RICHMOND, Va. -- At the Wilson House, like clockwork, the same routine unfolds every morning.
“There goes another one to the feeder,” said Mary Ann Wilson. “I love to watch the birds out here.”
She grabs a front row seat. Just outside her kitchen window Mother Nature is a flutter.
“I want to see where that hummingbird goes.”
Feathered friends arrive in droves.
“Cardinals. Bluebirds. Hummingbirds and sometimes blue jays,” said Mary Ann.
The 78-year-old’s trusty binoculars never far. “I really enjoy seeing things up close up,” she said.
“If I feel like I’m going somewhere where there is going to beauty, then yes I will have them with me,” said Mary Ann.
In January of 2001, the supervisor for the Department of Housing and Urban Development was transferred to New York City. Her field glasses were packed.
Mary Ann was charged with running a 300-person department in the Federal Building in lower Manhattan.
Her neighbors were the Twin Towers. A sight she soaked in from her office on the 35th floor.
“Oh yes. Less than a mile,” said Mary Ann. “I knew I was close to them, but to be able to shade my office it was amazing.”
On the morning of 9/11, Mary Ann was attending a meeting with colleagues.
“The meteorologist said, ‘It is a beautiful day in New York City. Up and down the east coast it is crystal clear and just gorgeous,’” recalled Mary Ann.
At 8:46 a.m. her life changed in an instant.
“And then we felt it. We felt this ‘Boom’ and everything shook,” she described.
Initial reports were the jet crash was an accident.
“I had my binoculars, which were always on the window sill because I wanted to see what was happening,” said Mary Ann.
She witnessed something that sunk her heart.
“The thing that I remember the most. It was the young woman in the red top. I don’t know who she was. I may never know who she was. She took her red top off and she was waving it out the window hoping that of course there would be rescue crews who come and see them. But of course that didn’t happen,” said Mary Ann.
17 minutes later, terrorists crash United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower.
“It was not only seeing it, but being in a building so tall and so close you could actually hear rumbling. You could hear the windows of our building shake,” Mary Ann described.
Not waiting for orders from Washington, Mary Ann made an executive decision.
“I didn’t want people to panic and rushing. The last thing I want is people panicking because that is when you get hurt,” said Mary Ann.
The married mother of four led her coworkers to the safety of the streets below and into the unknown.
“And of course I was an absolute nervous wreck,” she said. “But we managed to go down in single file holding hands. Thirty five floors.”
Mary Ann caught one of the last subway cars out of Ground Zero.
“Very quiet. Very quiet. Not at all chaotic,” said Mary Ann.
She retreated to her apartment trying in vain to reach her family in Richmond.
“We couldn’t call. Couldn’t get out. I tried. Everything was down. It was totally down.”
In the weeks following 9/11, Mary Ann and her colleagues returned to work at the Federal Building.
“Dust was everywhere. I mean like one inch,” said Mary Ann.
For some, the pressure proves too traumatic.
“One of our employees had a nervous breakdown in the office,” said Mary Ann. “My secretary left one day and said I can’t come back to the building. I can’t. This is it. I’m finished.”
Every September, Mary Ann phones former colleagues. They share a bond most friends never will.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Mary Ann. “No matter how far we’re separated in miles, we’re not separated in heart.”
As the 20th anniversary approaches, her heart still aches for one person in particular. The woman in red pleading for help high above.
“She was for me the symbol of so many others who were there,” said Mary Ann.
“Sadness not for not seeing the buildings,” said Mary Ann. “But for the people who were in the buildings.”
“Buildings can be erected, but people cant,” she added.
Two decades on the emotions and images of 9/11 remain fresh.
“The term is ‘Let us not forget.’ My term is ‘Let us all remember,’” said Mary Ann.
Mary Ann Wilson will always remember. She was the woman who had a bird's eye view to one of America’s darkest days.
“I can share that history and that feeling with future generations too particularly who weren’t even born 20 years ago. And I can tell my grandchildren at least something what it was like.”
Mary Ann Wilson worked for HUD for 40 years. After her temporary assignment and brush with history, she returned to Richmond in February of 2002.
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