Leigh Gilmore dies at 50; advocate for the disabled

Leigh Gilmore dies at 50; advocate for the disabled
Leigh Gilmore, right, sits with her mother, Faye Gilmore. Her rescue from a New York hotel on 9/11 inspired her to do more for other disabled people. (Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
Leigh Gilmore, whose dramatic escape from a New York hotel during the 9/11 attacks was told in a September television documentary, leading to a poignant reunion with her rescuers, died Dec. 19 at a Chicago hospital of complications from multiple sclerosis, said her mother, Faye. She was 50.

Gilmore was diagnosed with the disease 20 years ago and for several years had been getting around with a wheelchair.

In October, Gilmore and her mother met Arnulfo Ponce and Gregory Frederick for the first time since their paths crossed in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Gilmores were staying at the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel, in the shadow of the twin towers. When the planes that had been hijacked by terrorists hit the buildings, the women were trapped on the hotel's dark and smoky fifth floor, Gilmore in her wheelchair and her mother refusing to leave her side.

They were saved by happenstance. Ponce, the chief building engineer, had been called the day before because of a broken shower grab bar in the Gilmores' room. He told his colleague Frederick about Gilmore, suggesting he check in on her.

Frederick made his way to the fifth floor and got them out of the building just as the south tower collapsed on the hotel. Everyone was separated; Gilmore and her mother reconnected hours later.

The two hotel workers spent years wondering what happened to the two women. In September, Frederick saw the women on the History Channel documentary called “Hotel Ground Zero.”

A quickly arranged reunion took place in October at Faye Gilmore's high-rise home in Chicago.

"She was just thrilled to see them. It was a joyous thing," her mother said.

Gilmore's experience in New York added fresh spark to her advocacy work on behalf of the physically challenged, said her friend Maureen Linehan Howard, who also has multiple sclerosis.

For many years, Gilmore was active with the Greater Illinois chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. After 9/11, as Chicago was reviewing its disaster preparedness plan, she argued passionately for provisions to protect the disabled in emergency evacuations, Howard said.

Born in Australia, Gilmore grew up in Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines as the family followed the career of her late father, Harry, an executive with Amoco.

After graduating from Michigan State University, she worked in the travel and hospitality industry.

In addition to her mother, Gilmore is survived by her brother, Peter.