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Memories haunt Oldsmar woman who escaped tower, survived 9/11 attacks

Anne Koster points to the 81st floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, where she was working during the Sept. 11 attacks. She will speak at Oldsmar’s Sept. 11 memorial service today at the fire station at 225 Pine Ave. N.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Anne Koster points to the 81st floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, where she was working during the Sept. 11 attacks. She will speak at Oldsmar’s Sept. 11 memorial service today at the fire station at 225 Pine Ave. N.

OLDSMAR

Anne Koster has spent years battling her guilt.

She was on the 81st floor of the north tower the day the World Trade Center collapsed.

She got out alive.

Fifteen of her friends did not.

Today, a picture of the twin towers sits above Koster's couch in her Oldsmar apartment. Another hangs over an easy chair across the room. Every day, she wears a pin with a guardian angel on it and two others with a flag and the towers on them.

"They help me," said Koster, 53, her brow furrowed. "They give me strength."

Every year around this time, she's filled with angst. But she doesn't want to forget.

A decade ago, a plane smashed into the tower where she worked, a dozen floors above her and her co-workers with Bank of America Securities.

Lights swung. Ceiling tiles fell.

Her boss told everyone to get out. Within minutes, she started down the stairway.

Koster thought it was just a tragic accident. The World Trade Center's south tower hadn't been hit yet.

By the time she reached the 60th floor, Koster, who has asthma, was out of breath. She puffed on her inhaler and continued down. At the 44th floor, she struggled to breathe again.

A young firefighter on his way up placed his oxygen mask over her face. "Just breathe, honey," he said.

Her close friend of more than two decades, Susan Conlon, 41, asked Koster to stop and rest with her.

"We can't stop," Koster recalls saying. "We have to go."

Conlon stopped. Koster kept going.

Koster made her way down the stairwell. Somewhere along the way, she lost her slip-on wedge heels. She waded through knee-deep water as they got to the bottom floors. She made it out the stairwell and then outside.

She felt relief.

Then she heard a whoosh.

Someone yelled, "The building's going to go!"

Koster rushed barefoot down the street, breaking three toes by the time she and two co-workers reached City Hall Park.

Days later, Koster learned Conlon didn't survive. Neither did two other co-workers and a longtime friend, firefighter Lt. Charles Margiotta. And many others.

"I didn't handle any of the deaths well," Koster said. "I had survivor guilt."

Koster and her husband, Dale, moved to Palm Harbor seven years ago. He thought it would be healthier for her. They moved to Oldsmar a couple of weeks ago.

Today, Koster will share her story at Oldsmar's 10th anniversary remembrance service at the city's fire station.

More than five years ago, the city built a memorial to honor the 343 firefighters who died in the attack.

The memorial traces back to a song written after the tragedy by a local band. Oldsmar Fire Capt. Jerry Gabardi was a member. The band, then called Ebenezer, raised about $3,000 in donations for charity by selling CDs of its song, Canyon of the Souls. The title refers to the area of Manhattan where the towers were.

Gabardi tracked down a charity by surfing the Internet. He came across Lee Ielpi, the father of a New York firefighter who died at the towers. Ielpi was working with a group to preserve ground zero.

In response to the donation, Ielpi offered a piece of steel beam from one of the towers.

It took a while to figure out what to do with the 300-pound chunk of steel.

But eventually the beam was set in the center of a courtyard of brick pavers with the names of the firefighters who died that day. In 2006, the city dedicated the memorial with the first of its annual services.

Koster came that year and has done so every year since.

The event usually draws 200 to 250 residents and North Pinellas firefighters. This year, Gabardi expects as many as 450.

People like Koster have convinced Oldsmar Fire Chief Scott McGuff how important such a service is.

"You never know who's there and what their story is and what their connection is to (the tragedy)," he said. "I hope we continue to do it every year just for that reason."

.IF YOU GO

Service today

The public is invited to Oldsmar's Sept. 11 memorial service at 10 a.m. today at the Oldsmar fire station at 225 Pine Ave. N. Following the service, Fresh Start Church will host a community barbecue in the park behind the fire station.

Memories haunt Oldsmar woman who escaped tower, survived 9/11 attacks 09/08/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 11, 2011 7:52pm]
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