A few years ago I read an article which discussed the growing numbers 911 first responders who had developed a variety of diseases, many of them fatal. Not surprisingly, that article and several others emphasized the evasive nature of the city’s response to the growing plague. Now, a few years later the tone of articles about the illness and death that has destroyed the lives of hundreds of first responders is much different. Please read the article here.
These after effects of 911 demonstrates the scope of the tragedy, something that most people are unable to wrap their heads around. In the past few years I’ve become aware that, as with many unimaginable tragedies, people simply don’t want to hear about it. For some of us, there is no choice whether we reflect on 911 or not. While I used to hesitate discussing what happened to me on that day, I have decided that it’s best for everyone if I openly discuss it: On 911 I took the subway to my office, a few blocks south of the World Trade Center. I was turned away by guards at the door of the New York State building where I worked.
I decided to walk home, knowing that something was wrong (this was before the first tower collapsed), not wanting to get stuck in the subway. A co-worker who was scared of being alone in the midst of what was stacking up to be a major horror talked me into taking the subway two stops. After some consideration, I gave in; what could happen in two stops?
I have consigned this experience to the past and to a book I wrote a few years ago. Suffice it to say I spent about half an hour in a subway car in a train that was unable to move forward. I can only assume that while the train moved northward, the first tower collapsed and the transit authority stopped the train.
I made it out. To me the details are unimportant; for thousands of others, their lives were either ended or destroyed. By comparison, my experience was tame. It those other people for which this blog is written. For many years, I felt that it was best that we forget 911, that it would be unfair to burden those whose lives had been untouched with the reminders that dog those of us who can’t forget.
Since then, I have taken stock of the toll of trauma in our country, including those first responders who are suffering with PTSD and life threatening diseases. The experiences of veterans, abused children and spouses have made me realize that we have people in our country, valuable people, who need help. For us to meet this challenge, we will have to at least remember the meaning of incidents like Pearl Harbor and 911. Our use of psychotropic drugs has hit an all-time high and, with the profits benefitting big pharma being an enormous carrot, we risk becoming a society fed and funded by dysfunction. We have a prison system that has doubled in the last forty years. I can see that without intervention there could be a negative effect on our society in the long run if we fail to deal with what can only be called a proliferation of trauma and its ugly aftermath.
What prompted this blog is an article I read about Anthony Yacopino, a policeman who ran a family bereavement center, interviewed family members who had lost loved ones on 911, and, most horrifying, sifted through garbage in a landfill looking for the smallest remains of people who had the misfortune to become part of the mounds of refuse that were created when the towers went down. His life changed when he had his first panic attack which brought him to the hospital. Things didn’t improve; the first attack was followed by others, far worse. In the end he was given a double diagnosis: PTSD and depression, two conditions that are not related and have separate sets of symptoms. You can read about his story here.
What really caught my attention was a statement that Yacopino made that low flying planes “freaked him out”. I was brought back years, to a short exchange with a co-worker. My friend Freddie was only eight years in the US, having moved from the Dominican Republic to get a piece of the American dream. When he ran out of the same building I worked in that morning, bent on getting home to his family, he was caught in the “cloud” as it barreled down Broadway and engulfed him and hundreds of others huddled at the bottom of Manhattan Island hoping to catch a water taxi back to New Jersey.
What Freddie told me weeks later, was that any time he saw the sun just before it went below the horizon, the colors and texture would “remind” him of the day he stood with hundreds of others screaming as the iconic 911 cloud took away his sight for an hour.
If you need a reason to remember an event that took place years ago and may never have affected you, it should be the awareness that there are hundreds of Freddies and Yacopinos all around you. If you have faith or if you just believe in an ethical existence, keep them in mind.