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The Miracle Survivors

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Learning to Live: Firefighter Bill Butler.  

A firehouse is a physically intimate place. Twenty-five guys take turns cooking together, bunking together, living together for days at a time. They call one another brother, enjoy a near-tribal camaraderie, much of it around the firehouse’s kitchen table, where a posted sign reads, WHAT YOU HEAR HERE STAYS HERE.

Komorowski was recently promoted to lieutenant, and the first floor of his new station in an Orthodox Jewish section of Brooklyn contains barbells, a pool table, a gas pump, a garbage can of dog food, a soda machine, a tool bench, a pole, and two big red trucks. Off to one side is a memorial to the 343 firefighters lost in the World Trade Center. A minute after Komorowski, now 40, steps into the communications room, an alarm sounds. “Can you wait?” Komorowski says, though it’s not really a question. He pulls his gear over his pants. As a truck leaves, a fireman shouts, “Can you close the door?”

The firehouse hasn’t been a place where people generally “give themselves permission to share their emotions.” The environment has not been therapy-friendly. Maybe that’s good. “This is a job for physical, proactive, problem-solving people, which are great qualities if my house is on fire,” says Malachy Corrigan, director of the department’s counseling unit. Emotional distance is probably protective. Sooner or later, every fireman hauls a burnt child out of a fire. “You have to tell yourself that this dead kid I’m pulling out of a fire is no different than pulling a deer out of the woods,” explains Butler. “You can’t look at it like, Oh, my God, I’m pulling out my own child. You can’t go killing yourself.”

September 11 overran the usual defenses. Jonas and his men, finally freed from their stairwell, looked around at fires and flattened buildings. They thought they were witnessing a nuclear attack. “We usually show up at a chaotic situation, we make it better and we go home, almost every time,” says Jonas. “In the World Trade Center that really didn’t happen.” Well-disciplined emotions were suddenly impossible to contain.

Probably half the city’s firefighters have gone into therapy—6,100 uniformed people have received counseling through the department. The department now has 60 full-time counselors instead of the 9 it employed before September 11.

Jonas waited to make his therapy appointment, then nearly backed out. He’d had a tough winter, 2003, worse than the last, which confused him. He thought he should be doing better by now. “I was having nightmares fairly consistently where I’d wake up screaming,” he explains at his home in Orange County one afternoon. Jonas is six feet, 245 pounds, with a gentle voice and an intense way of tipping his head down while gazing up at a listener. “I was back in the stairwell,” he recalls. “I would re-experience the collapse. One time, the nightmare was so vivid I said, I got to talk to someone about this.”

Still, the morning before his first meeting, he asked his wife, “Do you think I really need counseling?”

“I didn’t want him to go for me,” says Judy Jonas, his wife of 22 years. “I wanted him to realize he needed to go.”

Eventually, his wife went, too. So did his son, after he refused to go to baseball camp even though it was at the field across the street from their house.

Soon, she learned that her husband had somehow landed safely in the midst of acres of destruction, a lone soul dropped to safety on a concrete slab.

Lim has spent two years in therapy. “Without counseling, I don’t think I could be here now,” he says at the police station at La Guardia airport, his new dog asleep at his feet. “The biggest thing for me was accepting that I really did miss my partner.” He meant Sirius, the yellow Lab that lived with his family. On September 11, Lim had put Sirius in his cage, intending to return. “He’s just a dog. But I had to admit to myself that I really missed him a lot, that I felt guilty about leaving him there.” The words “leaving him there” affect Lim. “I meant to come back,” he says sadly. “Things didn’t work out.”

Komorowski, now 40, mostly felt the effects at home. He lives in Massapequa Park, a firemen’s town—streets have been renamed for dead firemen—on a lovely middle-class block where the split-level homes are identical, though Komorowski’s is probably the only one where a dust-encrusted fireman’s helmet, the one he was wearing September 11, sits in a glass case on a coffee table.

Summers, Komorowski, his wife, and their two daughters spend a lot of their time outside. One afternoon, Jennifer, Komorowski’s wife of five years, puts hamburgers on the grill. His 4-year-old stands on her chair at the table with the American-flag tablecloth, and with two hands squeezes ketchup out of a plastic jar.

Unfortunately, Komorowski can’t dependably relax enough these days to concentrate on the kids. “I can’t always play with them without losing focus,” he explains. “I kind of lose interest in what I’m doing.” Komorowski seems to accent each word equally—like the actor Christopher Walken—which gives his intense emotions a strange, deliberate quality.

“Sometimes,” he continues, “I cry for no reason,” like when he’s watching a commercial on TV. “When I say no reason, I know it’s 9/11, but there’s nothing in the day that sets it off. It’s just that you’re at a saturation point.” Sometimes, he gets dizzy or lightheaded. “From anxiety, I’ve had shortness of breath and I have to sit down and regroup,” he explains. He sometimes finds that noises spook him, or being in an elevator or on a subway. Once, a few days after September 11, he was jolted awake in the middle of the night; his body shook uncontrollably for twenty minutes. “You got to constantly talk to yourself,” he says. “ ‘I’m not at the World Trade Center. I’m not at 9/11.’

“The image of the staircase is very vivid in my mind,” he continues, “and the image of the debris field is very vivid. I think about that a lot. I’m thinking about that now.” He closes his eyes, rubs his temple, trying, he says, to make himself feel better. “Sometimes the images will come and I will dwell on them,” he says. “That’s when you know, Okay, this is going to be a spiral down.”

His wife has to urge him, Don’t feed into it. “If he talks about everything that happened that day, it just gets worse,” she says. “So we refocus.”

Therapy helps. Still, it can feel like another symptom. “Constantly going over [that day], thinking about it,” says Komorowski.

Surviving is a freakish experience. These people really should be dead. (“That’s the day I should have died,” Buzzelli says sometimes.) And since they’re not, then they should be thankful. They lived a miracle. They should walk through life full of joy. And yet these people—and their families sometimes more so—seem afflicted by a persistent guilt, guilt for having lived.

Louise Buzzelli is vivacious and tiny, an inch or so over five feet. On September 11, 2001, she was seven months pregnant. Getting pregnant had been hard, and when it finally happened, she’d been ecstatic. “I lost my own mother at a young age,” she says. “I’ve always wanted that mother-child relationship again.”

After speaking to her husband that morning and learning that he was about to walk down from the 64th floor, Louise hung up and turned to the TV. Twenty minutes later, she watched as the North Tower collapsed. “Everything inside of me just drained,” she says. “I watched my husband die right in front of my eyes.” Louise walked outside toward the pool. How am I going to bring up this baby? I can’t do this alone. I can’t do this, she thought.

When Buzzelli called at 3:30 everything changed, though not as she’d expected. Soon, she’d know that he’d somehow landed safely in the midst of acres of destruction, a lone soul dropped to safety on a concrete slab. “I heard his voice,” she says, and felt “an explosion of emotions.”

She had her husband back, and yet—it was the oddest thing—she couldn’t quite seem to feel the uncompromised happiness she’d expected. For Louise, those few hours when she was a pregnant wife with a dead husband wouldn’t leave.

Louise, blonde and now with a 21-month-old daughter named Hope, sits on the floor of the family room and talks about her complicated state. “It’s like you feel guilty about feeling good,” she says. The guilt concerned the widows. Some of the other wives are familiar with the feeling. It was as if the widows’ terrible sorrow accused them. Their inexplicable good fortune seemed a source of embarrassment. “You apologized for me being alive,” Jonas told his wife at one point. (She didn’t think she had.)

For Louise, the guilt crystallized one day at the supermarket, where she spotted a magazine cover of the widows who’d been pregnant on September 11. There were 101 of them; for a few hours, Louise had been 102. “It overwhelmed me,” she says. “How do I go on as the person I was before—that happy-go-lucky, that high-spirited person—knowing that these mothers are out there? I know what they felt like, and it was only for that one day.”

Louise felt she had to do something for the mothers. She wrote a song and recorded it as a CD—she has a lovely voice. She set off to sell it to raise money for their new Song for Hope Foundation (www.songforhope.com), named for their new daughter. To pursue her plan, Louise wanted to get publicity. The media, though, wanted to talk to her husband, to hear his story.


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