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Front Porch: Following 9/11, New York ‘toxic’ for cousin

Thu., Sept. 1, 2011

Most of us are anticipating the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States with some trepidation – grateful that there hasn’t been a recurrence on that scale within our borders and worried that there could still be.

After all, we have to be successful every time in thwarting a potential attack. The bad guys only have to be successful once when attempting one.

Sept. 11, 2001, binds Americans together regardless of other differences. Though the attacks occurred in three locations, the image that defines the day is that of the World Trade Center towers coming down. The theme heard around the world that day was “today we are all New Yorkers.”

I continue to be impressed at how many people, including those of us who live on the other side of the nation from where the events occurred, have personal stories connected to that terrible set of events, underscoring that we are still all New Yorkers. Let me share one of mine.

I have a cousin who worked for a Wall Street brokerage firm at the time. She lived in Brooklyn and took the subway in to her office in Manhattan. She voted that morning, so she was a little later than usual, and although her office was on Wall Street itself, not in the WTC, she was getting off there because she had an errand to do and many colleagues in the building.

However, when the subway train stopped, people poured in, speaking of terrible things going on above ground. My cousin stayed on the train and went one more stop before getting off. It was the last subway train to leave the WTC station before the towers fell.

But my cousin’s story doesn’t end there. I am deliberately not mentioning her name because of what’s transpired in her life since then, and I know she’d prefer a bit of anonymity.

After emerging from the subway, she wasn’t able to find out what was going on. In addition to the turmoil and chaos on the street, many of the communication towers had been atop the WTC, so it was hard to tune in to anything or get information.

So she found a working land line and called me at my office in Cheney, where I was working as the public information officer at Eastern Washington University. She knew that as a former journalist, I would be monitoring the situation, which I surely was. I told her what I knew at that moment, most of which was pretty basic stuff, information that she who was standing right in the middle of it all couldn’t get but which I, across the continent, could access easily.

She asked me to find out how she could get off Manhattan. I did what research I could – it was very hard getting specific answers in those early confused hours – but I found out that ferries were still running to New Jersey, and when she called me back in about a half hour, I gave her what new information I had.

That was our last conversation for several days. She, like so many others, wound up walking across the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn. You’ve seen the pictures of the mass exodus by foot across bridges over the East River. My cousin was one of those soot-covered people.

In the first several days, she was among those at Ground Zero looking for survivors and doing whatever she could. I have another cousin whose daughter was an emergency room physician at New York’s Bellevue Medical Center, where they were gearing up for the expected masses of injured survivors – people who would never come.

My cousin lost many friends and co-workers and saw things that she only spoke to me about once since that awful first day. Only a year or two after 9/11 she retired. She had to leave the city, the city she was born in and dearly loved. She was the quintessential New Yorker, a person who breathed in the city’s essence and lived its life and loved every minute of it. But it all turned toxic for her.

She has a comfortable condo in Florida now and leads a quieter life, not the life she wants but the life she is capable of living. It’s hard to recognize her, and I sometimes look to see if the somewhat difficult, self-assured, complicated person I knew is still in there.

Three years ago we were talking about it all in a kind of subdued way, which seemed to be how she could best handle it, and I asked her the obvious, if she considered she might be suffering from post-traumatic stress issues. She turned her face to me, and I saw such pain in her blue eyes. “Yes,” was all she could say, and very softly at that.

It’s been 10 years. We were all New Yorkers on that day, yet the irony of it is there are people like my cousin, truly New Yorkers, who can no longer be.

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