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The Survivors’ Circle

Manuel Chea, 42, left
North Tower, 49th floor
The computer-systems administrator was checking a server when the building began to sway. Thinking it was an earthquake, he grabbed his backpack and headed for the stairs. He was two blocks away when the South Tower fell.

Elia Zedeño, 46, right
North Tower, 73rd floor
The financial analyst was logging onto her computer when she felt a massive jolt. She bolted for the stairs and made it out just as the South Tower imploded, sending her to the ground and filling her throat with clumps of soot. She walked uptown, not realizing until the afternoon that both towers had collapsed. She hadn’t thought to look back.

Johnson: Well, things were starting to go downhill before that, but after 9/11, I was angry and I didn’t have any patience, and I was like, “You know what? Forget you. I am not going to deal with you and all this other stuff around me.” And even though he was there and trying to be strong, I was like, “Just leave me alone.”

Fishman: How soon after 9/11 did you separate?

Johnson: Maybe two months. And then I moved home to my mom, and that’s all I wanted. I wanted my mom … And I just, I had to be with her because I couldn’t lose her again, and I had to make sure that she was home every night. That day made us so much closer. But now I’m starting to do more things outside of my mom. I’m like, “Okay, now it’s time for my own apartment. I have friends now.”

Fishman: Have you been in a relationship, a serious one, since 9/11?

Johnson: No. I’ve thrown myself into equestrian riding so much … I actually had someone say to me, “If I was in a stall, would you pay more attention to me?” Those friends who are closest to me, who know me best, they know that they say, “Okay, we’re gonna go to your lesson with you, and that’s how we get to spend time.”

Fishman: Do you think not dating has anything to do with 9/11?

Johnson: I’ll say it has to do with 9/11 because of who I am now. Most of us have become better people, freer people.

Fishman: Do you all think you’re better people now?

Wayne Schletter: I was pretty happy to be alive. I wouldn’t call it joy, but you realize you got that bonus round. I could’ve been dead. I’ve accomplished personal things I wanted to do much more so between 9/11 and now than, say, the five years prior to 9/11. You hate to say there was a positive outcome to 9/11, but on a personal level, there’s no doubt.

Fishman: Did the experience make you feel closer to your families?

Canavan: It also causes sort of a rift. I’ve been with my wife almost thirteen years now, and she’ll never understand that day; no matter how much I tell her and how much she sees, she won’t understand it.

Fishman: So you feel like no matter how close you are, you can’t …

Canavan: You can’t explain it to them.

Chea: I’ve experienced the same thing …

Fishman: Is it worse for you, Tom, because when the buildings fell, you were under the rubble for a time?

Canavan: My wife once asked me, “What does it feel like to be buried alive?” And I just couldn’t explain it to her. And I said, “I’ll pull some blankets over you, I’ll throw you in the closet, and I’ll throw some stuff on top of you. And don’t move, and just lay there.”

Fishman: Whom do you feel closest to?

Canavan: I have a bond with the people in this room that I could never have with my family and my wife and my kids. I’ve sat in a room on a panel at Columbia University, just four or five of us in a room, and we had never met before in our lives, and within five minutes—it’s just like right now. I feel like I know you people [in this room]. Everybody feels it, right?

Everyone: Yeah.

Canavan: It’s sort of sad, because I’ll never have that with the people that I love, but I’ll have that with complete strangers.