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How 9/11 Changed Us

Some decided to have children. Others started charities, or joined the Army or the CIA. And those who lost family, friends, or co-workers are living with an emptiness that may never be filled in. New Yorkers’ stories, in their own words.

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Madelyn Wils
Chair of Community Board 1. She was walking her child to school on the morning of 9/11.

My life has completely changed, because my whole life at this point is dedicated to rebuilding lower Manhattan. The initial couple of weeks were about terrible loss of life and destruction. The only glimmer in this tremendous void, this depression, was the hope that we could build something better out of it. I used to think of Love Canal: Why did they stay? And here we are with fires burning for five months. Am I being just as stupid and naïve? We stayed in the hopes of a better life, so to speak. Because it was our home. It was a completely traumatized community. When you think you had 14,000 businesses below Canal Street, not including Chinatown. We lost 5,000 the first week. Residents came back to clean their apartments only to find someone’s eyeglasses or pieces of flesh. There was a study recently that said 31 percent of the people who live below Canal Street continue to have pulmonary problems. Thirty percent have emotional problems. It’s not something you get over. But we all got very close after 9/11, the business community and the residents, working together to create the bond of rebuilding. We don’t agree on everything, but we do on most of the substantive issues. That was new. It was important that we not get stuck in the muck of 9/11.

David Handschuh
Daily News photographer. He was buried in rubble.

Before September 11, all I did was go out to murder scenes and fires. I photographed the occasional wedding for friends; at one, somebody introduced me as “David Handschuh, disaster photographer.” That was my beat. I photographed things blowing up and falling down.

I went from being a Weegee-esque New York newspaper photographer covering cops and firefighters and paramedics to never, ever wanting to either see or photograph anybody dead or dying again. The World Trade Center was every natural disaster and unnatural disaster rolled up into one big horrible day.

I missed a year of work. I had to learn to walk again. I still don’t run. I’m just lucky and thankful that I’m here. The next day, somebody asked me how I felt and I said I felt like I won the Powerball, but instead of $30 million, it was my life that was the grand prize. I’m thankful for the firefighters and police officers and paramedics who literally saved my life—the people I covered for years.

Now I’m photographing chocolate mousse and doll refurbishing. It’s still photojournalism, it’s still going out and making great pictures, it’s still meeting people I’ve never met before. Just without the blood, without the gore.

Ali Millard
Student. her stepfather, Port Authority executive director Neil Levin, was killed in the attack. Her mother is Christy Ferer, City Hall’s liaison to the victims’ families.

My school wanted to put me in therapy. I’m not against therapy—I think anyone can use it, and I want to be an art therapist when I’m older—but when I saw a therapist, the first thing he wanted to do was give me an antidepressant. I remember saying, “Are you absolutely nuts? I’m not depressed; I’m getting over the death of someone who was a father to me.” Then I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” and I left his office. While I’m sorry I was rude, I’m glad I did it, because I really believe it’s acceptable for the first year or so not to be yourself. I thought about all these little kids who lost people on September 11, and I thought what happens if these shrinks just give these kids a lot of pills—it’s gonna mask their feelings, and they’ll be on them the rest of their lives.

We are a group of people—the victims’ children—but that is the only thing we share. You can’t say children who lost parents on September 11 all deal with it in this way or that way. I wanted to do a project that had different people’s experiences and reactions and feelings and emotions all coming together. The aids quilt gave me this idea for the Art for Heart program. It’s a square foot of canvas every kid gets to paint on with acrylic paint, and then the sections are sewn together. It just shows we’re a group of individuals together.

The Friday after September 11, there was a candlelight vigil, and a bunch of friends of mine were sitting on the sidewalk. My friend Lani said, “Ali, don’t think of it as you losing a person; think of it as you gaining an angel.” I don’t really believe in angels or the afterlife, but the way I interpreted what Lani said was that people are only put on earth for a certain amount of time, and you’re lucky to get to know them for as long as you do. We were still in the early stages, but I decided right then to take the attitude that everything is finite and that I’m grateful that I had a few good years with Neil. My only regret is that my mom didn’t marry him earlier.


Artist Laurie Fendrich in her Tribeca studio: "Real-estate opportunism took over."  

Laurie Fendrich
Artist and Tribeca resident. She was out jogging the morning of 9/11.

The same things happened to me that happened to everybody in the neighborhood. We went to give blood in midtown the next day. And people were sitting outside having lunch, having wine. Meanwhile, down where we were, you couldn’t even see, there was so much dust. It was so raw. It was shocking to me. It was like another world above Houston Street. People eating foie gras.

I wrote a piece right after it happened for the Chronicle of Higher Education about, basically, how the media took it over and logo-ized it. The way it became an iconic image—instantly. There was music accompanying the towers’ coming down on TV. The images became very dangerous, because they stopped people from thinking. It horrifies me that people make money off it, frankly. I got paid for the piece in the Chronicle, and I almost threw up at the idea—I had them donate the fee to the Red Cross.

Afterward, the neighborhood got richer and people moved in. It was like after Mount St. Helens erupted—all these ashes, everything’s dead, and then a few years later there are these huge forests. The real-estate opportunism just took over. The little guy with the little tiny shoe-repair shop is gone. When the richies move in with their Mercedes SUVs and $1.2 million lofts, they want a different sort of shoe-repair shop—one that will deliver.

I think a lot of people who went through September 11 downtown are the walking depressed. That’s a modern word for it—certainly the people who lived through the Blitz were the walking depressed. I do think that there’s something to that. But I just go on with my life.

Bill Kelly
Attorney. He represents the three firefighters in the now-famous flag-raising photo.

My firm is primarily a personal-injury firm, and years ago we had represented George Johnson, the guy on the left in the picture. George grew up a couple blocks from where I did, in Rockaway Beach. In October 2001, I met with the three of them at Dan McWilliams’s house—Dan’s the guy in the middle. Because they have publicity rights—the rights to the reproduction of their likenesses—the three firefighters were probably going to be entitled to a couple hundred thousand dollars each from the licensing of the photo. They split the revenue 50-50 with the Bergen Record, which owns the copyright. The guys said, “No, we don’t want the money—set up a charity.” So there’s a Website, thebravestfund.org, and the charity has brought in about $1 million. We were inundated with requests for licenses, from guys who make everything from commemorative coins to mouse pads. A gun manufacturer wanted to do it as a carving on the stock of a rifle. We turned that down. In addition, there were the millions of people who were doing it illegally who we were trying to stop; it was on a billboard for a strip club upstate. For the first year, it was my full-time job.

The big interview requests came in: Oprah, 60 Minutes, Good Morning America. It was surreal to hear Barbara Walters on my voice mail. The guys said no to every interview. They said, “Look, we gotta walk into the firehouse every day—the guy next to you may have died, and you’re running around looking for a spotlight?”

The whole experience has taught me a lot about the power of media—and the power of silence. It has made them more suspicious of people. They spent weeks debating whether to do the Newsweek cover for the first anniversary. At one point, one of them said, “Don’t you think if we put ourselves out there, that would be sort of a trophy for Al Qaeda, to say, Hey, look, we killed those guys?” Because in Afghanistan, American soldiers were attaching the image to bombs. I don’t know if that’s a realistic fear. But it’s something that passes through these guys’ heads.


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