Fifteen years ago this morning, my oldest daughter began one of her first days in kindergarten (school started just a week before), and left as usual minutes before the first plane struck the World Trade Center. Just the night before, my three year-old second daughter’s preschool had a back to school night where we met the teachers and regrouped with old friends. I will always remember a certain young mom with whom I spoke that night ….
My husband called me to ask if my brother still worked in the WTC (he used to work in the Towers but was working a few buildings away), and had I seen the news. I turned on the TV a little after 8:50 and like everyone else, I could not believe my eyes! Tower 1 was in flames but soon I saw the footage of the plane hitting Tower 2 and I myself had no doubt: these incidents were not accidents. I decided quickly that my three year-old and one year-old should not see footage, not until we knew what was going on and that our family was safe. I had no idea what they were telling my kindergartener and the other children at our local elementary school, but I knew there were members of our community and people from all over New Jersey who worked in or near the Twin Towers. Surely there would be much more information to become available, but I needed to consider the needs and safety of my children first.
Since 2000, I appeared several times as a guest psychologist on a local cable television show called Real Life with Mary Amoroso. It was on the now defunct CN-8 station originating out of Philadelphia but having a local studio in Union, NJ. Real Life was a live call-in talk show that offered programming on parenting and other issues of family interest. At around 10 am I got a phone call asking if I could get to the Union studio for a live broadcast at 12:30. Of course I said yes! Since I had wonderful child care already in place, I did make my way to the studio and went live to answer callers’ questions for over two hours. People were frightened; people were angry. We offered a sounding board and some measure of reassurance. The producer offered me one of those wires where the producers speak to the broadcasters. In my experience, only the hosts of broadcast shows get the wires, so I felt privileged to be able to hear what was going on behind the scenes. This was particularly exciting when the President was about to make a live announcement, and our show was interrupted. I was proud of our work, but shocked and unsettled as the events of the day unfolded.
I learned my brother was one of the people running away from the dust cloud. He got home safely, many harrowing hours later. I learned that my dear friend and neighbor who worked in the WTC arrived late to the ferry and that when she was in Jersey City about to board the ferry, she looked up to see her building in flames. There were many similar stories, including how the head of the firm Cantor Fitzgerald was also saved by being late getting to the office, but one of his employees – the father of one of my patients, and the rest of the Cantor Fitzgerald staff who were in their offices on September 11th after 8:46 am – did not make it out of the towers. Ironically, both survivors stayed home longer to see their children off to school that morning. I learned that one of the moms I spoke to at the back to school night was in the North Tower above the entry point of the plane when it struck. After it hit, a mutual friend who worked nearby in NYC, her best friend in fact, advised her dear friend she must evacuate the building. I cannot imagine how either woman felt ending that phone call they knew to be their last. That young mom of two children, a three year-old and an eighteen month old, never did make it out. Like the over 2,000 other victims and first responders who also did not make it out. May all of their memories be for a blessing.
The next day, September 12th, the producer of Real Life called me for a follow-up show, and I returned for another live broadcast. This time, I did not receive a wire, but that was okay. Things were settling down just a tiny little bit. We knew the attacks were over, but who was responsible and what consequence would happen would unfold in the next few weeks and months, as we were all watching the news closely, and all in a collective state of shock and grief. The mother of my patient was convinced her husband was alive but lost in the frenzy of learning who was recovering in which hospital because many people hoped there would be more survivors. Not anyone who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and was in the North Tower on September 11th — no one who worked in the Cantor Fitzgerald offices on the 101st to 105th floors made it out alive. But it took several days for my patient’s mom to accept her husband’s tragic ending. And this was just four months before my patient’s Bat Mitzvah!
One of the most moving moments of my life came when the family of that young mom held a memorial service a couple of weeks after September 11th. After the initial shock of the events of September 11th, this was a piercing reminder of a personal tragedy that impacted everyone who survived the attack, who witnessed the attack, and who were in any way touched by the attack. Beholding the tall young man with such beautiful, innocent, young children who would grow up without their mother was incredibly sad. I recall having some survivor guilt, that feeling survivors of traumatic events get when recognizing that life is unpredictable and unfair, and any of us could easily suffer someone else’s loss. My own children were resting comfortably at home while I offered my support to this young, grieving family.
In the coming weeks and months, I would learn so many other stories from so many people. I remember at the time how friendly everyone was to one another — people talking to each other while waiting on lines, people talking to people at counters, wishing everyone a genuinely good day. People would ask if your family was okay, or if you someone who was in those buildings. I learned so many stories of coincidence, of how people should have been in the towers but for some ironic reason had not made it there before the first plane struck Tower 1. And there were some stories of people who normally were not supposed to be in the Towers but who were there on September 11th. And there were stories of people who were lower down and made it out, or who were in the neighborhood of lower Manhattan and of others who were in mid-town waiting many hours to get out of a city whose borders and tunnels and bridges and pathways were closed until safe travels could resume.
Soon after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I received some referrals of people who were directly impacted by either being in the area, or having a loved on being in the area of the WTC on September 11th. There were so many people who were traumatized by their experiences on that very dark day. For years after the attack, when I learned that a new patient lived or worked in New York City, I would ask where they were on September 11th and how that experience impacted them. I met quite a few people experiencing survivor guilt. So many people in the New York metropolitan area have personal stories about someone they knew who was directly impacted by the terrorist attack that day, and many who were personally involved did experience some level of psychological trauma.
So what did I learn? I learned how precious life is, of course, and how life can change drastically, fatally, in just an instant. I was reminded that we cannot take anyone or anything for granted, that our time together is precious. I learned that a little kindness can make a difference in someone’s life. I learned that there are times when a person’s defense mechanisms to deny reality can defy strong evidence that most others come to accept. And I was reminded that in my work as a psychologist, I can listen to people as they process their stories with me and validate their troubling feelings, I can help people cope with life-changing, catastrophic events, and I can help them grow so they can hopefully find a way to move forward, past even the most tragic of losses.