Bank worker who survived World Trade Centre terror attack dies at 42 after year-long battle with cancer

It was one of the most haunting images that emerged after 9/11: a woman covered in ash and powdered concrete fleeing the World Trade Center after the first plane struck the tower and brought horror to the heart of New York.

Marcy Borders was a 28-year-old Bank of America worker when the photograph of her staring into the lens with her eyes asquint and her mouth agape was taken. Borders, who came to be known around the world as “dust lady”, died on Monday at the age of 42 after a year-long battle with stomach cancer.

“I can’t believe my sister is gone,” Michael Borders wrote of his sibling on Facebook. Borders’ cousin John Borde added that she was a “hero” and she “unfortunately succumbed to the diseases that have ridden her body since 9/11”.

“In addition to losing so many friends, coworkers, and colleagues on and after that tragic day ... the pain from yesteryear has found a way to resurface,” he said.

Borders, of Bayonne, New Jersey, was just a month into her new job on the 81st floor of the north tower when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the building. Instead of remaining at her desk, as her supervisor had ordered, she ran from the building and into the chaotic street, which was heaving with enormous clouds of dust and the hordes of walking wounded.

It was when a stranger pulled her into the lobby of another building just as the north tower came crashing down that a photographer captured her face.

“I was picking the junk off the desk, getting ready to start my day,” Borders said in an interview in 2011. “That was then the plane hit. That’s when the building started quaking and swaying. I lost all control, and I went into a frenzy. I fought my way out of that place.

“Hundreds of people were trying to get out. My stairwell was badly damaged and we had to move stairwells, I was convinced we were going to die. I’m so glad I had the strength to get to the bottom. There were wounded and the injured, it was too much for one to witness.

“I saw people with things sticking out of them, covered head to toe in blood. I couldn’t understand it. What I saw was carnage, and I thought, ‘God, I’m going to die anyway’.”

Borders’ life spiralled downward after that fateful moment in 2001. She battled severe depression and became addicted to crack cocaine. “I didn’t do a day’s work in nearly 10 years, and by 2011 I was a complete mess,” she said. “I was convinced Osama bin Laden was planning more attacks. Every time I saw an aircraft, I panicked. If I saw a man on a building, I was convinced he was going to shoot me.”

After losing custody of her two children, Borders checked into rehab in April 2011 and remained sober. She announced that she’d been diagnosed with stomach cancer and had undergone chemotherapy last summer. She was scheduled to undergo further surgery, radiation and chemotherapy in December, she added.

Related: Inside the White House on 9/11 - in pictures

Borders had no idea she had been photographed that day until her mother called to say she had seen the picture. The image appeared in Time Magazine’s list of 25 most powerful images, and inspired the song The Tale of Marcy Borders. But it remained an emblem of the problems that continued to demonise her.

She told the Jersey Journal: “I’m saying to myself ‘Did this thing ignite cancer cells in me?’ I definitely believe it because I haven’t had any illnesses. I don’t have high blood pressure … high cholesterol, diabetes.” © Guardian News and Media 2015