Monday, September 13, 2021

This Year Was Different

The fact is I did not almost die on 9/11. I only thought I was going to die, and maybe from a trauma standpoint, it doesn't make any difference. In retrospect, though, I was always going to be okay.

The "TL;DR" version, which I spoke about on the radio last week here in Juneau, and have written about more poetically here, was this.

I was 23 years old and working for a city agency on Rector Street in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks south of the World Trade Center. I was at my desk around 8:30 a.m. or so when my co-worker, Zoe, came to my cubicle and told me a 747 passenger jet had just crashed into one of the twin towers. 

We went downstairs to look, and stood on the street staring up at a gaping hole in the north tower of the World Trade Center. There were orange flames bursting out and papers fluttering down. One of the engines of the first plane was right there on the sidewalk. I overheard someone say not to look over toward West Street because there were body parts there. As we were standing around gawking, the second plane hit the south tower with a huge explosion. At that point, everyone started screaming and we knew it was a terrorist attack rather than an accident. 

We stood around a bit longer watching more papers and people tumble from the buildings, trying to figure out what to do. The only direction to go was east, toward the Brooklyn Bridge. The towers were to the north, and there was only water to the south and west. 

I lived in Brooklyn and so did many of my colleagues. On the short walk to the bridge, people were crying and starting to panic. A woman was having what looked like a seizure in the street. Someone said something about the Pentagon, and I remember being angry that they were spreading rumors. I was with two co-workers, Don and Denise. Denise was able to penetrate the cell phone traffic to reach her mom, who then called my dad to say we were OK. 

We were in the middle of the bridge when the south tower fell. You can see from the picture below how close it was. The arrow is where I was standing. 

The bridge shook and I left my body, to a place of peace and acceptance. I remember asking Denise if she thought we were going to die, and telling her we were too young to die. Time sort of stopped, and I went into what I can only describe as an emergency safe mode where I was able to focus and started to think about what I would do if the bridge collapsed. 

The bridge, of course, did not collapse, and I made it home that day. I shat and puked my brains and guts out the second after I walked through the door and into the arms of my crying boyfriend. A lot of people didn't get to do that, including one of my co-workers, and Bill McGinn, my parents' next door neighbor, who was an FDNY lieutenant in one of the first fire companies to respond to the attacks. My parents spent the afternoon with his wife and 6 and 8 year-old children, waiting for any word from him. He never came home.

In retrospect, I was always going to be fine. That's the thing I keep coming back to. I was never in any real danger. I wasn't in one of the buildings or in the immediate radius of falling debris. The bridge was solid and withstood the brief earthquake caused by the first building's dramatic collapse. 

I think because I later realized that I was always really going to be OK that I shelved a lot of what I saw and experienced and sort of tried to downplay how traumatic and scary it was. The truth is that I didn't feel like I deserved to be sad or traumatized, or to jump out of my skin for a year and a half every time I heard a loud sound. 

For six weeks I did not return to work, but rather helped fill out missing persons and death certificates at Chelsea Piers while the FBI and workers at Ground Zero processed the scene, which included my office building, on whose roof parts of the planes had landed. When we did go back to work, there was so much debris we wore masks at our desks. I worked there for another year and am part of a 9/11 public health study.

This year felt different, I think, because now 9/11 was literally half my life ago. After the attacks, I read the 9/11 Commission Report word for word, trying to understand what happened and why. This year, I've watched TSA copaganda on loop, because it brings me back into that headspace, and as scary as it is, something draws me to go there. 

I can't stop watching. I can't look away. I keep listening to the voicemails of the people on the planes and in the buildings over and over. I commit some of their names to memory. Betty Ong. Brian Sweeney. I keep putting myself in their position, knowing how scared I was in what turned out to be no big deal for me in many ways, and knowing how scared I get flying in bad weather in Alaska, thinking about those moments trapped on a plane when they knew they were going to die. I can’t remember if I was such a nervous flyer before 9/11. I don’t think I was. I definitely didn’t need Ativan to fly, like I do now.

I wonder if it hurt, if they felt the impact, if they were in pain, what happened to their bodies, where the different parts of their bodies went. I think about the people I saw falling out of the windows, and feel grateful not to have witnessed their bodies hit the ground and explode like water balloons, as some of my friends did. I wonder what it was like to make the choice to jump to death rather than burn to death. I was lucky to be on the bridge, as it turned out, and not running from the collapse or leaping into the water to escape the debris, as some survivors had apparently done.

I turn over all of this dark matter, over and over in my brain, and I keep telling myself it was only two hours of my life. I was never going to die. I was always going to be okay. 

And yet I think on some level I have some type of survivor's guilt about that. I feel almost dirty, in a way, having watched so many people die in front of my eyes at once and not being one of them. I feel like I need to put myself into their headspace. Like I need to keep hearing their voices and imagining their last moments, and ponder all the things they have missed out on in the past 20 years, if only because it feels unfair that they had to die this way and I didn't.

I haven't written about 9/11 in five or six years, but this year felt different and I am still trying to figure out why. I guess I will never understand--I mean really, truly understand--why this happened, why I was OK and others weren't, and how it seared itself into my consciousness forever.

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