Members of the Turlock community came together on Friday morning to eat, pray and reflect at the annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, giving thanks to the city’s local heroes and listening to a brave testimony from the last woman to be found alive at the World Trade Center, Genelle Guzman-McMillan.
Nearly 400 attendees made their way into the Assyrian American Civic Club at the crack of dawn and enjoyed a delicious breakfast — along with some much-needed coffee — provided by Hilmar Cheese Company. In a morning that celebrated first responders and remembered the 9/11 attacks that took place nearly 15 years ago, Mayor Gary Soiseth greeted the large crowd, reminding them why they were gathered there.
“Today, this breakfast is not about the mayor,” said Soiseth. “It’s about the power of prayer.”
Now in its 23rd year, the prayer breakfast was originally organized so that Turlockers could join under one roof to pray for families, youth and the leaders of the city, country, state and nation. This year, the event was centered on patriotism, with red, white and blue tablecloths adorning each table and flag-bearing centerpieces keeping the diners company while they prayed and listened.
Both the Turlock Fire Department and Police Department were guests of honor at the event. The TFD and TPD combined color guard presented the flags ahead of a stunning rendition of the National Anthem sung by the Langley sisters Lael, Lisbeth, Liliana and Livia. TFD Chief Robert Talloni read from the Old Testament and was overcome with emotion, taking a moment to pause and collect himself. A New Testament passage was then read by TPD Chief Robert Jackson.
Soiseth thanked both departments for their devotion to protecting the city, recalling the time that he saw a sticker reading, “FDNY: We Will Never Forget” displayed proudly on a Turlock fire truck.
“Prayer helps us reflect on what our fire and police officers do,” said Soiseth. “Our first responders never forget, and I ask our community to never forget.”
It was those same first responders who are immortalized by TFD’s sticker that pulled prayer breakfast guest speaker Guzman-McMillan from the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center, marking her as the last person to be saved.
In past years, the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast has been host to professional athletes, educators, musicians and other inspirational figures who all have one thing in common: they have overcome the trials in their life through prayer. Guzman-McMillan now joins that group with perhaps one of the most inspiring stories of all.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Guzman-McMillan, recalling to the crowd the day that the World Trade Center was attacked.
Guzman-McMillan, along with 15 other Port Authority employees, was on the 64th floor of one of the World Trade Center towers when American Airlines Flight 11 pummeled into the building. At first, she and her coworkers assumed that there had been an earthquake, so they stayed put.
“I felt a huge shake while I was sitting at my desk,” said Guzman-McMillan. “I didn’t think much of it at first.”
Upon walking over to the window, she realized that the situation was much worse than she had originally thought. Flames obscured her view of the street below; something had crashed into the building. A few minutes later, another plane crashed into the south tower, leading Guzman-McMillan and her coworkers to begin evacuating the building. As they attempted to make their way down 64 flights of stairs, she felt the stairway begin to crumble beneath her. Guzman-McMillan collapsed to her knees, covering her head with her arms as the tower collapsed around her.
“The walls just burst open,” said Guzman-McMillan. “Everything started to crumble. You could hear the rumbling – it sounded like 100 earthquakes at once. It came crumbling down and knocked me to the ground.”
Guzman-McMillan lay under the rubble of the north tower, unable to move, for 27 hours. She waited for help, but was prepared to die. Remembering her mother’s Christian faith, she began to pray.
“That time that I had…I started to cry out to God,” said Guzman-McMillan. “My mom was a fully-grown Christian woman. She wanted that for me…I rejected it. Being under the rubble, I started to just cry out, begging and pleading for God to give me a second chance.”
Guzman-McMillan shared with the crowd that as she lay beneath nearly 80 floors of the collapsed tower, she realized that she wanted a second chance to prove to God she could change her life.
“I wanted to do good in my life according to His will,” said Guzman-McMillan.
The power of prayer helped her to stay strong until she was miraculously discovered by rescuers, she said. She was pulled from the destruction with a smile on her face, despite her injuries and fatigue. The room gave Guzman-McMillan a standing ovation when she finished speaking, united with each other through their faith in prayer.
“To all the firefighters, all the first responders, the police, the rescue workers, the volunteers – thank you for risking your lives to save ours,” said Guzman-McMillan.