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The Survivors’ Circle

Eight who were there meet and compare lives.

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Peter Totten, left
South Tower, 91st floor
The mechanical engineer had just finished making tea when the building heaved from the force of the attack on the North Tower. He helped evacuate the office, then rode an elevator to the lobby, missing the announcement telling employees to return to their desks. He made it onto Cortlandt Street to see a plane pierce the South Tower, “almost like a cartoon.”

Pasquale Buzzelli, 37, right
North Tower, 64th floor
After the tower was hit 30 flights up, the engineer followed fire-safety orders and waited with co-workers until rising smoke convinced them otherwise. He was on the 22nd floor when the stairwell walls began to buckle. He woke up hours later, sprawled on a concrete slab, having fractured only his right foot. He was one of twenty people to be pulled from the rubble alive.
  

9/11 Five Years Later

The idea was to check in with the lucky ones, survivors of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Some 18,000 people showed up to work at the towers on September 11, 2001; almost 3,000 died. We wanted to see how these “blessed” people, as they sometimes think of themselves, feel today. New York’s Steve Fishman assembled eight people who were in the towers on September 11 in a conference room at the Benjamin, a midtown hotel. Immediately everyone seemed happy to be in the company of fellow survivors, colleagues and strangers with whom they share that singular bond.

Steve Fishman: Does anyone still flash back to 9/11?

Tom Canavan: Every day. Pass a construction site, smell that concrete powder, and it comes back. Or hear the Metro-North train coming in, the rumble. You have that instant Oh, my God, and then you realize it’s nothing. It’s the train. Or it’s a construction site, that’s all. It could be the most obscure little thing.

Elia Zedeño: Look at the clock and it’s 9:11. And it’s really 7:11, every time.

Manuel Chea: It always happens.

Fishman: It’s the central event of your lives now?

Canavan: It becomes an addiction. For lack of a better word, yeah.

Fishman: How is everybody’s life now? Looking back, what was the hardest part?

Earlyne Johnson: I was very angry for a couple of months. What made me really angry was the therapists: They were like, “Oh, try to go back and do what you normally do.” Well, I normally went to the World Trade Center and went to work! I was like, “No, I can’t go back.”

Canavan: Well, if you want, I will refer you to my therapist. She was excellent.

Fishman: How about medication? Who uses it?

Canavan: I never took so much as an aspirin before. They had me on nine pills a day. I still sleep probably three to four hours a night. What I have is a movie projector in my head, and this movie plays [of the tower coming on top of me]. It’s like your body rests, but your brain doesn’t shut down. It just keeps playing over and over.

Zedeño: I went to work right away; we regrouped in another facility, but I didn’t feel safe. I would go home at night and go into my room and systematically became alienated from just about everybody. At work I would run to and from the bathroom, so I would take my bag with me and make sure that I was ready to run; I kept thinking I was going to get caught with my pants down. [Laughter]

Peter Totten: Only two or three days later, I started commuting to Princeton, where we have a large office. My first task was to deal with the family members—we lost thirteen people—and that was extremely difficult.

Fishman: How did they view you?

Totten: There were a few who were … not antagonistic, but clearly angry. I don’t know that they actually ever said, “Why are you alive and my so-and-so is dead?” but they would be yelling on the phone, and sometimes you just had to let them vent. It was a difficult thing to just sit and take it.

Canavan: I had that. One of the women I was with was killed five feet from me, and I spoke to her family. “Where was she? Was she screaming?” And then finally at the end, it was, “Well, how come you’re alive and she’s not?”

Johnson: Someone asked me, “Why do you think you didn’t die?” and I just kinda summed it up: God isn’t finished with me yet.

Fishman: Was God finished with the others?

Johnson: I don’t think God makes mistakes; you know, if it’s your time to go, you’re going to go.


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