9/11/2001 My Experience and Thoughts
Every year for the last 16 years this day has rolled around, often catching me off guard. The days building up to it I feel something, something I am not sure I can properly explain. As a writer, I feel I should be able to just put it all out there and eloquently describe this feeling that comes, on schedule, every year. The Body Keeps the Score. Trauma is something that becomes ingrained inside of us, into our core.
Today, hundreds of miles away from my first true home, from the place that I first found safety, security and unconditional love, I see a beautiful blue sky, not dissimilar to the sky on that momentous day 16 years ago. I am safe here, as safe as one can be anywhere I suppose. Yet, in the depths of my bones I feel lost and as though all that surrounds me is temporary.
When I was a child I learned that security and safety were fleeting and constructs of the mind. The reality was that at any time it could be taken away, by anyone. At some point I lost the ability to trust adults, trust what they said and when they said everything was going to be okay, I knew better, because for me, it never was.
16 years ago, I was back home getting ready for a doctor’s appointment on Duane Street, while my mother (adoptive, I clarify this as not to confuse between the biological and true mother.) was heading out to vote. We heard this sound that I remember as being so loud and, while it was often loud in the city, this was not a sound I had heard before. My mother, unconcerned thought it was just a truck driving over one of the big metal panels they placed down on Canal Street rather than fix the bloody potholes. She left to go vote and I turned on the radio to chaos.
I stood there, in our loft listening to the radio hosts saying that one of the towers had been hit by a plane. They were scrabbling and there was a lot of shock, as words failed them. Immediately I grabbed my camera, an extra role of film and left the loft. I ran into our neighbor who was standing uncertainly in the hallway, as though contemplating going back inside or walking to over to Church street to take a look. I told her mom went to vote, and asked if she knew where that was up or downtown? She told me uptown and without another word I left the building, running down the stairs in my flip flops with my heart beating, knowing that whatever was happening, it was important and I needed to see it. I did not actually believe that the towers had been hit, that was inconceivable and impossible.
Years ago, in 1993, I was out walking dogs to save up money for a cat bed for my cat Baby. I remember walking down Church street and something was off but I was not sure what it was and then like a slap in the face it hit me, the Towers were dark. This was the first attack on the World Trade Centers and it was one that, for me, was most notable because those beacons that always shown me my way home were dark.
Fast forward to 9/11/2001 and I was turning the corner from Lispenard Street to Church and before I had even reached the corner, I could tell that something was off, because people were just standing and staring. New Yorkers do not just stand and stare, they are usually on their way to somewhere, quickly. I remember this was the moment, before I turned the corner that something shut down inside of me. I was not aware of it at the time but it was as though I had put up a shield to protect myself from what I was about to see.
When I reached Church street I turned and I saw the second plane hit (I think, this is where it gets fuzzy for me.) What I do remember is that the two beacons of my neighborhood were burning. People were just standing, watching and I of course had to get closer. I do not believe I was even aware of what was happening at this point. My body took over and I took pictures and lived the scene through the lens of my camera. I remember thinking my cousin would want to see this, that something important was happening and I had to document it, but it still had not reached me yet that this was real.
Everything was so bright and it was such a beautiful day, it was surreal to see the streets filled with people, people in various stages of shock. One man said that we had been hit by terrorists and I told him to fuck off, there was no way that terrorists did this. I remember flipping him the bird as I walked past, closer and closer to the towers. It was as if reality simply shut off for me and I was on autopilot. I was seeing this, these towers that I knew so well burn, but at the same time it was like a movie, I was watching it through my lens and it protected me from the reality.
At one point I took a photo of a young man sitting under the awning of a building that was undergoing reconstruction. I think it was at this moment that I started to realize that this was real, because out of all the people around me, I felt like he was the one who realized what was happening. It felt as though the rest of us were in shock. There were arguments going on, conversations as people walked down Church street, away from the towers and not looking back and there were even people laughing.
I walked over toward Battery Park, by Stuyvesant High School and just kept taking pictures. It never for one second dawned on me that I was walking closer to danger because I was in shock and I was protected by my bubble of disbelief and by the lens of my camera.
As I walked, the sound of my flip flops unusually loud, I passed people who had been evacuated from the towers and surrounding areas and I caught bits of conversations and realized that so few of them looked back. Some of them complained about the evacuation, while behind them the buildings burned. Others, one woman in particular, turned back and the man she was walking with stopped with her as she stood and stared, tears streaming down her face.
I moved to the median so that I could walk against the tide of people towards the burning buildings. There was another man, also with a camera who did the same and we walked, together, yet separated by an incomprehensible distance, going toward the very thing everyone was walking away from.
When we got to the taped off area at the foot of the towers, he held up the police tape for me so I could walk under it and then we separated. I was still on auto pilot. I knew something important was happening, something that would change my world forever, yet I was incapable of truly understanding what it was.
I stood at the foot of the Tower and I watched as white paper floated down, illuminated by the sun. I watched the flames and heard in the background the sirens. I stood, and I watched and I was struck dumb by the sight of it. The brilliant blue sky, the warmth of the day and the surreal image of the Towers on fire. I was here, my destination and I was unsure now what I was doing here and what to do next. I was ill equipped to help and I was still in shock.
It was when I saw the first body fall that my senses came whipping back with a violence that almost knocked me off my feet. I was standing at the base of the Tower, one of the beacons of my childhood, I always knew I was close to home when I saw them. After clubbing I would walk home and stare at their sparkle in the night. When we went out of town and took the subway back from the station, walking up the stairs from the underground and seeing those two buildings meant I was home. These buildings had been a solid part of my life since I had moved to NYC when I was adopted. They were a part of my life.
I had a summer job at Miami Subs when I was a kid, right at the base of the Towers and made friends with many of the people who worked inside those monoliths. I grew up looking at them and seeing them as a sign of Home and a representation of security. They stood tall and proud over our neighborhood.
Yet, the moment that I saw the first person fall, among the sparkle of the brilliant white papers, reality suddenly hit me with a physicality that almost knocked me off my feet and I thought about that young man whose picture I took. The man who sat, with his hands in his face among the rest of us who stood, arguing, talking and not quite comprehending. He knew and he understood what was happening and the immensity of it. At least that is what I thought from his reaction.
For me, it was not until I saw the first person fall, then reality came whooshing back and all of the sudden the noise was too much to bear and the reality of what I was watching hit me with full force. I was standing at the foot of a building that was burning and people were inside, dying. Those papers that were falling, no longer held the same importance they did just moments before the planes hit. They were floating down softly, almost serenely, shining in the sunlight, yet, it was the people that woke me up and took away my defenses.
I watched as a man wearing a suit fell. I watched as the wind whipped his tie and I watched as he disappeared from view. The immensity of what I was witnessing was overwhelming and I no longer had my defenses in place, I no longer was able to look at this through the lens of my camera and think that I was watching a movie or an act. This was real. These buildings were burning and people were dying and I was standing there unable to do a damn thing to help. Suddenly I thought of my mother and realized that it was time to go home.
This time, on my way back, I still took pictures. There was a building where part of the plane had fallen off and hit the corner. The debris was in the road and the corner of the building was damaged. There was an officer and dog standing guard. Tears ran unbidden down my face as I continued to take pictures, because it was all I could do. Document. Record. I walked straight down Church street rather than take the side streets.
There was a group of women sitting in lawn chairs that they had dragged out to watch the show and for some reason this infuriated me. At the time I was so angry, but I think I realize now that they too were in shock. What do you do? In a situation like this, where you are unable to help and you cannot believe what is happening, yet some part of you knows that it is monumental. You bear witness.
Those of us present bore witness. We watched helpless as those towers burned and those people were trapped inside. We watched as the paper fell, as the people jumped. We watched as two icons of our home were destroyed by hate with innocent people still inside. People who had just gone to work like they did every day. People like you and me, living their lives the best they could. We bore witness.
I was numb, I knew that although I had taken these pictures, I would not get them developed anytime soon, because I inadvertently took a couple shots while people were falling and I never wanted to see that again. Thankfully my camera was not powerful enough to catch them as they feel so I was fortunate to not have to see that again, expect every time they showed it on TV.
As I walked back, I saw my mother and my neighbors standing on Church street, my poor mother knew where I had gone, because she knew me and she was frantic. Together, my mom, neighbors and I stood and watched as the Towers fall. We watched as the dust and debris cloud overtook our fellow New Yorkers. Had I just been five minutes later in walking home, I would have been caught in it.
When they fell, it was as if the world just stopped, there was this hush and sigh as we stood, disbelief present on our faces and whatever innocence we had left was shattered. We stood. We bore witness. Then, as one we turned and shoulders bowed, we walked home.
The aftermath is a story for another time, but what I remember most was how this affected me personally, how the rage came flooding back. All the progress that I had made with my depression was shattered instantly and I was a wreck. Our school gave us all A’s for the semester and I started the downward spiral that just got worse and worse.
How do you share a trauma with the world? There is this personal aspect to being traumatized. I was already traumatized from my childhood. Now, this experience compounded that trauma. The aftermath was just as bad in its own way and I found myself drowning in the darkness. I was fighting the abyss that threatened to swallow me up and on top of that I had to share this with the world.
I remember when mom and I went to visit family for the holidays, I would feel this rage that I had to fight down every time she talked about it with strangers. That was her way of dealing with it. With what she witnessed. I would sit there, wanting to scream at them to just shut up. Scream at them to stop talking about it. Instead I would sit in silence surrounding myself with a protective sphere of rage.
For Christmas our family, meaning well I am sure, gave her a book on the event and I had to use every resource I had not to yell at them. How could you? I wanted to scream, We were there. That was our home. Do you really think we need a fucking book to tell us about what we witnessed? Do you really think we need to see the damn pictures again and again? I was so angry. At the world. At the people who I had to share this trauma with because I did not know how to share a trauma. All of my traumas had been mine to own. How the hell do I share something like this?
I remember the first time we saw planes fly over the city after. We were at MoMA and because I could no longer ride the subway without panic attacks we were waiting for the bus. Everyone looked up and we all had fear in our faces. This was the beginning of things getting back to “normal” for the city I guess but I know it scared the shit out of me.
Every year, this day rolls around and people share memes and say Never Forget and it makes me feel this rage again, this rage because how could I forget? I remember the pictures. The pictures of those missing. I remember watching the brilliant lights that went up at night to mark the empty space where the towers once stood. I remember the momentary massive love of country and call to arms. I remember watching people fall to their deaths rather than burn. I remember feeling guilty that I was still here, that I did not suffer the same fate.
I remember losing the filter that we have as human beings, the filter that allows us to live our lives without constant fear. I would look at the walls of buildings and wonder at how easily they could come down. I would think of those people trapped in the stairwell and I would imagine their screams and cries and those who knew that they were never going to leave those buildings alive. My world became smaller and smaller as I was unable to ride the subway and then unable to ride the busses without having panic attacks. I looked at everyone with suspicion.
So every year, as this time rolls around, I have to take a little break. A break from all the well-meaning posts and comments and the renewed fever of ” We will never forget”. Because I can never forget. It is ingrained into my being. It is something that is with me every day. As I carefully walk into elevators or up or down stairs, forcing myself not to panic. It is in the dreams I have of trying to rescue and protect. It is a part of being a survivor and a witness. I can never forget, even if I wanted to. Because those people deserve to be remembered, every day.
The problem is that as human beings we are not equipped to hold onto trauma in this way, to constantly remember and feel the survivors guilt and the pain of knowing that you stood by helplessly as thousands of your neighbors and friends and acquaintances died right in front of you. People you saw, walked by every day, people who were just going to work, living their lives, wondering what they were going to eat for lunch or how they were going to fix that fight they had with their lover. People who were just living their lives and ended up being caught up in this momentous event that took them from their friends and family too soon. Because of hate.
So every year, around this time, I take this out once more and revisit it too. In my own way, I think about it, I feel it all over again and I struggle to understand how to process it even after all these years. This world is full of suffering. This world is full of loss and grief. This world is full of pain. My own life has shown me that. And it has shown me that one event, one personal trauma does not ever devalue another’s trauma. I cannot stress that enough.
We all process things differently and that is okay. For me, I see the irony of hiding from social media and all of the well-meaning posts and the news as they dig up old footage while I am rehashing my own personal experience. I still have not quite figured out how to share my trauma with everyone else. My trauma, which seems so small in comparison to the survivors who were in the building, to those who lost their lives and to their families and friends who lost them. It is hard to think I even have a right to be traumatized, to feel what I feel and suffer the way I do.
But as I said, we all have the right to feel what we feel. We are human beings and just because there may be someone who had a “more traumatic” experience, it does not devalue mine nor does mine devalue anyone’s else’s. When I was a kid, when this happened and the wounds were still so fresh, the rage was my protection. It still comes up once in awhile. Every year around this time I begin to feel something. Something I find it difficult to explain. I want to isolate myself, disappear and I want to let the darkness seep in. I feel a deep sadness and grief and often it takes me off guard.
I am always trying to understand myself, why I feel the way I feel, react the way I react. Being a trauma survivor makes life that much more difficult. Because of the side effects that come with trauma. The body keeps the score. It is no mere matter of thought. This event is ingrained into my very essence.
So my way of dealing is to isolate myself and to write. To remember what I can and to write about it, to try to remember and understand and perhaps find a way to seek peace with something that has had such an effect on my life. The event itself was traumatic enough, but the smell of the burning buildings, the evacuation of my neighborhood (they evacuated everyone below us, letting us stay as we were so close to Canal street), the silence that followed, the clean-up, the anger, the fear all of that contributed to increasing the trauma that was already present in my being.
We all deal with things differently. 9/11 is a day that always has me near tears all day. I struggle with the memories that I try to force down, back into the past. I try to forget how everything changed for me that day. How I lost that veneer that we have that protects us from the knowledge that terror can strike at any time. That buildings fall down with people in them, that planes crash and that people jump to their death rather than burn. I lost the ability to look at the world through eyes that held any sort of protection and security. I am still, to this day struggling with this knowledge.