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September 11th, 2001, A Personal Memory

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

As sit at my desk and write this Log, the weather outside reminds me of that day in 2001 when everything changed for Americans. It was a cool but brilliantly bright, glittering, morning on September 11, 2001. It was one of those wonderful fall days in New York City that fills everyone with a sense of energy and optimism. It felt great to be alive.

I had to be at my office on the Upper East Side very early that morning. However, the patient who was scheduled for that early session had to cancel and reschedule. This gave me the opportunity to finish some paper work, go to the bank, and get a little breakfast before the main part of the work day began.

I left the office and crossed the street on my way to the bank where I had to make a small cash withdrawal. The faces in the bank were familiar and friendly to me as I had been a customer there for several years. I went up to the bank teller and greeted her but was distracted by the fact that the radio news was on in the bank. The broadcaster seemed to be saying something about an airplane hitting the World Trade Center Tower. I looked at the teller, an older black woman, and asked her what was going on?

In a tearful way she told me it was true, that a jet airliner hit the World Trade Center and she was frightened because she had relatives working there. We wondered how such an accident could have happened and what the casualties might have been. The full disaster had not yet occurred.

I finished the banking business and told her I hoped her family was safe. I then walked across Madison Avenue to go to my favorite breakfast restaurant. As I entered the restaurant my ears were met with more sounds of radio news. Normally, only quiet background music was played there. Everyone sat and listened in stunned silence as the broadcast described the awful fact that both towers of the World Trade Center and been struck by domestic jet airliners and that this was the result of a terrorist attack.

After finishing breakfast and discussing what had happened with other restaurant patrons, I left feeling numb, shocked, and confused. I began to worry about the safety of my family and many of my patients who I knew either worked in the towers or in buildings nearby. There were also many patients and friends I knew who lived in the vicinity of the disaster.

I called home to my wife in Westchester County, far away from the disaster. She was not listening to the news and was in disbelief about the information. She wanted me to come home as soon as possible but I told her I had to wait and could not promise anything.

In fact, the patients scheduled for the remainder of the day informed me that they would not be coming in and advised me to leave Manhattan as soon as possible because city transportation had come to a halt and even cell phone reception was disrupted. After contacting the people I was scheduled to see that day, I decided to leave the city. It was now about one o’clock in the afternoon and information came through that the towers had collapsed. I had to find a way to get to Grand Central Station and see if there were any trains departing for the suburbs. I did manage to hail a taxi cab and arrive at the chaotic scene at Grand Central.

In fact, what had appeared to be chaotic from the taxi was well organized inside the railroad station. Police and station personnel were actively directing people to their trains. As they did this, they informed everyone to not worry about purchasing tickets as the ride was free under these emergency circumstances. People were crammed into the trains in order to get as many out of Manhattan as quickly as possible.

There was a real sense of urgency since no one knew whether or not trains would continue to run. There were deep fears about another terrorist attack, perhaps against bridges connecting Manhattan with the mainland.

For the first time in my life, as a native New Yorker, I was made aware of the harsh fact that Manhattan really is an island and, as such, is very vulnerable to attack. The city I knew and loved for my entire life no longer felt safe and secure. Everything that was formerly taken for granted, such as the ease of travel to and from the city, was forever changed.

The train left the terminal and when we crossed the bridge connecting Manhattan with the Bronx, there was a universal sigh of relief.

It was interesting to me that, except for a few exceptions, no one was talking and there was an eerie silence in the train.

When I reached home, my wife assured me that our entire family was safe. We then watched television news about the tragedy and followed events as information poured in. One thing I could not tolerate and refused to watch was the constant replays of the attacks and the towers collapsing.

My office remained closed for two days as city officials advised people to remain at home until more was known. When I did return to the city and to my office, I was aware of the fact that everything felt different to me. I drove into the city and saw police and military forces at the bridges. Trucks were being stopped and searched as the news reported that there could be further attacks from the ground.

As I met with my patients that day and for long afterward, many sessions were taken up with personal feelings of fear, vulnerability and the wish to escape the city to some safe place elsewhere in the nation. As a therapist, a mental health practitioner, I knew that people were responding to trauma. But, on a personal level it annoyed me that I harbored some of the same fears. The enemy, the terrorists, had gotten to me. That is why, in defiance of my own fears and of the terrorists, my wife and I kept the tickets we had bought for a trip to France and did go.

Several years later we moved to Colorado, where our children were living. I had many explanations, mostly to myself, for why we left New York but, despite all, I knew that there was a lingering fear underlying the decision to move.

Before I left the city, I had the opportunity to work with a number of people who were suffering from PTSD as a result of 9/11. Some of those individuals witnessed the attack from office windows near the twin towers. In one case I worked with someone who survived the attack by being helped out of the towers by a fireman before the collapse.

That day, 9/11, is etched in my memory forever. Even though I was not in or too near the towers, I had been to the wonderful roof top restaurant, Windows on the World. I learned that many of the personnel who had served us perished on that awful day.

More than anything, I continue to puzzle over the question: WHY? I know the facts and I understand the history, but it is still unsatisfying. I am left with the question, as are others: WHY?

What do you remember of 9/11 and what were your experiences? Your comments are welcome.

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