* NOTE: A word about 9/11 Imposter Tania Head (Posted: Oct. 1, 2007)
In September, 2005, I experienced five intense days in New York City with the World Trade Center 9/11 survivors network participating with them in activities and events focusing on the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The WTC Survivors Network is a marvelous example of what people can do on their own to cope, help each other, and recover from extreme loss and pain. My activities with them began with being on a late night radio show with tower survivor Elia Zedano. Her sharing of how the WTC attack affected her is a story of the long, heroic, inner journey from denial, to breakdown, to growth.
On September 9th, I went with tower survivor Tania Head to the official opening of the new Tribute Center across the street from what is called "Ground Zero." Tania has had extreme loss and pain to deal with. She was badly burned by the burning fuel, when a plane hit a floor above her, she saw some of her co-workers die in the flames, and her fiancee was killed in the other tower.
Tania has always focused on helping others cope with the effects of that day, and is modest about her helpfulness. At the Tribute Center (a small "war zone" looking store not being restored from the pulverizing blast of the tower collapse acrosss the street), I watched as Tania was ushered up front to meet with New York Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Each of them spoke eloquently to the small private gathering about the need for the New York City story to be told. Then Tania was introduced as the first volunteer guide who would be taking visitors on tours of the WTC site. Tania led the way outside and gave the first tour to the governor and two mayors--while tightly surrounded by hordes of television reporters and cameras. Tania, a short woman, did very well being pressed in from all sides and having New York's three most powerful politicians leaning down, listening attentively to her.
Later, after most people had left, she and I stood at the edge of the WTC site and I asked her how it felt being the center of so much attention. As she was talking, a well known New York Channel 4 TV personality walked up to us. He thrust a mike in Tania's face and asked in a demanding way, "What floor were you on?"
His abrupt, insensitive, intrusion was more than Tania could handle after so many hours of pressure. She felt a rush of emotions. She dashed away with a friend to get away from him. He stood watching her disappear behind the ground zero viewing shack with a puzzled look on his face. His attitude and way with her made me think that this guy was probably the role model for Will Ferrell in the movie Anchorman.
This is the sort of thing that survivors encounter. That evening we discussed this and many difficult challenges that survivors face during a session I conducted on "Becoming a Resilient Survivor."
At the session, held in a health support center sponsored by St. Vincent's Church, I expressed my appreciation for being invited to participate in their schedule of events. I told them about how I heard mayor Giuliani validate my main message in his talk that morning at the Tribute Center. Giuliani spoke from his heart about the tragedy of the 9/11 attack and the courage of all the firefighters and first responders who lost their lives trying to get everyone out of the buildings. He talked about the immediate response of the search and rescue workers working in dangerous conditions and the thousands of volunteers who rushed in to help. Then he said "September 11, 2001, was the worst day in New York City's history and it was the greatest day in New York City's history."
I asked the group if they could relate in the same way at a personal level. "Is one of the worst experience of your life also one of your greatest experiences? Have you discovered that we humans can have two completely different, contrasting, sets of feelings about the same experience? That we can assimilate an extreme experience that we've gone through into our larger, personal life story and have two sets of feelings about the experience?" Our two hour session went for three and a half hours. Some awesome survivors spoke about how they chose to turn their lives around and now have lives much better than before.
On Saturday, the 10th, Elia Zedeño and Peter Miller took me with them to attend a special panel discussion in New Jersey about the effects of the 9/11 attacks on people in New Jersey. Like many 9/11 survivors, Elia and Peter are New Jersey residents. They have put in many hours organizing the WTC survivors network, making certain to include survivors and families of victims in New Jersey. Many of the almost 3000 people killed on 9/11 lived in Newark and other New Jersey communities. During the panel presentations I heard about one small neighborhood that lost seven people.
The panel included Elia, a former New York City police lieutenant who has now become a pediatrics nurse, and the brother of a man who died in the attack. Every person's story is unique to them. Every person is affected in different ways. Every person's path to healing and assimilating their experience is different. This is why it is so important to be a compassionate listener, without making assumptions or volunteering personal or political views to survivors.
On Sunday morning, the 11th, I walked over to the WTC site with Tania, Elia, Peter, and a few others. We had passes to admit us through tight police security into the ceremony area reserved for families of victims, survivors, co-workers of victims, and invited guests. Red Cross workers passed out bottles of water and packets of tissues as we entered. It was a warm, sunny morning, not unlike the morning of the attacks on the towers. Several thousand quiet, somber people stood in a mass in an enclosure at street level facing an elevated platform constructed for this event. Some people held up laminated pictures of their lost one. Many family groups and friends of a victim wore special T-shirts with the victim's name, and a statement such as "Gone, but never forgotten." A few were so overcome with grief they sobbed and needed to be held. Most distressing to me was seeing the crushing pain in older people--the parents of victims.
The ceremony at ground zero was organized to have every WTC victim's name read out loud--including the names of the passengers and crews on the two hijacked airplanes. The names were read alphabetically by alternating teams of siblings of the victims. Each pair of siblings would step forward, read a few names, and then state the name of their brother or sister. Many of them expressed their personal grief or made statements about their loved one. Every few minutes a fire commander rang a muffled fire bell mounted on the platform, to signal a few moments of silence. This was followed by a short statement by a noted person or a short musical piece.
The Sunday event included giving everyone an opportunity to walk down the long access ramp into the dusty ground-zero area. Volunteers passed out handfuls of red and yellow long-stemmed roses to everyone. Down below, two square pools of water had been built, one over each of the two tower sites. The pools were about one foot high, twelve feet square, and had wide wooden edges. It was a place for quiet meditation and reflection. Each of us could stay as along as we wished. Several people had brought lawn chairs so they could sit and stay as along as possible at the place where their loved one had died. Most people would toss their rose into the pool before leaving to walk back up the ramp. A few people wrote messages on the wood. Others left notes and pictures leaning against the pools.
About every thirty minutes a long line of people in uniforms would walk down the ramp and take up stations around the outside edge of the ground zero area--replacing the group that had been standing there. These groups of police, firefighters, emergency workers, and others had all come to lend their presence to the ceremonies. As I looked around I saw a line of English Bobbies standing at parade rest while up above looking down into ground zero. They were standing at the edge of the street where the Tribute Center had been opened on Friday. I learned later that 253 Bobbies had flown over from England to be present during the reading of the names. They all volunteered to make the trip, selected from every police unit in Britain.
The Survivors Network held an open house, with a buffet lunch, at the nearby St. Patrick's church. We talked about how the day affected us and met people who heard about the lunch. One man, Yuri, didn't know about the group or the lunch. He said he came back to the church every year because he'd passed out near the church while running away from the collapsing towers and was carried inside by two policemen.
I heard of story after story of volunteers coming from far away to help with dealing with the emergency. Paramedics drove in from surrounding states to help search for people needing medical attention. Managers of nearby buildings opened their doors to provide food and resting places for rescue workers. Steel workers rushed down with their tools and torches to cut through the twisted steel girders to try to find survivors. A massage therapist set up her portable table in a church and worked hour after hour giving free massages to grimy, dusty, rescue workers.
I feel deeply appreciative of the many survivors I met and spoke with. These are ordinary people who had gone to work one morning to do their usual jobs, but by noon had been thrown into an extreme, life-disrupting survival challenge far beyond what they'd ever known before. These are survivors whose lives are now divided into "before" and "after," and they are working to make "after" a new, good life for themselves and others.