Lessons about Common Humanity - Helping Survivors of Another Disaster
My Experience on September 11, 2001 – I have lived a few blocks directly East of the World Trade Center since 1977.
The Twin Towers were the center of our community, where my family and I went to shop, play and see concerts. On the morning of 9/11, I came back home to pick up my daily diary after dropping my younger daughter at school. As I was leaving, I felt the building shake, but I thought it was people moving furniture upstairs. When I got outside, a neighbor said, “Did you see what happened? A small plane just hit the Trade Center.” I looked up and saw flames and pieces of silver metal flying out of the North Tower. My heart jumped and I said to myself, “How are they going to get the people out of there?” I rushed inside to make some calls to my children’s schools and asked them to let my daughters know not to take the subway home. I ran out again and saw the upper floors of South Tower on fire. I really began to panic, feeling sick to my stomach. Back inside, I looked out the window and saw thousands of people running towards the East River. Then the sky went pitch black. I almost fell down in shock. A neighbor called and said she was going over to the hospital to volunteer and I said I had to get uptown to my children. A few minutes later I saw a mass of people running again and the sky went black again. I thought the world was ending. I thought all of downtown was blowing up. I grabbed a washcloth and a bottle of water and ran outside and joined the stream of people walking north along the East River. I thought if anything happens again, I can jump in and swim.
Several hours later that day, I was reunited with my younger daughter at a friend’s house in Soho. I finally understood that the World Trade Center had been attacked. I felt as if someone had dropped a bomb in our backyard.
I immediately thought to myself, I don’t want my children to live in fear because of this attack. I don’t want their lives to be defined by terrorists. Our friends further uptown invited us to stay with them which we did for 10 days, but as soon as the EPA announced that the air was safe to breathe in Lower Manhattan we went right back home. We wanted to help bring life back to our neighborhood.
Global Connections - Lessons from 9/11 Help Others Experiencing Disaster
As I moved around Lower Manhattan in my daily life, I was constantly confronted with the absence of the Twin Towers and continued to try to process what had happened on 9/11. I wanted to figure out a way to help us move forward in a positive way. In 2005, I took a job helping to develop the 9/11 Tribute Center whose mission was to share the personal stories of 9/11. I recorded hundreds of oral histories and each time I heard a new story, I cried. It was emotionally exhausting, but it was also comforting to hear others talk about their experiences and to know we understood something about what each other had gone through. I began to see how people can recover and build stronger after a disaster.
Then in 2012 I had an opportunity to develop a new remarkable project. Picking up on a suggestion by Tribute co-founder Lee Ielpi, I pursued the idea of taking a group of people from our 9/11 community and going to Japan to give emotional support to the survivors of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Tohoku, Japan. We had lived with 9/11 for ten years and knew that through talking about what had happened and through bonding together as a community, people could find strength after loss. I was introduced to two New Yorkers who had already begun to respond to the needs of people in Tohoku, Dr. Robert Yanagisawa and Ikuyo Yanagisawa. They helped to make our dream possible.
Through Robert and Ikuyo’s medical and Rotary connections, they planned a ten-day, non-stop journey of meetings between our 9/11 group and people living in temporary housing, children and adults in schools in towns affected by the nuclear explosion, mental health care providers, community leaders and government officials. In each place we told our 9/11 stories with emotion and candor. At first people were shy but they slowly began to tell the horrifying stories of what had happened to them – relatives and neighbors disappearing in the water, cars on fire, whole towns washed away. I understood the enormity of this disaster in which almost 20,000 people were killed and thousands more continue to be affected by the possible risks of exposure to radiation.
That first trip launched a long-term relationship between our 9/11 community and the 3/11 community. Each year that we have returned, people have become more and more open, talking about their feelings and their wishes for the future. The most profound thing I learned was that I felt deeply connected to people who experienced a very different type of disaster but who had the same emotional responses to shocking, life-changing events. We have continued to meet with each other in person and then over zoom during Covid. Our ongoing commitment to supporting each other has been enormously uplifting to everyone involved. I realized that by sharing our feelings of common humanity and our empathy, we all have more courage in meeting life’s newest challenges.
9/11 was an experience of unexpected horror. The friendships I have developed in Tohoku have resulted in unexpected personal growth and shared compassion.