9/11/01: If you don’t remember, you forget
7 years 364 days 23 hours 19 minutes and 20 seconds before I started this post American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. By the time I post it it will be more than 8 years ago. A long time. And nothing. If you don’t take time to remember, you forget.
I had a patient until 10, and then another appointment at 10:10. I had gotten off the subway around 9 AM at 7th and 12th St. There was already a scar on the North Tower. People were starting to gather on corners to stare. By the time I walked across 12th St. to 6th and looked down the avenue there was smoke and fire coming out of the second tower. People started saying it must be an attack, not an accident: especially in crises, we’re NY-ers.
As that first session finished, my patient and I feel things rumble and shake. Palpable relief, must be helicopters and planes flying to the rescue–sometimes hope is ubiquitous in psychotherapy. My next patient comes in and says a tower fell down. What?!?! I leave her sitting in my office frantically calling her friend who works at the WTC, her friend ran late that morning and was OK. I run to the corner and see sky. At 10:30 when the ground rumbled we both knew what had happened.
It’s now 11:15 or so. My wife and family are all safe. All appointments cancelled. The radio carries a request from the Red Cross for mental-health professional volunteers. I start trekking uptown to 64th Street. I know its more than 50 blocks but I had to do something. 6th Ave. has few cars, many sooty people slowly walking north. I see a cab driver sitting by the curb. I tell him I’m a doctor and have to go to 64th Street to volunteer for the Red Cross. He says get in. He left the meter off and wouldn’t take any money.
Several hours later I’m on Pier 94, one of three professionals with several dozen Red Cross volunteers. We were assigned to what is supposed to be the secondary morgue. My job was to do mental health triage. When relatives and friends walked from the waiting area to the morgue to identify remains, I was to accompany them along with a couple of volunteers just in case there was trouble. We were told what to do. We set up the walkways. We waited. We drank bottles of iced tea. We waited some more. We eventually realized the unimaginable horror of the day, there would be no remains. At 9:30 PM, we were sent home.
By Friday I’m back in the office. I’m sitting with a young pregnant woman I had only known by name. I knew they married, but he stopped seeing me before they decided to start a family. A budding family man already hard at work at his desk when the planes hit. We cried together and I told her to surround herself with family and friends, she didn’t need treatment, she needed love and time. I got a Xmas card and then a birth announcement.
That weekend several colleagues and I setup an online database to register mental and behavioral health clinicians who wanted to volunteer. We registered over 2,000 licensed professionals. We sent along hundreds of names. One request came from St. Paul’s at Ground Zero. They wanted a mental health presence at their relief station. I submitted my name. Wearing a hard-hat, paper mask, and gloves I walked around Ground Zero with ministry students giving bottles of water, Red Bull, and chewing gum to first-responders working the pile. Every few minutes everyone stood respectively still while remains were removed. Life is cherished when it gets taken away.
I met Janet Bachant that night, another psychologist volunteering like I had. She had already started NYDCC (the New York Disaster Counseling Coalition). Her vision was free mental and behavioral health services for all first-responders and their family. They helped us, no questions. Now it was our turn. I joined the Board. But firefighters, cops, EMS workers are helpers, they don’t ask for help even when they need it. So, we went to them. For 6 years, until people started forgetting to remember and funding dried up, we reached thousands and thousands of first-responders and their families. We arranged for free, confidential treatment for PTSD, depression, anxiety, and the like. We did resilience and relationship training, helped with retirement planning. But we also helped ourselves; when you’re feeling helpless, the best thing to do is help someone.
Taking time to remember is the only way not to forget.