REMEMBERING 9/11. Nearly 3,000 people were killed when hijackers in
Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network rammed four commercial jets
into the trade center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field on
September 11, 2001. Yet an estimated 33,000 or more people successfully
evacuated the stricken buildings. They navigated mountains of smoky
stairs in the World Trade Center’s twin towers or streamed out of a
flaming Pentagon. Some fled an otherworldly dust cloud at ground zero.
Pictured is 9/11 survivor Désirée Bouchat looking at photos at the 9/11
Tribute Museum of those who perished that day. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
From The Asian Reporter, V31, #9 (September 6, 2021), pages 10
Surviving 9/11 was "just the first piece of the
By Jennifer Peltz
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — Trapped deep in the wreckage of the World Trade Center,
Will Jimeno lived through the unthinkable. Twenty years later, he’s
still living with it.
A brace and a quarter-sized divot on his left leg reflect the
injuries that ended his police career, a lifetime dream. He has
post-traumatic stress disorder. He keeps shelves of mementoes, including
a cross and miniature twin towers fashioned from trade center steel. He
was portrayed in a movie and wrote two books about enduring the ordeal.
"It never goes away, for those of us that were there that day," he
Nearly 3,000 people were killed when hijackers in Osama bin Laden’s
al-Qaida terror network rammed four commercial jets into the trade
center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001.
Yet an estimated 33,000 or more people successfully evacuated the
They navigated mountains of smoky stairs in the World Trade Center’s
twin towers or streamed out of a flaming Pentagon. Some fled an
otherworldly dust cloud at ground zero. Others willed their way out of
September 11 survivors bear scars and the weight of unanswerable
questions. Some grapple with their place in a tragedy defined by an
enormous loss of life. They get told to "get over" 9/11. But they also
say they have gained resilience, purpose, appreciation, and resolve.
"One of the things that I learned," Jimeno says, "is to never give
"It’s almost like you’re reborn"
It wasn’t Bruce Stephan’s first incredibly close call.
In 1989, his car got perilously wedged on the San Francisco-Oakland
Bay Bridge when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit and the upper deck
collapsed while he was driving across.
Twelve years later, the engineer and lawyer was settling into his
workday on the 65th floor of the trade center’s north tower when one of
the planes crashed about 30 stories above.
Only after his roughly hourlong walk down the crowded stairs did
Stephan learn that another plane had hit the south tower — the building
where his wife, Joan, also an attorney, worked on the 91st floor. Above
the impact zone.
Unable to reach her by cellphone, Bruce Stephan dashed to a payphone
and called her relatives, who told him she’d gotten out.
Then the south tower fell, and Stephan’s fear spiked anew. Had Joan
been caught in the collapse? Hours later, he finally learned that she
was OK. (At least one other couple, elevator operators Arturo and Carmen
Griffith, also survived; their story inspired a recent film,
Lovebirds of the Twin Towers.)
"My experience from the first disaster was that it’s a strangely
happy moment when you know that you’ve survived," Bruce Stephan says.
"It’s almost like you’re reborn ... to know that you’re alive and that
you still have a shot at life, and here’s your chance to do something."
"When it happened a second time, it’s just like, ‘Oh, my god.’"
After the earthquake, the New York City natives resolved to change
their workaholic lives. After 9/11, they did.
Within two months, the couple moved to Essex, a northern New York
town of roughly 700 people. While telecommuting and sometimes actually
commuting, they made time for other things — church, a book club,
amateur theater, gardening, zoning meetings, a local newsletter. They
cherished a newfound sense of community.
But a work opportunity pulled them back to San Francisco in 2009.
They loved it, until the pandemic made them rethink their lives again.
"One of the things that we discovered as a result of the disasters
was that being in a community ... is maybe the biggest reward you can
have," Stephan, 65, said from their front porch in Essex. They moved
back last year.
"I was a walking zombie"
Désirée Bouchat pauses by one of the inscribed names on the 9/11
memorial: James Patrick Berger. She last saw him on the 101st floor of
the trade center’s south tower.
"Some days, it feels like it happened yesterday," she says.
At first, people figured the plane crash at the north tower was
accidental. There was no immediate evacuation order for the south tower.
But Berger ushered Bouchat and other Aon Corp. colleagues to the
elevators, then turned back to check for more people. Just as Bouchat
exited the south tower, another plane slammed into it. Nearly 180 Aon
workers perished, including Berger.
For a while, Bouchat told everyone, including herself: "I’m fine. I’m
But "I was a walking zombie," she says now.
She couldn’t multitask anymore. Remarks that used to bother her
stirred no reaction. She was functioning, but through a fog that took
more than a year to lift.
Bouchat eventually felt that she needed to talk about 9/11. The
Springfield, New Jersey, resident has now led about 500 tours for the
9/11 Tribute Museum (it’s separate from the larger National September 11
Memorial & Museum).
Bruce Powers has travelled from Alexandria, Virginia, to lead Tribute
Museum tours, too. And every September 11, the 82-year-old repeats his
seven-mile walk home from the Pentagon after the attack that killed 184
people, 10 of whom he knew.
The walk, the tours, and hearing other guides’ personal stories
"serve well in helping me deal with what happened," says Powers, a
now-retired Navy aviation planner.
The public hasn’t fully recognized the losses survivors felt, says
Mary Fetchet, a social worker who lost her son Brad on 9/11 and founded
Voices Center for Resilience, a support and advocacy group for victims’
families, first responders, and survivors. "Although they are still
living, they’re living in a very different way."
"I couldn’t figure out how I got out of there alive"
For a time after 9/11, police department officer Mark DeMarco
replayed the what-ifs in his mind. If he’d gone right instead of left. A
bit earlier. Or later.
"I couldn’t figure out how I got out of there alive," he says.
After helping evacuate the north tower, the Emergency Service Unit
(ESU) officer was surrounded by a maze of debris when parts of the
skyscraper tumbled onto a smaller building where he’d been directed.
Some officers with him were killed.
Barely able to see his own boots with a small flashlight, DeMarco
inched through the ruins with two officers behind him.
Then he took a step and felt nothing underfoot. He looked below and
saw utter darkness.
Only later — after the officers turned around and eventually
clambered through shattered windows to safety — did DeMarco realize he’d
nearly tumbled into a crater carved by the collapse.
Now 68 and retired, DeMarco still wears a wristband with the names of
the 14 ESU members killed that day. He worries that the public memory of
the attacks is fading, that the passage of time has created a false
sense of security.
"Have fun with life. Don’t be afraid," he says. "But be mindful."
"It’s not something to be gotten over"
A tsunami of dust washed over emergency medical technician Guy
Sanders, so thick that it clogged his surgical mask.
The 47-story building at 7 World Trade Center had just collapsed,
about seven hours after the burning towers fell and debris ignited fires
in the smaller high-rise.
A part-time EMS supervisor for a private ambulance company in the
city, Sanders had scrambled to respond from his day job at a Long Island
collections agency. He was en route when the towers collapsed, killing
eight EMA workers, including his colleague Yamel Merino. Sanders went to
funeral after funeral for EMTs, firefighters, and police.
Yet 9/11 only deepened his commitment to EMS. Though it was tricky
financially, he soon went full-time.
"I never wanted to be in a situation where people needed me and I
couldn’t immediately respond," he says.
He still doesn’t. But health problems — including a rare cancer that
the federal government has linked to trade center dust exposure — forced
his 2011 retirement, says Sanders, 62, now living near Orangeburg, South
"You get people telling you, ‘Well, (9/11) happened so long ago. Get
over it.’ But it is a trauma," says Sanders, who joined a first
responders’ and survivors’ support group. "It’s not something to be
gotten over. It’s something to be addressed."
"Surviving is only the first piece of the journey"
Breathing through an oxygen mask in a hospital bed, Wendy Lanski told
herself: "If Osama bin Laden didn’t kill me, I’m not dying of COVID."
Nearly two decades earlier, the health insurance manager escaped the
north tower’s 29th floor and ran, barefoot, through the dust cloud from
the south tower’s collapse. Eleven of her Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield
"The only good thing about surviving a tragedy or a catastrophe of
any kind is: It definitely makes you more resilient," says Lanski, who
was hospitalized with the coronavirus — as was her husband — for two
touch-and-go-weeks in spring 2020.
But "surviving is only the first piece of the journey," says Lanski,
51, of West Orange, New Jersey.
She has the twin towers, "9/11/01," and "survivor" tattooed on her
ankle. But the attacks also left other marks, ones she didn’t choose.
Images and sounds of falling people and panes of glass lodged in her
memory. She was diagnosed in 2006 with sarcoidosis, she said; the
federal government has concluded the inflammatory disease may be linked
to trade center dust. And she has asked herself: "Why am I here and
3,000 people are not?"
Over time, she accepted not knowing.
"But while I’m here, I’ve got to make it count," says Lanski, who has
spoken at schools and travelled to conferences about terror victims.
"I’ve got to make up for 3,000 people who lost their voice."
"It motivates me to live a better life"
Buried in darkness and 20 feet or more of rubble from both towers,
Will Jimeno was ready to die.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department
rookie was in searing pain from a fallen wall pinning his left side.
Fellow officer Dominick Pezzulo had died next to him. Flaming debris had
fallen on Jimeno’s arm and heated the cramped area enough that Pezzulo’s
gun fired, sending a flurry of bullets past Jimeno’s head. He had yelled
for help for hours. He was terribly thirsty.
"If I die today," he remembers thinking, "at least I died trying to
Then Jimeno, who is Catholic, had what he describes as a vision of a
robed man walking toward him, a bottle of water in his hand.
We’re going to get out, he told Sgt. John McLoughlin, who was trapped
It was hours — of pushing back pain, thinking of rescues in past
disasters, talking to keep alert — before they were found and
gruellingly extricated by former U.S. Marines, NYPD officers, a onetime
paramedic, and firefighters as blazes flared and debris shifted and
"If you wanted to picture what hell looked like, this was probably
it," recalls then-NYPD officer Ken Winkler.
Jimeno was freed around 11:00pm, McLoughlin the next morning. Jimeno
underwent surgeries and lengthy rehabilitation.
But he says his psychological recovery was harder. Trivial things
made him lose his temper — fuelled, he now realizes, by anger about the
deaths of colleagues and people rescuers couldn’t help. At times, he
says, he thought of suicide. It took three years and multiple therapists
before he mastered warding off the outbursts.
It has helped to tell his story in talks, in the 2006 Oliver Stone
movie World Trade Center, and in Jimeno’s two newly released
books — the illustrated Immigrant, American, Survivor for
children, and Sunrise Through the Darkness, about coping with
The Colombia-born U.S. Navy veteran hopes that people see in his
story "the resiliency of the human soul, the American spirit," and the
power of good people stepping up in bad times.
September 11 "motivates me to live a better life," says Jimeno, 53,
of Chester, New Jersey. "The way I can honor those we lost and those
that were injured is to live a fruitful life. To be an example to others
that September 11 did not destroy us."
New York City-based AP reporter Jennifer Peltz has covered the
aftermath of 9/11 for more than a decade, including the rebuilding and
memorial efforts at ground zero.
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