September 20, 2001 I received a call from Crisis Management International, a company in Atlanta with which I am an Associate. They requested that I take an assignment in New York City conducting critical incident stress debriefings with companies in New York. I mulled the request over for two days before agreeing to go. I was not afraid of flying or of being in New York City, but I was afraid of the secondary trauma I might experience. I was already having trouble assimilating what had happened and worried about future attacks. I was also feeling the effects of processing client reactions for half of just about every session since the events of September 11. I wondered how effective I could be since I, too, was struggling. I was also concerned about the effects of my leaving on my clients.
But I am a Jersey girl at heart, having been raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, with family still in New Jersey and New York state. New York City continues to be my stomping ground as it has been since my late teens. On almost every visit home I spend some time enjoying New York City. I love that city and I love New Yorkers. I had to go. I wanted to help the people in my sister state. Many clients voiced support for my going to New York during the two days I mulled over my decision. I canceled and rescheduled all of my clients and spent the next week ministering to the needs of workers housed in office buildings around “ground zero” who survived the mayhem of that day, the pandemonium in the streets, and the chaos since then. Conducting group and individual critical incident stress debriefings, I worked hard using all of my tools to connect and provide relief.
“A little piece of all of us died that day,” Danny lamented. Danny was a young Black/Puerto Rican man age 27, a technician for a utility company who had lived in Manhattan all of his life and would never think of living anywhere else. He came to the debriefing session early boasting that he could get out of work by coming to the session. “Oh, so that’s what you’re after” I ribbed with a mischievous smile. By the next exchange he started to get down to business.
What stood out for Danny on September 11, 2001 was how instantaneous his response to danger had been. His company, housed in a 50-story building three blocks from the World Trade Center, had a beautiful view of the WTC from the floor to ceiling windows on the 27th floor. Seeing the first tower hit, he stood stunned by the window. When the second tower was hit, he and everyone else knew this was no accident. Terrified, waiting for no order to evacuate or no one to release him, Danny acted instinctively (for many, following orders was lethal that day), running down the stairway 27 floors, never stopping until he reached China Town. Finally Danny stopped to catch his breath. Taking a minute to gather himself, Danny suddenly thought, “Oh, my God, my sister is there, a few buildings away from the WTC. I have to go back there.” He was shaking from his core. The last thing he wanted to do was go back there. Everything inside him wanted to keep running until he reached home. But he had to go back. His younger sister was there and he knew she wouldn’t leave without him. Terrified, he ran back towards the WTC amidst the smoke and ash, smell, debris, and fragments of remains to hunt for his sister whom he finally found.
Each time I work with survivors of trauma of any kind, I am awed by the strength of the human spirit, sorrowed by the damage inflicted, lifted by the acts of human kindness which are born from those experiences, the creativity of the human mind in managing the incomprehensible, and the power of the survival instinct.
Danny and I made a deep spiritual connection that day and we talked like soul mates during that hour. He spoke of feeling haunted by the people buried in the rubble and people who are part of the smoke and ash still emanating from the rubble. “Every time I breathe the smoke and the ash from the fires that still burn, I breathe the souls of the people lost. They are a part of me now.” I commented on how poetic his expressions were as he spoke of his experience and asked him if he liked to write. “I write songs,” he said. “Lyrics and music. I’ve wanted to write a song about this but I don’t want to capitalize on this tragedy as I see so many people doing.” “You have a natural talent and a way with words, Danny. Using your talent to express yourself would help you and others so much,” I encouraged. “That is not capitalizing. Write your song. The song will be your gift to New Yorkers you love.”
Whether debriefing groups or debriefing individuals, the experience was profound. I am amazed at how deeply most people were able to talk and what a powerful impact hearing their stories, their feelings had on me. In times of the greatest horror and devastation, the greatest cohesion and intimacy can be born. Despite the fears, pain, and anger many people are pulling together. Our country is ripe for union, yet in this union we must make room for diversity, of color, of ideas, beliefs, and feelings.