In the decade since September 11, 2001, thousands of survivors have walked the difficult path of recovery. At the World Trade Center alone, epicenter of the terrorist attacks that unfolded in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, an estimated 12,000 people emerged from the twin towers alive. Coping has varied widely even among the small group of survivors who shared their stories with us. Some moved forward anchored by faith, fortitude, or family. Others struggle with a healing process that remains painful, drawn out, and elusive.
Most have kept mementos of that horrific day, among
them the clothes they were wearing, a breakfast receipt
issued 15 minutes before disaster struck, a singed piece
of personalized notepaper kept on a 100th-floor desk
and recovered several blocks away. These artifacts
speak of the personal experiences that keep the
collective memory of history vivid and fresh,
even as the immediacy of tragedy fades in time.
This fragment from one of the airplanes that struck the World Trade Center in 2001 was recovered in lower Manhattan. (Courtesy New York State Museum)
March 25, 2011
At Manhattan’s ground zero, the decade anniversary of 9/11 will be marked by the opening of the memorial plaza. Its centerpiece sits in the footprints of the twin towers: two cascading fountains framed by the names of the 2,983 people who perished at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, aboard the four hijacked airplanes, and during the 1993 Trade Center bombing. More than 200 white oak trees will also be in place. Says Lynn Rasic of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, “They represent the cycle of life. As we move from winter to spring, they’re reminders of rebirth and the renewal of life.”
BACK IN THE GAME
In stairwell when north tower collapsed
New York firefighter Matt Komorowski survived the north tower’s collapse with 15 others due to a staircase that withstood the fall. He keeps his helmet from that day (pictured here), still dusted with shattered concrete and drywall, in a glass case in his living room.
“It’s difficult for me to constantly look at it and not go into a downward spiral. But I feel it’s important for my own therapy to leave it there, to work through it, and to deal with that day without falling into those depths. I’ve learned to get out of them, so things are a lot better.
“I had thoughts of leaving my profession, but being a firefighter is really a part of you. I wanted to give the decision time, and after I felt mentally OK, I realized this is what I was meant to do. So yes, I had thoughts of leaving, but I’m so happy I got back on the horse.”
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FILLING A HOLE
North tower, 82nd floor (in office when the first plane struck)
The son of a World War II veteran and a survivor of the 1993 Trade Center attack, Gerry Bogacz says he now understands why his father read obsessively about the war. Shattered by the events of 9/11, Bogacz co-founded the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network, leads tours at ground zero, and speaks of the day in fragments, often questioning his memory and motives. He keeps the shoes he fled in (below) and wears a blue tribute bracelet (in portrait at left). Asked about his almost compulsive involvement with other survivors, he replies, “I don’t know. It has something to do with trying to fill this hole.”
“I feel a real need to somehow acknowledge my lost colleagues. In my tours I get to talk about them a little so people at least know them a little bit. For me there’s a lot of survivor’s guilt about the three people who didn’t get out of my office that day. In the months after 9/11, I was really focused on those first five minutes between the first plane hitting and getting to the stairwell. I don’t play it over as much as I did, but I think about it—about what I did, what I didn’t do to get everybody out. But I also know that if I could somehow go back, I probably would have done the same thing.”
A FAMILY HOLDS TIGHT
DANIEL BROWN, CHRISTOPHER BROWN, RICH BROWN
World Trade Center Marriott Hotel
Just ten and seven years old on that fateful day, Daniel (at left below) and Christopher Brown (at right below) witnessed the second plane that hit the south tower as they fled the World Trade Center Marriott Hotel with their parents. The brothers had accompanied their father, Rich, on a business trip to New York City and were in their 15th-floor room with their mother, Cathy, when the first plane struck. A younger brother, Tom, then five, watched the events on television from the family’s home state of Virginia and drew this picture (at right).
“My Dad is one of the smartest people in the world. As soon as he figured out that the hotel was evacuating, he goes to the front desk and tells them our room number. They tell him what stairwell we’re coming down, and the moment we get out of the stairwell he meets us right there. That was the biggest thing right there—we were all together.”
—DANIEL (at far left)
“As with any parent, Cathy and I feel like our job is to protect the kids and nurture them, and we felt it in a very primal way that day. That’s our purpose. We held them close that night at the Marriott in Brooklyn [where they found shelter after walking across the Manhattan Bridge] and we said, ‘We will always be here to take care of you.’”
—RICH (father of the brothers)
WARM AND WARY HEARTS
North tower, 72nd floor (in office when plane struck)
North tower, 65th floor (on the 44th-floor sky lobby)
For hours after airplanes struck the World Trade Center, mother Frances Alexander (at left in photo) and her daughter Earlyne (at right in photo), did not know each other’s fate. They worked in the same tower, seven floors apart. The two were reunited that evening in Newark, New Jersey, and now share a house there, along with Earlyne’s two siblings. Frances has not returned to New York City since 9/11.
“I hear everything now, I’m always on guard. You lose your trust. You get on a train and you pray you’ll get to the next stop. I look up often. I see a plane and make sure it’s going to stay up and isn’t coming down. It’s automatic.
“I pray all the time—just let me make it to work and get home. If I can’t get back to my family, I panic. I just need them all around. Getting Earlyne home on September 11 was the best thing because she’s been here ever since.”
—FRANCES (at left in photo)
“We usually volunteer on the anniversary of 9/11, not always at the same place. I love volunteering at God’s Love We Deliver, which delivers food to people who are too sick to cook for themselves. It lets you reflect on the goodness of people, and brings back that feeling we had after 9/11 when everyone was helping each other. People were nice and courteous and bonding; it was a real brotherly-sisterly kind of thing. When you volunteer for great organizations, you can’t help but feel good about that. It also makes it seem like something good has come from that day.”
—EARLYNE (at right in photo)
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JOINING THE SURVIVORS’ CLUB
North tower, 82nd floor (in office when plane struck)
For most of her career and the entire life span of the north tower (1973-2001), Juliette Bergman worked on various floors of One World Trade Center. Her recovery has been a struggle but also a journey marked by the help of others, beginning with two “angels,” as she calls them, who helped her complete her escape down 82 flights of stairs. Afterward she immersed herself in meetings, lectures, and events related to 9/11, often with her husband of 25 years, Brian, a Holocaust survivor. “He went through horrors unspeakable,” she says of him. “So after September 11, he said: ‘Welcome to the survivors’ club.’”
Bergman keeps her clothes from that day, a plaque from her office that was found mangled in the wreckage (at right), a Windows on the World menu, and a collection of WTC postcards and brochures assembled over her 28 years there.
“I loved those buildings. I was asked after the 1993 attack if I was afraid to be working there. My standard reply was no, I’m not afraid, because I’m an analyst and the statistical probability of having another such attack is close to nil. I was very wrong.”
ALIVE BY A FLUKE
North tower, 100th floor (on 78th floor sky lobby when plane struck)
The onetime colleagues at insurance broker Marsh & McLennan would have both been in their 100th-floor offices—just above the airplane strike zone—if not for chance decisions that broke their morning routines. A late football game the night before led Keith Meerholz (at right below) to commute in an hour later than usual; a heavy duffel bag slowed Rich Moller (at left below) enough for him to miss his usual ferry to Manhattan. Both were on the 78th floor waiting for elevators when the jetliner tore through the building.
Recovered from the debris of fallen towers, the duffel bag (upper right) was returned to Moller containing materials from a disaster-recovery conference both men had attended the day before 9/11. Earlier this year they looked through the contents together. It was the first time Meerholz had seen the materials since September 10, 2001.
“I’m not a very lucky person. I play in the football pool for the Super Bowl and I’ll do raffles, that kind of stuff. I never win, but you know what, I saved a lot of luck for that day.
“We all want the grass to be greener but I’ve got it pretty good. At some point you start to think about your job—you don’t make enough money, and you complain a lot. I say look, I have three kids, a wonderful wife, a great home life, and a pretty good job. So anytime people ask, Keith how are you doing? I say, ‘I’m living the dream.’”
—KEITH (at far right)
“On the anniversary of 9/11, I try not to listen to the radio or watch TV—I just don’t want to see it. So for the last nine years now, we’ve gone up to Sussex County in New Jersey. My grandparents had a great place there, and some of my happiest, favorite childhood memories are from up there. We bring our kids to go fishing and have lunch on a little beach on the lake.”
—RICH (at left)
THE PROMISE OF A RING
South tower, 37th floor (saw towers on fire when he emerged from subway station)
Fresh from his honeymoon, Hazem Gamal heard his wedding ring drop as he fled into a toll booth by the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to escape the dust cloud from the crumbling south tower. When he felt it was safe, he opened the booth’s door, slid his foot around in ankle-high dust, and found the ring.
“That cloud was very thick—it went instantly from a bright, beautiful day to completely black, to you-could-not-see-your-hand-in-front-of-you black. It became extremely quiet. That’s why I could hear my ring fall off and hit the street. I didn’t realize I’d lost it until I heard that sound.
“The ring has become more significant, although it’s already a significant symbol of lifelong partnership. I lost it in the midst of all of that, and recovered it in the midst of all of that, so it symbolizes not only our partnership but also how I was able to quickly recover and continue with my life despite that event.”
A BELOVED PURSE
South tower, 90th floor (in office when plane struck)
On 9/11, Denise Rabinowitz and a 75-year-old colleague took the stairs together from their 90th-floor office after the first plane struck the neighboring tower. On floor 78, a landing point for express elevators to the lobby, the colleague said he couldn’t go any farther, so they boarded the next car. It was one of the last to reach to the ground before the second plane struck their building. Rabinowitz attended some 30 funerals of former colleagues.
“I’ve always wondered if I hadn’t taken my pocketbook with me, if I would have gone back for it. A colleague did, and of course she died. I might have done the same because you thought you had five, ten minutes, or thought it’s safer staying here than being outside with the debris crashing down. It’s a question from that day because, like so many women, you feel your life is in your pocketbook.”
BURIED AND REBORN
North tower, 64th-floor office (in stairwell when tower collapsed)
The last survivor pulled from the rubble of the fallen towers, Genelle Guzman-McMillan spent 27 hours buried in the debris, her leg trapped beneath a chunk of concrete. She made a promise that if God let her live, she would turn her life around. Today she is the married mother of three daughters and a stepson and is a devout Christian. Faith healed her, she says, but she still finds it difficult to go to ground zero.
“I used to be just carefree; I thought I was young, invincible. But everything that happened, it’s for a reason. When the building collapsed, I was totally prepared to die. During those 27 hours beneath the rubble I was praying so hard. Not at the beginning, because I didn’t know what to say. I was a little religious because of my Mom, but not totally, so I just started to talk to God. Like, I know I’m going to die, I want to change if you just save me. I’ll be a better person, please just get me out of here. I was just begging for God to show me a sign. Just hear me—just give me a second chance.
“I’ve been married almost ten years now, and it’s been great. We have friends, we go to church, we pray together, and my two little ones—we just try and do the right thing in life. I think that if I’d run out of the building and nothing happened to me, I would have been emotionally wrecked, yes. But I would not have changed my life.”
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