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World Trade Center 9/11 Survivors

Update, September 2006

by Al Siebert, PhD, Director, The Resiliency Center

Saturday morning of my annual trip to New York City to be with World Trade Center 9/11 tower survivors, I was invited to go on a remembrance walk. We started in Battery Park in lower Manhattan. We met near "The Sphere," a famous Fritz Koenig sculpture that was recovered from the plaza of the WTC in badly damaged condition and relocated to Battery Park. You can see quot;before and after" pictures of The Sphere and current shots of Ground Zero here: http://www.earthcam.com/usa/newyork/groundzero/)

We walked to a Fire Fighters memorial wall, a huge brass casting mounted on the outside of the fire station directly across from ground zero. Over 20 feet in length, the casting is a panoramic scene of firefighters at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Underneath the panel are the names of every firefighter killed that day. The names are inscribed to allow for rubbings to be made, and a box with large white papers and pencils was provided all during the weekend.

We walked to a nearby NYPD police station to hear comments from a NYPD police officer, and to the new Tribute Center, a small museum that is being opened. We visited St. Paul's Chapel, the historic old church known for having a pew where George Washington sat when he attended services. The church, only a block away from Ground Zero, escaped the damage done to every other building in the area. A huge sycamore tree on the grounds was toppled by a massive chunk of concrete, but the church did not have even one window broken. More importantly, it was a place where exhausted rescue workers could come at any time to get a hot meal and have a cot or small mattress to sleep on.

We walked around Ground Zero, the huge deep pit where construction of a new building is about to begin. At each place a survivor spoke about the effect of 9/11/01 on them and the meaning they've found in the aftermath of what they survived. At the viewpoint for seeing the Vesey Street stairway, the last remnant of the WTC, one man spoke about not seeing himself as a 9/11 survivor, but as a being a victor over evil.

In the afternoon I was in a small group taken on a Ground Zero tour by a 9/11 tower survivor who is one of the volunteer tour guides at the Tribute Center. She said she is willing to re-experience the deep, distressing pain of that day and tell her personal story during each tour to make certain that the story about that day is told accurately.

Pool of Eleven Tears AmEx employee memorial to 9-11

We ended our private tour at the Pool of Tears in the lobby of the rebuilt American Express World Financial Center Building. The shallow, eleven-sided pool, made of black marble, had the names of eleven AmEx employees killed on 9/11. Suspended in a harness several inches over the surface of the water is a huge crystal polished to be eleven-sided. From high above, tiny drops of water drip into the pool from eleven tiny outlets. As we sat reflecting on our private thoughts and feelings, one of the men on the tour, Antionio Aversano, said that his father was killed in the WTC on 9/11 and he'd like to honor his father's spirit by playing his flute. Antonio took a wooden recorder from his shoulder bag. The slow, mournful notes he played reverberated in the huge atrium of the lobby in a way that penetrated deeply into our senses.

I saw two differences this year. First, was experiencing the healing and emotional recovery taking place in WTC survivors. The ones I know are assimilating what they went through into their identities in very healthy ways. I can feel them becoming stronger and more outwardly alive than when I first met them. (See: http://www.survivorsnet.org)

Second, was to experience the many impressive ways that the events and effects of 9/11 are now being expressed in works of art and in a wide variety of activities organized by many groups. For example, in the conference center at the Marriott hotel, I saw a huge, beautiful wall hanging honoring every person killed in the four airplanes hijacked by the terrorists on 9/11. The piece is over fifty feet long and about eight feet high. Underneath a silhouette of each plane are rows of small, oval pictures of each person on that flight that day. It's a powerful memorial to them.

On Sunday morning, Sept. 10, I spoke at the "Voices of September 11" forum on "Strengthening Survivor Resiliency." The Voices group was founded by Mary Fetchet, who lost her son on 9/11. She is an amazing organizer, networker, and resource provider. One of the main points I made in my talk is that the resiliency of New Yorkers has served as a wake-up call to psychotherapists who swarmed into the city to offer free counseling and critical incident debriefing. The therapists were puzzled because almost no one came for the free trauma recovery help being offered. Follow-up studies by New York based clinicians have started appearing in the psychiatric and psychological literature reporting that "people are more resilient than we've been giving them credit for."

In my talk I praised New Yorkers for being so resilient they have triggered a long over due paradigm shift in the mental health professions. New Yorkers have forced psychiatrists and clinical psychologists to rethink their assumption that everyone who survives a horrifying, acutely distressing, experience must be emotionally traumatized. As stated recently about New Yorkers by one psychiatrist, "Good adaptation should be considered the norm. Resilience is common....Dramatizing, pathologizing, or catastrophizing the traumatic event can undermine resiliency from the start, as can negative expectations about outcome." (Psychiatric News, August, 18, 2006, p. 20) My talk was videorecorded. If I can obtain it on DVD, let me know if you'd like to have a copy.

The remembrance ceremonies at Ground Zero on Monday morning, September 11, followed the traditional form. Relatives of victims and first responders killed in the towers on 9/11 took turns reading the names of all 2973 people who died that day. The crowd was mostly families and friends of those killed, and many uniformed police and fire fighters. Many of the families wore shirts or carried placards with a picture of their lost one and usually stated "Gone, but not forgotten." The most deeply grieving mourners were older people, parents and grandparents of those who died.

The event was arranged so that anyone could walk down the long ramp to the bottom of the pit. Every ten feet down the ramp and inside the pit was someone in uniform, quickly available if anyone should need help (and probably to prevent any demonstrations from taking place.) Red Cross volunteers handed out thousands of long-stemmed roses (de-thorned), along with bottles of water and small packs of tissues. Down in the pit, two temporary, shallow reflection pools were set up in the "footprint" of each of the two towers. People could stay as long as they wished. Most would toss their roses into the pool before leaving. A few people wrote personal messages on the wide edges of the pool.

I feel privileged to be invited to be part of these experiences and am curious about what will be emerging in the years ahead. I'm also curious about how the tragedy of 9/11 has affected you as a person. Have you been changed in any way?

With best regards,

Al Siebert


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