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Aspiring Osage actress saved by a soap opera

On any other Tuesday morning, Amy Tall Chief, Osage, an aspiring actress from Shawnee, Okla., would be reporting to work in the Education Department of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, located in the shadow of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.

But on that fateful Tuesday morning, Sept.11, when terrorists struck the worst attack in history, Tall Chief looked on in shock from her Staten Island apartment as the twin beacons of commerce that towered over the majestic Financial District skyline succumbed to the devastating impact of two hijacked passenger airliners and crumbled to pieces.

'All I could think of was 'all of those poor people,'' Tall Chief said of the thousands who suffered the misfortune caused by these cowardly acts of misguided faith. 'It was the most horrific thing I've ever seen in my life--like a horror movie,' she said.

Tall Chief, had taken the morning off from work to attend an audition for the soap opera 'As the World Turns,' scheduled at 11 a.m. in midtown Manhattan. She was watching the morning news on NY 1 as always, when the camera routinely focused on the World Trade Center to display weather and visibility conditions in the city. It was at that moment that the first jet slammed into the west tower.

'I knew it couldn't have been an accident,' she said. 'It was too deliberate.'

Her phone immediately rang. As she talked to her father Tim Tall Chief, who was watching the events unfold on television from Oklahoma City, she watched from her window as the second plane tore into the other tower.

'It sounded like a sonic boom when it hit,' she said.

After numerous phone calls, Tall Chief finally contacted her supervisor at the museum and pleaded for her to get out of the building. Much of the museum staff, like so many New Yorkers, had no idea what terror was taking place almost directly above their heads. Fortunately, the building was evacuated in time for museum staff to escape to safety in the adjacent Battery Park and South Ferry Terminal at the southern-most tip of the island.

At the New York Harbor waterfront, Tall Chief witnessed the first tower of the most powerful building in the world's economic infrastructure implode into a heap of rubble. Terrified people jumped from the windows. Others jumped into the Hudson River just to the west of the building. A man standing next to Tall Chief cried out that his wife was in the second tower that was still standing. Moments later the second tower collapsed and so, too, did the grieving husband.

Next came a large wave across the water in New York Harbor accompanied by a wave of intense heat. After the enormous cloud of smoke mushroomed into the air like an atomic bomb, Tall Chief said the smoke listed southeast moving like a tornado. Then the financial district disappeared into darkness as the smoke rolled out over the water.

Staten Island ferries that normally carry commuters and tourists across the beautiful harbor past the historic Statue of Liberty launched their entire fleet full speed into a wall of dense smoke and debris to begin to assist an unprecedented human exodus from Manhattan.

Ferries returned to Staten Island overflowing with wounded and bewildered World Trade Center workers and other stranded lower Manhattanites who may have commuted into the city from as far away as Connecticut. The boats also carried the thousands of visitors and tourists who had made their pilgrimage to pay homage to America's symbol of economic might.

Stockbrokers from Wall Street stepped off of the boats still wearing their ties. In addition to their life jackets, all the passengers wore the same blanket of ash and soot that had been the tallest building in the world. And they all had a story to tell.

Tall Chief recalled accounts from Trade Center workers who made it out unharmed from as high as the 91st floor of the towers. The survivors said the evacuation was calm and quiet. A woman who worked at Liberty Plaza emotionally recounted watching from across the street as some 40 people, without hope, jumped from their windows.

Most of those evacuated said they were still very concerned about their colleagues on the higher floors whose fates were sealed by locked fire exits filled with fire and smoke.

Tall Chief's partner, Vincent Kent, Ponca/Otoe/Iowa, from Stillwater, Okla., volunteered to help unload the wounded and deceased from the ferries. He helped load many corpses onto New York City buses for transport to the New York Yankee's new minor league stadium recently built on Staten Island. The island suddenly was streaming with people wandering through the streets trying to find a way home.

With bridges and ferries only accessible to rescue workers, many people are still trapped on Staten Island, including Tall Chief and Kent. Although few harassments have been reported, tensions are high in Tall Chief's neighborhood called St. George where most of the stores are owned and operated by Middle Eastern immigrants. Storeowners seem less concerned with not being able to keep shelves stocked and more concerned for their safety.

'Most of the stores are closing at dusk because the owners are afraid of being attacked,' Tall Chief said. 'People are furious and nobody appears to know who to trust.'

At the same time, Tall Chief said many Staten Islanders are spending time in the streets talking with neighbors. Some people sit in lawn chairs in the streets gazing out over the harbor at a blackened downtown New York skyline that normally is shimmering with light under the Twin Towers.

So what is an aspiring actress who is working paycheck to paycheck to do when the city shuts down?

'We are nearly out of food and money,' Tall Chief said. 'I may have to borrow money or I may move home. But you only live once and I'm not going to live my life scared.'

Maybe she'll get another shot at that soap opera audition.