IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was 12 Years Old and a Few Hundred Feet Away When the Twin Towers Fell on 9/11

I was covered in debris and trying to identify — and at the same time un-hear — sounds you could never begin to imagine.
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Publish date:
September 8, 2016
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Tags:
childhood, ptsd, trauma, new york city, Disasters, September 11

Over the past 15 years, a few terms have been coined for my age group that you may be familiar with. One of the most popular is "The 9/11 Generation." The term is meant as a catchall for millennials from around the country who were in school on September 11, 2001.

Members of this generation have been interviewed and have penned essays about how that day has shaped not only them but the world they live in, their outlook on life, optimistic or pessimistic, recounting where they were (most likely in class) when they heard the news and were sent home early.

There is no arguing that for children across the country, on that day, everything changed. The modern age of terror had officially begun, and, to this day, everyone you ask will be able to explain where they were, or who they knew, or how life was altered. Their father was a pilot or a fireman, or their mom was flying somewhere that morning, or their cousin lived in New York, or Washington, or Pennsylvania.

To have actually survived 9/11 as a child is to be in a very, very small minority within this generation, and our stories have not been as widely told.

After the first plane hit the World Trade Center, the students of I.S. 89 middle school, about three city blocks and across the street, were led down to the cafeteria, not sure what exactly they were waiting for, speculating. Some kids had working radios on their portable CD players.

When the bomb squad burst through the doors along with droves of hysterical parents crying and screaming, I knew my parents wouldn't be among them — they were still at their far-away jobs.

I did see Ann and her son, Charles, the neighbors I walked to school with every day. I instinctively hustled over to them, knowing they could get me home so I wouldn't have to evacuate to wherever the other kids were going, so I could get to not only my apartment where my parents would return to, but to my grandparents, who lived in the same building.

The majority of the student body was evacuated uptown, out of harm's way — at least, they hoped so — up the West Side Highway. A few kids tried to get to their homes a few blocks away on the west side of Manhattan, in neighborhoods like Tribeca and Battery Park City — and those children experienced waking nightmares of their own.

Ann, Charles, and I had one objective: to get home, to the east side, on the other side of the towers, and we had no idea what we were about to enter into as we pushed open the school's double doors.

Outside the school building, the burning smell instantly stung our eyes and our nostrils as the towers spewed pieces of iron, paper, and people.

People.

The crowds were almost impossible to move through, and when we did, we were met with police refusing to let us through, directing us uptown only.

Soon, we were running from a giant cloud of smoke and debris that Ann told us not to look at.

"Just cover your faces, don't look back, and run!"

It was echoed by other people shouting, "Run for your life" and "Oh my god!"

The scene for the next hour as we tried every possible way into our own neighborhood was the stuff that nightmares are made of. Bleeding bodies. People covered in debris. Piercing, blood-curdling screams and cries. People jumping. People running. People vomiting.

My mind periodically shut on and off as I tried to take it all in, crying and not realizing I was crying, nauseated and coughing and thinking, This is how I'm going to die. I'll never see my parents again.

I was covered in debris and kept forgetting to pull my shirt over my face to protect it as we spent an hour navigating through the horror. So close to getting home, each time, and yet unable to get past police. Watching the world explode into chaos, running, covered in debris and trying to identify — and at the same time un-hear — sounds you could never begin to imagine.

Eventually, after both towers had collapsed and I still had no idea what was happening or what had happened, we found a way in.

We made it home.

The elevators were out, and so was the electricity in the lobby. My grandmother kissed my head, grateful to find me alive. The phones stayed on long enough for me to let both of my parents know I was OK.

A few hours later, after staring out the windows at nothing but black smoke, my mother finally made it home.

Shortly after that, the power cut out entirely.

We knew we had to try and get in touch with my father. My mother and I grabbed our pink bath towels and wrapped them around our faces and our heads, so that only our eyes were peeking out. When we emerged from the lobby, the streets were empty. The front-desk employees had gone. Security was gone. We stood in the tornado of ash that still blew down our street, the only two people on the entire block.

What was left of the towers was still on fire.

Why isn't anyone around? Where are the police? The firemen? The medical workers?

There was nothing but white and darkness at once — the sky black, the air white. We stood in this blizzard, holding fabric over our faces, but it didn't do any good; the wind whipped the dirt into our nostrils, mouths, and ears.

The smell was acrid, musty, suffocating.

The pay phone miraculously worked long enough for us to call my father, who told us that the Verrazano Bridge was closed and he wouldn't be able to get home.

"The police keep insisting that you've all been evacuated and brought to holding shelters," he said.

How could the police have told everyone we had all been evacuated when we hadn't been?

That's why nobody's here.

I looked through partially shielded eyes at the silhouettes of steel that still resembled buildings. The skeleton of the World Trade Center was still partially intact but caving in and crumbling by the minute. They were still on fire, floors upon floors all ablaze.

Half of our apartment complex had left, but many of us could not. We were alone, in the way that hundreds of people in individual apartments can be alone, scattered behind close doors — senior citizens, asthmatics, handicapped people, children, infants, alone and yet together as the fires continued to burn.

Our neighborhood had become a war zone.

As days turned into weeks, we only had the food and medication my father helped coordinate from hospital across the street because nobody was allowed into the neighborhood — first not below 14th Street, then not below Canal.

There were more threats of collapsing buildings, bomb scares on nearby landmarks, and instructions to pack an emergency bag and have the whole family ready to leave on a split second's notice — without having any idea where we would go. I had nightmares every night for weeks. I instinctively ducked and started crying at the sound of planes overhead.

At the end of two weeks of no school, my mother got the call that it was time to "go back" at a new location farther uptown, a few blocks beyond the official barrier between what counted as "uptown" and "downtown."

It was "time to get back to normal."

But there was no more normal.

Even though I was only 12, I started to internalize that nothing would ever feel safe again, that I would have to constantly be on the lookout for threats, to protect myself and my family. That became part of my personality — a protective instinct that would go horribly awry when it spread to my relationships and the way I experienced the world around me, especially after I got to high school.

I wanted to be normal. I wanted what other teenagers had. I didn't want everything to shake and rattle and scare or depress me. I wanted first love and friends and to feel carefree and silly at some sort of party or dance.

But my inner world continued to spiral out of control.

I went from one therapist to the next, followed by a psychiatrist and a psychologist, slapped with one DSM diagnosis after the other — which, as it turns out, is not as uncommon as you'd think. As a young person trying to find the words to describe what the hell was happening to me, desperate for the relief of a name and a fix and a better life, I trusted them to help me. To their credit, I'm sure they all thought they were. They had the medical degrees, not me or my mom, who kept insisting I wasn't bipolar and threw a fit every time I tried a new prescription and threw it up because my body couldn't handle it, and the ones that it could handle didn't change a thing.

While nobody ever "meets" your past on the outside, in a way, they do. They meet you, as you appear, as you present yourself, and as you subconsciously present yourself in ways you might never be aware of. Trauma is invisible to others and all-consuming to us.

I didn't give up hope that someone would be able to help me, to find a label and a medication that would make me normal, calm, happy, or, at the very least, make me stop experiencing the world in such a twisted, depressing, and horrific way that with each passing day suicide started to look like the only relief I would get if I ever went through with it. I just wanted to sleep at night, find something to make the flashbacks go away, quell the social anxiety, quiet the paranoid fear that everyone was plotting against me or going to hurt me, give me a peaceful subway ride, feel safe enough to venture out into the world on a trip abroad with the rest of the high school or away to college to explore who I was. Those were choices other kids got to make. Not me.

In 2009, as I neared desperation in college, something finally clicked: a psychologist suggested cognitive behavioral therapy, which turned into work with a dialectical behavioral therapist, all of it leading to one diagnosis that finally made sense: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

After that came sobriety, then emotional sobriety, and the ability to create a life and a whole person where there once had been nothing but the drive to survive.

My trauma may have been one of the most significant global news stories in human history, but how many stories of trauma never make headlines?

Living with an alcoholic mother, an abusive father, or being abandoned by a parent or experiencing the sudden death of another, living in a neighborhood wrought with violence, or natural disasters, or living through your own medical trauma, or an accident, or a fire, or a sexual assault, or mass shooting, watching someone or something else get hurt, or killed, or tortured.

Statistically, 70 percent of American adults have experienced some kind of traumatic event once or more in their lives. That's about 224 million people, at least, that we know of. And women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD — about one out of every nine of us will.

I penned the most difficult parts of my life into a memoir in hopes that my story gives life to a set of numbers that may, by now, have become nothing but a political agenda, or a tasteless joke, or a signal to avoid certain channels for a few days.

Above all, I hope it helps you realize that if you know something inside of you feels broken and has stayed broken, that it is never, ever too late to put yourself back together.