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Amazing stories: The air, the island and the fortress
By Jennifer Simmons
It's hard to find to anyone who hasn't been affected by the disaster that occurred when hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and into the ground in Somerset County, Pa. Whether you know someone who is now missing in the chaos or you share in America's grief from afar, you have been touched by tragedy.
By now, the images are familiar -- the sight of the planes hitting the Twin Towers, the billowing smoke from the chasm in the nation's security center and the crater in the countryside outside of Pittsburgh. And we can recall the stories -- the phone calls from the planes talking about love and heroism; the person who only went to the World Trade Center a few times a year for meetings but was there that day; or the person who should have been there but decided at the last minute to change their plans.
For each of the approximately 6,000 people missing or dead, and for every person they knew in their life, there is a story. The stories you are about to read are probably familiar by now, but they are worth repeating if only to show that there are many more people alive to do the telling, grieving and remembering.
Terror in the air
American Counseling Association President Jane Goodman was taking the one mode of transportation no one in America wanted to be on after the attack on Sept. 11. She'd been in Scotland for the past week attending the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy meeting and was on her way back across the Atlantic on a commercial airplane when the captain made a cryptic announcement.
"It was about two hours before we were supposed to land in Detroit when the captain announced that the plane could not land at the airport and was being rerouted to Canada," Goodman said. "Then he said, `I can't tell you anything else,' and that was it. Obviously, we knew it wasn't about weather because there's no reason not to tell passengers about a storm. So we figured it was either a crash or someone had gotten through security at the airport and everything was being delayed.
"When we got on the ground in Toronto, the captain came back on the intercom and said, `I have some very bad news for you. America is under attack.' That was the first thing he said, `America is under attack.' We had no idea what that meant. Were people being bombed? And then he told us everything he knew so far about the Trade Center and the Pentagon, which wasn't a lot. Basically, we didn't know everything until much later.
"As we got off the plane, they did a search of every passenger, three at a time, with someone with a machine gun standing and watching. It was really quiet. We hung around at the Toronto airport until we finally got buses to take us back to Detroit. On the bus there were 50 people representing 11 different countries. We couldn't cross the bridge, so we had to take the tunnel where, before entering, there was another extensive search. They took each and every bag out and searched us again. The people of Arab ethnicity were searched longer than the rest of us. It was 15 minutes after we were done that they came back on the bus and we could continue into the United States. At this time, we were still getting fragmentary reports of what happened and it was very disturbing to us because of the added fact that we were in the air at the time. It could have been us.
"I just felt this helpless kind of hope that our kids figured out that it wasn't us. By that time, (our children) had already found out what flights had been hijacked, but they weren't able to relax until we got to call them."
At the time of this interview, Goodman was operating on only four hours of sleep. She reached her home at 4 a.m. and was already doing interviews with the press about how counselors could help in this time of need. And while trying to help others, Goodman realized that she still had not yet had time to process what had happened.
"There's just still -- I don't think I've taken it all in. It seems unreal. I haven't even cried except for when I saw the members of Congress singing `God Bless America.'"
A view of the Towers
Lisa Torres is the treasury assistant for the Gould Paper Corporation where she has worked for more than two years. She works in a high-rise in downtown Manhattan less than a mile away from what is now called "ground zero" -- the former site of the World Trade Center. Before Sept. 11, she had a clear view of New York's landmark Twin Towers. Now, that space stands empty.
"I was sitting at my desk when a co-worker of mine came running by and said a plane had crashed into the first tower," Torres said. "So I ran into the office to see it and someone put the TV on. They were saying that it was a possible plane crash, but at the time, we still didn't know what had happened.
"As it hit the news, more people came to the window and were glancing at the TV and listening to what they were saying. Then we saw the explosion of the second plane. Everyone started screaming (in the office). At first we thought it was a second explosion from the first building, but when we looked to the news, we saw the plane hit. Everyone sat down, stunned. We just couldn't believe it. We stayed that way for the next half hour, just watching the news, looking out the window and trying to find out what was going on. I remember someone asking if it was it small airplane and hearing, `No, it was a huge commuter flight.'
"And then someone screamed. Everyone turned to the windows and that's when the first building collapsed. I mean, we don't assume that these buildings are going to fall - ever. (As it collapsed,) we saw a series of explosions going down the building and then it was nothing but smoke. You couldn't see a thing and then, as the smoke started to clear, we saw the second building collapse.
"Before the first collapse, we actually saw people jump from the building. We were just screaming, wondering if we should leave the building, but people were telling us to stay in because that was the safest place to be because the air quality was so bad. My building is owned by Credit Swiss First Boston and they had a few floors there at the World Trade Center, so workers who had escaped were coming here. We'd go downstairs and see people covered in debris and bleeding. There were about 700 of their people missing. They closed my office down almost immediately, but we were stuck here because the roads were closed. I was stuck here until 4 p.m."
Three days after the attack, her building was evacuated a second time, but it was not a bomb scare like the one that led to the evacuation of The Empire State Building.
"We found out later that it was someone trying to get on the intercom to announce five minutes of silence, but they pressed the wrong button," Torres said, laughing nervously. "You can laugh about it now, but at the time . . ."
Torres says her work commute has become "a little frightening." Every time she steps onto the subway to come to work, she says she holds her breath with everyone else and makes herself take that first step onto the train. In addition, the mood of New York has changed.
"The city's very quiet now. It's not so hustle-and-bustle anymore. It's just starting to get back on track. All of (the days after attack) it was eerie. The further south you'd go, the quieter it got."
People have asked Torres if she would consider looking for a job outside of Manhattan, but she says she doesn't think she'd make the switch.
"You want to keep going and doing things in the city just to prove to yourself that you can," she said. "Otherwise, it's letting (the terrorists) win."
And while a sense of safety is the No. 1 concern with Torres and many of the people she knows in New York, she doesn't believe those who are keenly feeling the effects of the attack would go for counseling -- at least not yet.
"A lot of the hospitals in the area have offered counseling services for free," she said. "I think there are a lot of people who would go to seek counseling, but I think we don't go because we feel like we should save it for the people who actually went through it and were in the buildings. So we get together in groups to talk about it and that helps. But you feel guilty by saying `thank God' for someone who you knew was there and got out, or was supposed to be there and wasn't, when you know that there are 6,000 people who lost their lives."
Tony Terronez was getting ready for work at The National Theater in downtown Washing-ton, D.C. when he saw the news showing Tower 2 of the World Trade Center on fire. As the events of the morning unfolded, he either watched or listened on the radio to the news of the attack. Because he was not going to his usual job where he is the assistant treasurer for the Eisenhower and Terrace Theaters at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, he would have to drive past the Pentagon and he was running late.
"The whole time I was thinking I was going to be late for work because I have to drive past the Pentagon on Washington Boulevard, and I knew they would try to do something like shut down the roads or maybe restrict a lane for security reasons," Terronez said. "But I was just like, `Let's go there and see what happens, and if I get stuck in traffic, no big deal.'
"I was listening to a lot of the coverage on the radio, and as soon as I got off on Washington Boulevard toward the Pentagon, sure enough there was traffic. I just kept inching forward and as time went by, I heard the reports on the radio saying that it was a plane. It was a terrorist attack. And I heard President (George W. Bush) go on the air and do his speech about the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings and, of course, we're inching closer to the Pentagon. And at that point I kept trying to call my boss at the National Theater to let him know I was stuck in traffic by the Pentagon. It was a beautiful day, too. Not too hot, just cool and sunny and I had my windows down.
"Around 9:40 a.m. I reached the heliport area (beside the Pentagon) and was just listening to more of the testimonials on the radio. And this whole time it didn't even connect that right next to me was a possible target. You think to yourself, `That's New York all the way up there and, we're here.' You would think that the terrorists were done.
"So I got about 100 yards or so past the heliport and then all of the sudden I heard this loud screeching sound that just came out of nowhere and it intensified. This huge WHOOSH! And something made me look in my rearview mirror and by the time I looked up I saw the side of the Pentagon explode.
"I was stunned. It was just so surreal, like something out of a movie, like `Die Hard.' The side of a building just exploded! As the fireball got higher and higher, you saw this debris go up in the air. I'm watching this in my rearview mirror, and then I thought, `Oh my God, there's debris coming toward me!' So my reaction was, I ducked into my passenger seat and I heard the pitter-patter of pebbles and concrete bouncing off my car. And the next thing you know, I heard this big crash come from somewhere. It sounded like glass being shattered and I thought maybe, at first, it was one of my windows so I popped up to look but everything was fine. But when I looked to the car next to me I realized that something went through (the driver's) rear windshield and shattered it. There was a hole where you could see that something went through it.
"I put the car in park -- it's amazing how instinct takes over because I will never know how it is I kept my foot on the brake when I ducked at the same time. I should have rammed right into the guy in front of me. I got out of the car and the guy in front of me, he and I just looked at each other. It seemed like everybody who was on the road got out of their cars and just looked in disbelief as the fireball just kept getting bigger and bigger. My jaw was dropped, his jaw was dropped, and then, at that point, something about trying to make sure people were OK overtook me and I started going around to the people in the other cars to see if they were all right.
"I and the guy in front of me went to the car next to me and asked the driver if he was all right and if he was OK to drive. He was in shock, you could tell. He just kept looking straight ahead. He didn't even look back, he was so fixated on looking north. He didn't want to look south at the Pentagon. And it took a couple of times for me and the other guy to say, `Can you drive? Hello? Are you OK? Are you OK?' And he said, `Yeah, I think I can drive.' We asked him again, `Can you drive?' and that time he was more sure and said, `Yes, yes, I can drive.' Then both I and the guy in front of me looked at his rear windshield and saw what was about a four-inch hole in it and the rest of the window was shattered as if someone took a baseball bat to it.
"At that point I realized -- you see at that point I didn't know it was a plane, I thought it was a missile strike -- how dangerous things were. And I just started yelling, `We gotta get out of here,' to the guy in front of me -- and he agreed -- and we started yelling at people, `Get back in your cars! We gotta get the f--- out of here!' And I just kept repeating, `Get in your cars! Let's go, let's go! Get the f--- out of here. Go! Go! Go!' And people must have listened because down the road you heard more people telling everyone to get in their cars and go. Cars were going over the median on Route 27 because there wasn't any traffic coming southbound toward the Pentagon. People were hopping over it any way they could, on the grass, anything. It was a little scary at that point.
"Pulling away from the Pentagon there was tons of stuff on the ground, big pieces of metal, concrete, everything. We got up to a certain point and there was this huge piece of something -- I mean it was big, it looked like a piece of an engine or something -- in the road. And there was somebody, definitely a security guard or maybe a military person, with his car in front of it making sure no one touched it."
Terronez was trying to call 911 and also his fellow employees at The Kennedy Center to tell them to evacuate the building, but no one was answering. When he finally got in touch with his supervisor, he was panicking.
"She probably thought I was a raving lunatic. I was saying `Oh my God! Oh my God! You won't believe what happened. The Pentagon's been blown up! It's been attacked.' And the next thing you know the line was cut off. I can't imagine how scary that was for her, to just have the line go dead after everything I'd been saying.
"I looked back and I saw the fire, it was just huge and just incredible. I still can't believe it. At that point in time, I remembered I had a camera in my trunk. I got off an off-ramp beside the Pentagon and parked my car in the grass and started taking pictures. The whole time I was taking pictures it was so detailed. I could this huge piece of a wheel on fire through the black smoke, but I couldn't see into the Pentagon itself. As I was taking pictures the press corps came and started setting up shop. Some military person told us we had to just get out of there. Of course, some people listened, some people didn't. I listened.
"I went up the road toward Columbia Pike going westbound, and then I stopped one more time. I took one last picture and it was the first chance I had to think about anything. Up until then I was just reacting. This was probably about 10 minutes after the strike and all of the sudden I just realized that I was lucky. I was so lucky.
"At that point I just started to cry. I thought `I can't believe what I've just been through.' Then I started thinking about all the people who were inside the Pentagon, and I had this terrible feeling because I survived. Oh God . . . all those people. I felt guilty because I survived, but what about those poor people?
"That was the first time I started thinking that I should have done more. I don't know what, but I should've stopped taking pictures. I should have run across the street and tried to help people, but you know, in hindsight I don't know what I could have done. So instead, I just drove off Columbia Pike and drove home. And that was about it. That was the incident in 10 minutes -- something that changed my life forever."
Copyright © 2001 American Counseling