NEVER MISS A STORY: Get the PIX11 News app for breaking news alerts all day

Remembering the Dust Lady: Marcy Borders’ harrowing escape, tumultuous life and ultimate hope

This story was originally published Sept. 11, 2015. 

BAYONNE, N.J. — In one of the most recognizable images of the 9/11 attacks, Marcy Borders appears covered in dust and debris minutes after the first tower fell. She climbed down 81 flights of stairs to escape the North Tower.

"She said she saw papers falling out the window, then chairs, then people," her daughter Noelle Borders, who was 8 years old at the time, recalled. "She was like, 'Oh no!' She left everything and ran because her main goal was me."

Marcy Borders survived that day, but she died in August 2015 of stomach cancer.

"I do think it was 9/11 related because before that she was fine," her daughter said.

Her family will never forget the stories Marcy would tell about escaping the Twin Towers on that fateful Tuesday in 2001. Her daughter said "nobody knows the real story" about her mother's experience.

The image of Marcy Borders covered in dust didn't show the long-term damage she suffered.

“Oh Lord, I just wish I could have peace of mind," Marcy Borders said in a 2002 interview with CNN.

Her brother said, ever since Sept. 11, Marcy "hated" New York.

"She never wanted to go back in there," she said.

Marcy's sister said that day shook her to the core -- and fundamentally altered her perspective.

"She didn't trust people after that," Dawn said.

And it turned into a cycle of addiction and pain.

"Depression, drug abuse and alcohol," Noelle said, describing what her mother went through. "But I really didn't see that. She never really let us see it."

Borders eventually found hope.

"She turned to God. She went to church two times a day," Dawn said. "She left all of that in the past and focused on her daughter. [Then] when her son came, that was it."

Zayden was born 7 years ago. Marcy regularly attended Narcotics Anonymous and kept working on putting her life back together.

"My mom went away for treatment," Noelle remembered. "She came back and was ready for senior prom."

Dawn described her late sister as "the life of the party."

"She enjoyed life, church, music, people, especially her kids," Dawn said. "Life of the party, person that was outgoing, encouraging, focused and motivated."

Then a couple years later, she told her sister that she had pain in her stomach. It was cancer, possibly caused by her exposure to toxins on 9/11. But she managed to carry on for more than a year.

"My sister didn't live her life like she had cancer," Michael said.

The well-known native of Bayonne, N.J., was even in a campaign commercial for a city council candidate.

"I feel like she decided when she wanted to go, cancer didn't decide when it wanted to take her," Michael said.

Marcy Borders died Aug. 24.

"I don't think it hit me yet," Noelle said.

"It's hard to cry," Michael said. "How can you cry when someone lived their life as wonderful as she did."

"I’m going to remember my sister as Marcy Borders, not 'The Dust Lady,' but Marcy," Dawn said.

Tributes from across the world and online show how widely known Marcy became as the so-called Dust Lady in that image. She will always be an iconic face of 9/11.

"It makes me feel good because her story lives on," Noelle said, smiling. "Her story continues through me. She always said, 'Where the dust lady stops, is where her daughter starts.'"

For her part, Noelle is succeeding with her mother in mind: she has earned her Bachelor's degrees in Communications and Elementary Education and is currently working on her Master's degree.