 memorial ceremony.
The anniversary is something she said she looks forward to each year as ‘it gives me time to go down and visit the memorial and mourn all the friends that we lost.’
For Capestro, the memorial at Ground Zero is now a positive place which she goes to spend time in around five or six times a year.
‘The memorial was so well-made. I love it there, it’s a beautiful experience going there where I feel a sense of serenity,’ she said.
‘It makes me feel good when I go down there. The first time I went I found the pools of water mesmerizing. I’m so pleased that 9/11 family members have been laid to rest in an honorable way.
Smoke pours out of the North and South Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan after they were struck by two hijacked airplanes
First responders and New Yorkers help and administer first aid to survivors of the terrorist attacks on America’s darkest day
Mangled steel, dust and rubble litter the streets of the city after the Twin Towers were targeted in a terrorist attack
‘In the last 20 years, I have gone down to the site on around 14 of the anniversaries and I go down quite a bit all year round to be by the pools of water.
‘A lot of survivors go there and I’m just so happy that the 9/11 family members have a place to go to mourn their loved ones and we get to see our survivor friends and it’s like a big 9/11 family.’
Capestro said she ‘can’t believe it’s been 20 years already’ as she said she hopes people will remember how the city and the nation was in the days after 9/11 when people came together to help each other in their darkest hours.
‘I hope we can get back to those days where there was camaraderie in the community and where we all came together as a country and a state,’ she said.
‘I want peace and serenity and people to join together as one.’
Capestro said she doesn’t know what to say when people ask her how her life changed after 9/11.
‘It’s something I’m never going to forget but it has given me the strength and courage and resilience to put my best foot forward every day and that’s what’s important,’ she said.
‘I’m so proud of myself as, 20 years ago, you wouldn’t believe you’re talking to the same strong woman here now.
‘I’ve accomplished a lot in the last 20 years and I’m still going strong.’
Capestro said she hopes people will remember how the city and the nation was in the days after 9/11 when people came together to help each other in their darkest hours
Survivors are seen arm in arm and covered head to toe in dust and rubble as they help each other escape from Ground Zero
Plumes of debris and dust billows into the air as the South Tower collapses on the morning of September 11 2001. Dark smoke pours from the North Tower while St. Paul’s chapel stands in the foreground