Twenty years ago, Mercer University alumna Christina Stanton was fleeing her New York City apartment, barefoot and in her pajamas. She and her husband, Brian, sought safety at Battery Park along with thousands of others, only to find themselves struggling for breath and trapped by dust and smoke as the Twin Towers fell.
The couple lived to tell a tale that many did not, although they weren’t without emotional and physical scars from the experience. Today, Christina strives to keep the history of Sept. 11, 2001, alive and shares untold stories through her writings and as a New York City tour guide.
Welcome to New York
Christina transferred to Mercer halfway through college and graduated in 1991 with an English degree and minors in French and music. She was a member of Alpha Gamma Delta and the professional choirs at Mercer and Christ Church, a song leader, active in theater, and named Miss Mercer in ’91.
At age 23, she moved to New York City to pursue acting, thinking she would have a “grand adventure for a year” and then move on with her life, she said. However, she found success and stayed. She performed with the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players for six years and did regional shows as well as a European tour. She also sang on a cruise ship for years, which is how she met Brian in 1999.
“Not only did I have a lot more success than I ever thought, but I also fell in love with New York City. It kind of became the ultimate challenge to forge a life there. I was able to establish myself,” she said.
In addition to her theater work, Christina became a licensed tour guide and began working for the Gray Line company in 1995. This allowed her to be a “perpetual tourist” and learn more about her new home city. She led tours on red double-decker buses as well as walking tours that included one of her favorite Manhattan sites, the World Trade Center.
“Apart from Times Square and Central Park, that’s kind of what I thought New York City was,” she said. “There were these beautiful buildings and sculptures. It was futuristic. I took thousands of tourists up to the observatory for six years before the terrorist attacks. I already had this big relationship with the Trade Center when it came down.”
After Christina got married, she traded in her studio apartment in Times Square for a “dream apartment” with Brian in the financial district, six blocks away from the Twin Towers. Everything was going well in her life, until Sept. 11, 2001.
Brian shook Christina awake that morning, saying something had happened at the World Trade Center. They went out onto their terrace to look. Black smoke was coming out of the North Tower, and Christina saw a low-flying jet pointed toward the South Tower. They didn’t see the plane hit the building, but they felt it.
“Shock waves blew us back into our apartment, and it knocked me out,” Christina said. “We grabbed our dog and ran down 24 flights. We ran away from the destruction to Battery Park where we thought we’d be safe, but we weren’t. We were covered in debris and couldn’t breathe. We were surrounded by the dust cloud and the smoke. We were trapped in that area with thousands of other people and couldn’t get out.”
The Coast Guard issued a call for any available boats and ferries to evacuate people off the island, and three hours after the terror had begun, Christina and Brian were on a ferry headed for New Jersey.
“It was one of those moments where it was too much of a shock to the system. I had had a really easy life. It was really quite jarring. I suffered for a while and so did my husband,” Christina said.
Both Christina and her husband suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and have health issues and weakened immune systems from exposure to the debris and smoke.
Unemployed and unable to go back to their apartment for weeks after the attacks, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City provided them with the assistance they needed to get back on their feet. The connection with that church ended up changing their lives and restoring their faith, Christina said.
Brian has worked at Redeemer Presbyterian for 19 years now and is its chief financial officer, and Christina directed the church’s missions department for a decade before the pandemic. The couple founded a nonprofit in 2017 called Loving All Nations, which partners with international nonprofit organizations to support poor, vulnerable and marginalized people.
Christina later went back to giving tours but shifted the focus. She now takes guests to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and tells her story. She also shares her perspective through writing.
She took four years to write her book “Out of the Shadow of 9/11: An Inspiring Tale of Escape and Transformation,” which was published in May 2019. During her research, she found that lots of Sept. 11 books focused on terrorism and conspiracy theories, but there weren’t any from the perspective of a resident of neighborhoods surrounding the attacks. Her book tells her personal experience while highlighting aspects of Sept. 11 that have not received as much attention.
“Christina is the only person I know who lived downtown from the World Trade Center and had to evacuate by boat,” said Dr. Rick Nelson, who was an associate professor of music at Mercer before going to the Cleveland Institute of Music and is a longtime friend of Christina’s. “Christina’s book is a gripping first-hand account of what she, Brian and their dog experienced following the attacks on the WTC. Since I’ve known her for so long, her conversational style in the book seemed like one of our personal conversations from earlier times.”
Christina talks about topics like the volunteers who evacuated people on their boats despite the health risks, students who had to be relocated, and the effects the attacks had on pets. Christina said her dog, Gabriel, came close to death after ingesting debris that was on his fur and was never healthy after that. He died eight years later from a rare cancer.
She also writes articles frequently and authored about 25 for the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11. Her work has appeared in publications like Decision Magazine, Lonely Planet, The Gospel Coalition, The War Cry, Modern Dog and New York Daily News, and Reader’s Digest and Marie Claire have quoted her. She puts all of the proceeds from her writing into her nonprofit.
“With any event, as time goes on, it becomes one-dimensional. It comes down to the planes and the towers,” Christina said. “I feel like my articles and my book can try to fill in some gaps of stories that didn’t quite get around. I also feel a sense of obligation for the thousands who died who don’t have a voice. It’s a real desire to keep the history alive and keep the importance of that history alive.”