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Remembering Katherine Ilachinski

Michael Yurieff  | Published on 9/9/2017


Beloved Russian Gift of Life USA supporter and volunteer Katherine Ilachinski, who survived the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, passed away September 9, 2017 at age 86. 


Katherine's story of surviving the 9/11 attacks was featured in the September 24, 2001 issue of THE NEW YORKER magazine, the issue with the all-black cover. It is excerpted below.

From the September 24, 2001 issue of THE NEW YORKER. Article written by David Remnick.

Katherine Ilachinski is a seventy-year-old architect. As a girl, she survived the German bombing of Belgrade. On Tuesday morning, she was in her office on the ninety-first floor of Two World Trade Center, working on a sketch for changes to an electrical substation at the Hoboken terminal of New Jersey Transit. The first jet hit One World Trade just above the level of her office window.

"There was an explosion, and a fireball went along the side of my building where I was sitting," she recalled. "It was so hot. It was like being in a boiler. I had to get out of my office. I went into an interior passage, then into the main corridor, to the elevators. You know, I was in the building in 1993, when we were bombed, and that time my instincts were completely different. Then, I closed my office. This time, I just wanted to get out of the building. Some people were taking the stairs. But I thought, I'm too old to walk so far down. Our elevators go to the lobby on seventy-eight. So I took the elevator to seventy-eight.

"The lobby there was mobbed, everybody trying to get in the elevators to the ground. I saw a guy who worked for me, Anthony--Anthony Portillo," Mrs. Ilachinskisaid. Her voice trembled. "He's a CAD operator--that's computer-aided design. I told Anthony, 'Let's take the elevator to forty-four.' It was still too high for me to walk, but the elevators to the ground were so crowded. There was no air. And I know what happens if the elevator gets stuck. You are doomed. But Anthony said, 'No, Katy.' He wanted to take the elevator all the way down. I didn't trust it. So I took the elevator to the forty-fourth floor. That elevator was relatively empty.
"But the scene in the lobby on forty-four was a repetition of seventy-eight. It was just mobbed. People all the way from east to west. Most of them waiting for the elevator to the ground. That was when I decided to try to walk, and something just propelled me to the north stairs. I don't know by what force I was propelled. But now, two days later, I can look at the pictures and see: that was the side least affected by the second jet.

"In the stairwell, it was quiet. There were announcements on the loudspeakers, saying, 'It's safe. The building is safe. Don't panic.' I think they even told us we could go back to our offices, but I'm not sure. I was just going down, down, down, like an automaton. After the plane hit our building, and the building started shaking, there were no more announcements.

"Through almost everything, I felt amazingly calm, except for that one moment in the stairwell, when the building started shaking and I thought, I'm a goner. I wished I was back on the ninety-first floor, and I could jump. Because I could jump from the window--reluctantly, but I could do it--because then it is over. But to be trapped under rubble, that is worse. I remember, from the war, from Belgrade, what it is to be trapped under rubble.

I don't really know where I was when the plane hit. I had with me some water, but when the stairs started shaking I dropped it. There was smoke, but not too thick. A colleague was with me when we reached the ground, and we came out of the building together.


"We started toward the Manhattan Bridge. I didn't even turn to look back. I was just walking. We had gone three blocks when the ground shook, and it suddenly got very dark, and everybody started running. I'm not too good at running, so I was just walking briskly. The smoke came from behind us, and everything became covered with a fine white powder. I actually thought it was an atom bomb, because that is what it's supposed to be like.


"When I heard that the Pentagon was also attacked, I became very worried about my son, because he often goes there for his work. I tried to phone him, but I couldn't get through. I walked and walked. Finally, at Penn Station, I managed to get through to his home, and my daughter-in-law answered. She gave the phone to my son, and he told me he was packing to go to New York to my funeral. They had been watching TV all morning, and they saw the buildings fall, and they had already buried me. It was a conclusion that I am dead that would be easily understood. But my son told me that a very strange thing happened. He reached up to take my picture from the shelf to take with him to New York, and a book fell from the shelf, and he saw a word on the cover, 'Miracles.' And three minutes later I called. I think it's a miracle. Do you believe in God?"


Mrs. Ilachinski had worked in the World Trade Center since 1980. She still talks about the buildings as if they exist. Only two weeks before the attack, she went on a tour to inspect the provisions in the structural design of the south tower. The design, she said, was far ahead of its time. "The building was designed to move three feet from the center, which was remarkable," she said. "When we first moved in, some people got seasick. And when there was a lot of wind there was screeching in the inner core. You know, the buildings were designed for a jet hit as well. But that was thirty years ago, and jets are different now. And nobody thought about the fuel."


At points, without warning, her architect's curiosity and practicality falter. "Guilt feeling you wouldn't believe," she said, with a voice full of pain. "At this time of life. And all those young people went. Strange. Very strange. And I am only asking why. All those poor people. Thousands and thousands."

<End of New Yorker magazine excerpt.>


Note from Russian Gift of Life USA:
After surviving the attacks of 9/11, Katherine continued to help children suffering from treatable heart defects receive free open heart surgery through the Save A Child® program. Her compassionate gifts helped save many young lives. Katherine also gave generously of her time as a volunteer and translator. Though the world has lost one of those special people who helped make it a better place, the love and compassion Katherine showed in service of children and parents in need will live on in their hearts and ours forever. May her memory be eternal. Katherine's husband, Slava Ilachinsk predeceased her in 2002. She is survived by her son, Andrew Ilachinski.

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