Democracy Dies in Darkness

Retropolis

The photo of the doomed 9/11 ‘Dust Lady’ still haunts us after all these years

September 11, 2018 at 12:28 PM

This photo from Sept. 11, 2001, shows Marcy Borders covered in dust as she takes refuge in an office building after one of the World Trade Center towers collapsed in New York. Borders was caught outside on the street as the cloud of smoke and dust enveloped the area. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

This blog post is adapted from an archival Washington Post article originally published in 2015.

When the World Trade Center’s South Tower collapsed just before 10 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, photographer Stan Honda was in Lower Manhattan, taking pictures of the incomprehensible scene.

“There was a giant roar, like a train, and between the buildings I could see huge clouds of smoke and dust billowing out,” Honda recounted years later.

He ducked into a building lobby, where “a police officer was pulling people into the entrance to get them out of the danger.”

“A woman came in completely covered in gray dust,” Honda recalled in 2011. “You could tell she was nicely dressed for work and for a second she stood in the lobby. I took one shot of her before the police officer started to direct people up a set of stairs, thinking it would be safer off the ground level.”

The woman turned out to be Marcy Borders, who had only recently begun working for Bank of America in the World Trade Center when the first plane struck.

She was 28 at the time, and Honda’s haunting photo of her — distributed worldwide by Agence France-Presse — became one of the most iconic images of that horrifying day.

The image — and, thus, Borders — became known as “Dust Lady.”

But Borders became severely depressed and started smoking crack in the years after the attack, she said, before finally finding “peace of mind” after rehab and the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Then, sickness struck: Borders received a diagnosis of stomach cancer in August 2014, according to the Jersey Journal.

Related: [F-16 pilot was ready to give her life on Sept. 11]

She died in 2015 at the age of 42 — “a difficult reminder of the tragedy our city suffered nearly 14 years ago,” New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio said at the time. “NYC holds her loved ones in our hearts.”

“My mom fought an amazing battle,” Noelle Borders told the New York Post. “Not only is she the ‘Dust Lady’ but she is my hero and she will forever live through me.”

A cousin wrote on Facebook at the time that Borders “unfortunately succumbed to the diseases that [have] ridden her body since 9/11,” according to the Jersey Journal.

“In addition to losing so many friends, co-workers, and colleagues on and after that tragic day, the pains from yesteryear [have] found a way to resurface,” John Borders wrote.

When she was diagnosed, Borders wondered whether the disease was related to 9/11.

“I’m saying to myself, ‘Did this thing ignite cancer cells in me?’ ” she told the Jersey Journal the year before her death. “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?” she said before sobbing, according to the newspaper.

Some types of cancers are among the illnesses covered by the Sept. 11 compensation fund, but it is unclear whether there is a link between the disease and the wreckage and debris left after the attacks. A 2012 study by the New York City health department found no clear link.

But in 2014, just a month after Borders was diagnosed with cancer, three former members of the New York City fire department who had responded to the World Trade Center died on the same day. All three suffered from cancer.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) noted in a statement at the time: “While we honor these men, and mourn their loss, it is a stark reminder that 13 years later, the health effects of 9/11 are far from over, and will be with us for many years to come.”

After Borders died, Gillibrand said she was “heartbroken.”

Related: [The most iconic photos of Sept. 11 and its aftermath]

Honda, the photographer, said in an email to The Washington Post in 2015 that he hadn’t been in touch with Borders since meeting with her — twice — not long after the World Trade Center attacks.

“I’m very sad to hear about Marcy’s passing,” Honda said then. “She seemed to have a tough life.”

In 2011, Borders told the Telegraph that she still had the skirt, blouse and boots that she was wearing on 9/11 — “still unwashed and coated in the dust of the Twin Towers,” the British newspaper reported.

But when a Jersey Journal reporter asked later if she ever looked at Honda’s photo, she said she tried to avoid seeing herself as the “Dust Lady.”

“I try to take myself from being a victim to being a survivor now,” Borders said.

“I don’t want to be a victim anymore,” she said.


J. Freedom du Lac is editor of The Washington Post's General Assignment news desk. He was previously a news features writer and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.

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