9/11 survivors still bear scars, relive the trauma - Albuquerque Journal

9/11 survivors still bear scars, relive the trauma

Will Jimeno, the former Port Authority police officer who was rescued from the rubble of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks at the World Trader Center after many hours, holds the children’s book he wrote, “Immigrant, American, Survivor,” that draws on his experience, during an interview at his home in Chester, N.J. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

NEW YORK – Trapped deep in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, Will Jimeno lived through the unthinkable. Twenty years later, he’s still living with it.

A brace and a quarter-sized divot on his left leg reflect the injuries that ended his police career, a lifetime dream. He has post-traumatic stress disorder. He keeps shelves of mementos, including a cross and miniature twin towers fashioned from trade center steel. He was portrayed in a movie and wrote two books about enduring the ordeal.

“It never goes away, for those of us that were there that day,” he says.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed when hijackers in Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network rammed four commercial jets into the trade center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001. Yet an estimated 33,000 or more people successfully evacuated the stricken buildings.

They navigated mountains of smoky stairs in the World Trade Center’s twin towers or streamed out of a flaming Pentagon. Some fled an otherworldly dust cloud at ground zero. Others willed their way out of pitch-dark rubble.

Sept. 11 survivors bear scars and the weight of unanswerable questions. Some grapple with their place in a tragedy defined by an enormous loss of life. They get told to get over 9/11. But they also say they have gained resilience, purpose, appreciation and resolve.

“One of the things that I learned,” Jimeno says, “is to never give up.”

‘It’s almost like you’re reborn’: It wasn’t Bruce Stephan’s first incredibly close call.

In 1989, his car got perilously wedged on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit and the upper deck collapsed while he was driving across.

Twelve years later, the engineer and lawyer was settling into his workday on the 65th floor of the trade centers north tower when one of the planes crashed about 30 stories above.

Only after his roughly hourlong walk down the crowded stairs did Stephan learn that another plane had hit the south tower the building where his wife, Joan, also an attorney, worked on the 91st floor – above the impact zone.

Dsire Bouchat, a survivor of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, looks at photos of those who perished, in a display at the 9/11 Tribute Museumin New York. While Sept. 11 was a day of carnage, it also was a story of survival: Nearly 3,000 people were killed, but an estimated 33,000 or more people evacuated the World Trade Center and Pentagon. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Unable to reach her by cellphone, Bruce Stephan dashed to a pay phone and called her relatives, who told him she had gotten out.

Then the south tower fell, and his fear spiked anew. Had Joan been caught in the collapse? Hours later, he finally learned that she was OK.

“My experience from the first disaster was that it’s a strangely happy moment when you know that you’ve survived,” Bruce Stephan says. “It’s almost like you’re reborn … to know that you’re alive and that you still have a shot at life, and here’s your chance to do something.”

“When it happened a second time, it’s just like, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”

After the earthquake, the New York City natives resolved to change their workaholic lives. After 9/11, they did.

Within two months, the couple moved to Essex, a northern New York town of roughly 700 people. While telecommuting and sometimes actually commuting, they made time for other things: church, a book club, amateur theater, gardening, zoning meetings, a local newsletter. They cherished a newfound sense of community.

But a work opportunity pulled them back to San Francisco in 2009. They loved it, until the pandemic made them rethink their lives again.

“One of the things that we discovered as a result of the disasters was that being in a community … is maybe the biggest reward you can have,” Stephan, 65, says from their front porch in Essex. They moved back last year.

‘I was a walking zombie’: Désirée Bouchat pauses by one of the inscribed names on the 9/11 memorial: James Patrick Berger. She last saw him on the 101st floor of the trade center’s south tower.

Some days, it feels like it happened yesterday, she says.

At first, people figured the plane crash at the north tower was accidental. There was no immediate evacuation order for the south tower. But Berger ushered Bouchat and other Aon Corp. colleagues to the elevators, then turned back to check for more people.

Just as Bouchat exited the south tower, another plane slammed into it. Nearly 180 Aon workers perished, including Berger.

Retired NYPD Officer Mark DeMarco, is seen in a reflection off a display cabinet where he keeps memorabilia from 9/11 including the small flashlight which he used to help him navigate his way out of the rubble of the fallen skyscrapers, in his home in the Staten Island borough of New York. He worries that the public memory of the attacks is fading, that the passage of time has created a false sense of security. “Have fun with life. Don’t be afraid,” he says. “But be mindful.” (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

For a while, Bouchat told everyone, including herself: I’m fine. I’m alive.

“But I was a walking zombie,” she says now.

Bouchat eventually felt that she needed to talk about 9/11. The Springfield, New Jersey, resident has now led about 500 tours for the 9/11 Tribute Museum (it’s separate from the larger National September 11 Memorial & Museum).

The public hasn’t fully recognized the losses survivors felt, says Mary Fetchet, a social worker who lost her son Brad on 9/11 and founded Voices Center for Resilience, a support and advocacy group for victims’ families, first responders and survivors. “Although they are still living, they’re living in a very different way.”

‘I couldn’t figure out how I got out of there alive’: For a time after 9/11, New York Police Department Officer Mark DeMarco replayed the what-ifs in his mind. If he’d gone right instead of left. A bit earlier. Or later.

“I couldn’t figure out how I got out of there alive,” he says.

After helping evacuate the north tower, the Emergency Service Unit officer was surrounded by a maze of debris when parts of the skyscraper tumbled onto a smaller building where he’d been directed. Some officers with him were killed.

Barely able to see his own boots with a small flashlight, DeMarco inched through the ruins with two officers behind him. Then he took a step and felt nothing underfoot. He looked below and saw utter darkness.

Only after the officers turned around and eventually clambered through shattered windows to safety did DeMarco realize he’d nearly tumbled into a crater carved by the collapse.

Now 68 and retired, DeMarco still wears a wristband with the names of the 14 ESU members killed that day. He worries that the public memory of the attacks is fading, that the passage of time has created a false sense of security.

“Have fun with life. Don’t be afraid,” he says. “But be mindful.”

‘Surviving is only the first piece of the journey’: Breathing through an oxygen mask in a hospital bed, Wendy Lanski told herself: “If Osama bin Laden didn’t kill me, I’m not dying of COVID.”

 

Nearly two decades earlier, the health insurance manager escaped the north tower’s 29th floor and ran, barefoot, through the dust cloud from the south tower’s collapse. Eleven of her Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield colleagues died.

“The only good thing about surviving a tragedy or a catastrophe of any kind is: It definitely makes you more resilient,” says Lanski, who was hospitalized with coronavirus, as was her husband for two touch-and-go-weeks in spring 2020.

But surviving is only the first piece of the journey, says Lanski, 51, of West Orange, New Jersey.

Images and sounds of falling people and panes of glass lodged in her memory. She was diagnosed in 2006 with sarcoidosis, she said; the federal government has concluded the inflammatory disease may be linked to trade center dust. And she has asked herself: Why am I here and 3,000 people are not?

Over time, she accepted not knowing.

“But while I’m here, I’ve got to make it count,” says Lanski, who has spoken at schools and traveled to conferences about terror victims. “I’ve got to make up for 3,000 people who lost their voice.”

It motivates me to live a better life: Buried in darkness and 20 feet or more of rubble from both towers, Will Jimeno was ready to die.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department rookie was in searing pain from a fallen wall pinning his left side. Fellow officer Dominick Pezzulo had died next to him. Flaming debris had fallen on Jimeno’s arm and heated the cramped area enough that Pezzulo’s gun fired, sending a flurry of bullets past Jimeno’s head. He had yelled for help for hours. He was terribly thirsty.

“If I die today,” he remembers thinking, “at least I died trying to help people.”

Then Jimeno, who is Catholic, had what he describes as a vision of a robed man walking toward him, a bottle of water in his hand.

“We’re going to get out,” he told Sgt. John McLoughlin, “who was trapped with him.”

It was hours of pushing back pain, thinking of rescues in past disasters, talking to keep alert before they were found and gruelingly extricated by former U.S. Marines, NYPD officers, a onetime paramedic and firefighters as blazes flared and debris shifted and fell.

Jimeno was freed around 11 p.m., McLoughlin the next morning. Jimeno underwent surgeries and lengthy rehabilitation.

But he says his psychological recovery was harder. Trivial things made him lose his temper – fueled, he now realizes, by anger about the deaths of colleagues and people rescuers couldn’t help.

At times, he says, he thought of suicide. It took three years and multiple therapists before he mastered warding off the outbursts.

It has helped to tell his story in talks, in the 2006 Oliver Stone movie “World Trade Center,” and in Jimeno’s two newly released books, the illustrated “Immigrant, American, Survivor” for children, and “Sunrise Through the Darkness,” about coping with trauma.

The Colombian-born U.S. Navy veteran hopes that in his story people see the resiliency of the human soul, the American spirit, and the power of good people stepping up in bad times.

“Sept. 11 motivates me to live a better life,” says Jimeno, 53, of Chester, New Jersey. “The way I can honor those we lost and those that were injured is to live a fruitful life. To be an example to others that Sept. 11 did not destroy us.”


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