TO THE EDITOR
UPDATES & NEWS
CONTACT NEW YORK
June 28-29, 2004
The First Annual
International Conference on
Living with Terror: Psycho-Social Effects
National Press Club
9/11 and Terrorism: Looking Back, Stepping Forward
By: Monica Gabrielle
June 28, 2004
I would like to thank all those who made this conference possible. I am honored by the opportunity to address this distinguished group. I sincerely hope that each and every one of you leave here having learned some valuable lessons.
My name is Monica Gabrielle. I am simply a mother who has the unfortunate distinction of being a 9/11 Widow just another victim added to the list of ever increasing violence seen around the world. I have been invited to speak about living with terrorism. I am by no means an expert. I am, nevertheless, willing to share my journey in the hopes of providing a better understanding of the victims families left behind and perhaps help you be better prepared to assist future victims of terrorism. Most especially, I want to impress upon you the absolute urgency in advocating prevention, to teach acceptance and tolerance for obvious differences. Of this, we have control! I can assure you, as I stand here today, unless we begin here, the numbers of victims will continue to rapidly rise.
Since the day I was invited to speak at this conference, I have been attempting to put my thoughts together. How can I best explain what its like to live in our world the world of victims and victims families? Do I take you back with me to September 11th in order to give you a glimpse through my eyes? Do I move forward and talk about the search for answers and the need to make sure it never happens again? Do I talk about how we just dont fit in anywhere any longer our version of normal having been drastically redefined? Do I explain what its like to have PTSD the jumping at sudden noises, the palpitations when hearing the roar of an airliner, the sudden memory failings or lack of focus? Do I share the bittersweet moments accomplishments in my daughters life, the look in her eyes, the need to run and tell the one person who matters only to find they are no longer there? Do I tell you about the loneliness and aloneness we now live with? Do I ask you to think about the hatred, extremist thinking, murder and war? How can we address one without the other? It all intertwines, creating the end result survivors of terrorism.
In an effort to help you understand, let me begin by taking you back with me, through some of the pain, the suffering, the questions, the search and finally the hope. Come with me, for just a short while, into the world of terrorism and its result.
As you will recall, September 11th dawned crisp, clear and beautiful in New York City! A glorious fall day the likes of which we hadnt seen in a long time! I, like you, woke up not knowing what lay ahead just a few short hours away.
On that morning, my husband, Rich, left for work at 7:15, as he did on most days. I had just gotten up as he was leaving we touched fingertips as he left, no words were necessary. I would speak with him later, as we usually did when I got to my office.
At 8:40 I left for my 2 1/2-block walk to work. "Lucky" Rich called me! I always managed to escape a long commute! I had gone one block the corner of 24th Street and 8th Avenue, the NW corner when my thoughts were interrupted by a very loud sound. So loud in fact, that everyone stopped to look up. An airliner was careening down the island of Manhattan! It was so unusual; especially so low so low, it seemed you could touch it. I recall thinking: "How odd! Have they changed flight patterns?" Seconds thats all it was seconds and I continued on my way, putting the whole thing out of my mind.
I was the first to arrive at my office. I had just put my things down, getting settled, when my co-worker arrived yelling hysterically, unintelligibly: a plane, black smoke, fire, World Trade Center, could see it from the F Train. What was she talking about? She was making no sense at all! We put the TVs on all 3 of them all showing black smoke pouring from the top of one of the towers of the World Trade Center. Suddenly, that gloriously beautiful day turned ugly and my nightmare began.
Rich worked for Aon Corporation at 2 World Trade. At the time of the first plane, I could not remember which building that was. Then, suddenly remembering, I felt momentary relief. He was ok! Rich worked in the other one the one without the antenna the South Tower! Unfortunately, that relief was replace by anxiety only minutes later. On September 14th, I finally learned some of what happened from a survivor who was with him on the 78th Floor.
Richs office was located on an inside wall on the 103rd Floor a quarter mile into the sky. On September 11, 2001, he left for work at 7:15. By 9:50, he was dead crushed between tons of concrete and steel. Days of searching and praying began. Calling hundreds of hospitals, standing with thousands, hearing the wailing, joining the suffering, waiting for words of miracles! All this being done with a sense of the surreal.
Rich had apparently left his office at some point after the first plane struck the North Tower. He made it to the 78th Floor Sky Lobby, a transfer point for all those occupying the upper floors. There, he and a group of co-workers were waiting for one of the express elevators to take them down and out to safety. Although concerned, they were in no hurry. Announcements were being made that the other tower had been affected and all was secure in the South Tower Richs Tower! Unfortunately, they had no idea that a second plane was bearing down on them just minutes away!
When it hit, they were thrown around like rag dolls Rich against the wall. The marble from the walls crumbled and fell on his legs, crushing them, pinning him and rendering continued self-escape impossible. Rich was still alive! He now had no choice but to wait for help to arrive.
Months went by with my minds eye running wild envisioning Rich pinned under pieces of those heavy marble walls, in great pain. Seeing what he and others must have suffered: the fires raging out of control around him, the sounds of people suffering and dying, the cries for help, the cries of fear, the cries for their loved ones, the dead around him and finally, the sounds of the building slowly falling apart like tinker toys. The panic, the fear. I see it still today!
Months later, like a little gift from heaven and despite the total shut down of information from all agencies, a small portion of the Fire Department communication tapes were made public. Through these tapes, I was able to discover that help had indeed arrived. Fire Chief Orio Palmer and Fire Marshal Ronnie Bucca miraculously made it to that Sky Lobby. Making a rapid assessment, they were in the process of evacuating the injured and my husband. Only minutes after hearing this coordination, the tape went silent the building was collapsing. In a matter of 10 seconds, that building took with it my husband and any hope of avoiding this nightmare.
I have some very small comfort in knowing that Rich was not alone at the time of his death and he most likely thought he was coming home. As distressing as this information is, I consider myself fortunate. I know where Rich was. Most can only guess and continue to live with the varied possibilities of their loved ones death each imagined vision more horrible than the one before. And still others must live with the memories of speaking with their loved ones as the telephone disconnection coincided with the collapse, sparking unimaginable dread.
In a few short hours, our world changed. My husband of 28 years, my best friend was taken from me senselessly and without warning. One thing was absolutely certain - my daughter and I would never be the same again. September 11th ripped a part of us away leaving a gaping hole; a hole, which will forever be empty.
In the days, weeks and months following, I, along with other families, operated on autopilot, like slow walking zombies struggling through the process of looking for our loved ones, gathering personal items which would hopefully contain samples of their DNA for the identification process, going to the Armory, Pier 94, the medical examiners office and even Fresh Kills. Information available to us was so scarce it was almost non-existent. We were operating in a whirlpool of anxiety searching for even the smallest clue as to what happened to our loved ones.
The pain and suffering of so many was unbearable. The only way to survive this was to shut down our minds protecting us from fully comprehending what was happening. Some of the most painful moments involved watching the children the bewildered, frightened looks in their eyes most too young to even comprehend what was happening. Suddenly, what we had done all their lives protect them was no longer possible. For the children, it was a very quick indoctrination into a world filled with evil, hate and killing - and we couldnt stop it. Suddenly, a childs right to innocence was stripped away forcing them into a very grown up world much too soon.
We began retrieving personal items left in gym lockers, picking up cars left in commuter lots reminding us that this horror was very real causing untold suffering, each collection pushing us deeper into that black void of depression and never-ending grief the pain was physical and unbearable. All the while, we were praying hoping and praying that this was just some awful mistake. The families living this nightmare covered the entire spectrum of population from families of highly paid executives to simple busboys to those who were on their very first business trip of their young lives. So many hopes and dreams shattered, so many lives destroyed. We were in a sea of suffering and no sign of either lifeboat or shore.
The identification process began oh so very slowly. We waited jumping each time the phone rang. If it didnt ring, we called the medical examiners office. Something anything. It was as if they all disappeared into thin air. Is it possible that vibrant people were pulverized to dust never to be recovered? Months of nervously waiting for that call. Then suddenly, an invisible line was crossed. The anticipation turned to dread, and the dread turned to anxiety! What if the call never comes? What if it comes years from now? What affect would this have on our lives? What would this do to the wounds slowly healing?
The Memorial Services started. Families attempting to create some normalcy in death. Making all this even more real and surreal. Day after day after day endless streams of mourners.
They were called Memorial Services because there were no bodies for the majority of the families to bury. Forty-five percent of the victims, including my husband, have never been identified or recovered. For this reason, some families chose to bury personal items.
Some were lucky they had parts or pieces, some as small as a knuckle, some as large as a torso. There were hands, feet, legs, arms, fingers, bone fragments and even a heart. Each piece lovingly collected. Each piece identified was another step through that doorway into hell. Some went through that door many times. To my knowledge, there werent any intact bodies recovered. Lucky? Yes, they considered themselves lucky the bigger the piece, the luckier you felt. Conversations discussing recovered body parts and comparison of amounts recovered were commonplace. All part of our "normal" all done with the greatest amount of compassion and even humor. Yes it was so ugly you had to add humor the black humor of 9/11! Without it, we were one step from insanity.
Many opted to wait just in case another bit was recovered postponing even an attempt at something as normal as a funeral. Others opted out of the process all together. They couldnt bear the thought of their loved ones so virile and alive reduced to fragments. I, myself, never want to see another Memorial Service or funeral as long as I live!
The failures surrounding 9/11 are vast and complicated. It is not surprising then that the mental health community was ill prepared as well. The help available from within this community did little to quell our fears, anguish or answer our questions. Without the proper tools and training, these concerned professionals were left as lost and misguided as we were. The sudden flood of thousands of deeply destroyed and grieving victims families and other survivors of the 9/11 attacks was too much for even them. Not only was this something the majority in the mental health field had never dealt with, but the comfort and advice usually given for more normal circumstances involving natural death or murder was woefully inadequate. They were feeling overwhelmed so, how could they help us?
The immediate outreach for the families was totally lacking in critical intervention. Family members were forced to wait on long lines, inundated by well meaning volunteers who not only rotated on a bi-weekly schedule, causing a lack of the much needed continuity, they also lacked critical trauma training. Listening to these well meaning volunteers recount tales of their losses as they tried in vain to comfort and connect with us was nothing short of surreal. Family members, who exhibited extreme signs of trauma and in need of immediate intervention, were left to flounder. We didnt know what we needed that was excusable; mental health professionals didnt know what we needed that was an absolute shame!
Some family members seeking professional help were unwittingly signing waivers and entered into clinical trials. At the end of these trials they were unceremoniously told they had to find other resources! The trust developed over the course of their treatment was destroyed. Not only didnt they know where to turn, the entire traumatic experience would have to be repeated and relived. This would surely hinder their recovery. Families in the throws of trauma signing waivers they couldnt comprehend this was just plain unethical!
Why was the mental health community so ill prepared? 9/11 may well have produced the largest single pool of families in need, but we were most certainly not the first. Why were lessons not learned from prior terrorist attacks around the world?
As a result, most of the support seemed to come from the only logical place to turn other victims family members, who instinctively knew what to say and do. Everyone was suffering, and we were holding on to each other as if to let go meant we would fall into the abyss of unrecoverable insanity. Through this, bonds were developed. Those who were moving at your pace became your lifeline, your barometer measuring how well you handled the day. Support for the bad ones, kudos for the good ones. And slowly, very slowly, the healing process began and continues.
During these early days, I kept asking why. First of God why did he let this happen? Soon, I began to question whether God really had anything to do with this. These were deviant acts of violence against innocent people. The events of the day unfolded with such ease. How was that possible? Where were all the safeguards we assumed were in place? What were those who are charged with our protection doing? How can two mammoth buildings collapse snuffing out the life of all those left inside? Is this acceptable? Why was no one asking any questions? Why was no one initiating an investigation to find out what happened to leave my husband so exposed to danger?
Each death certificate cited homicide as the cause of death. Murder! Since when do we not investigate murders? Yes, we all know that 19 radical fundamentalists managed to hijack four passenger jets and slam them into the WTC, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Do we stop there? How were 19 known terrorists able to get through every safeguard we assumed was in place and board those planes? Why did Rich die so horribly? He was alive after the attack! What prevented him from getting out safely? What could have been done differently to save his life along with others left alive after the attacks?
The events of 9/11 are not as simplistic as merely holding the hijackers responsible. Dont get me wrong they and any who participated in the planning of this demonic deed should be and need to be brought to justice. But can we lay all the blame at their feet? Shouldnt we acknowledge and accept responsibility for all failures that allowed 9/11 to proceed with such flawless precision from the boarding of the first terrorist onto the plane to the ultimate collapse of the entire World Trade Center complex? Shouldnt we do all we can to correct, improve or reform failed systems and protocols? The answer is a resounding YES we owe it to those murdered, we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to our children. It is our responsibility to take away their fears. Not only by going after the bad men, but by holding accountable those who failed so miserably, by reviewing and changing systems and protocols, by implementing procedures for accountability, by ensuring the safety and security of occupants in any building and creating an ease of evacuation in any emergency.
My journey took me down the path too few family members had the emotional strength to pursue the path to truth. Not an easy path by any means, but the right one for me. I was beginning to come out of my shock, very slowly, and I realized that 9/11 called for a much deeper look. What was I going to do about it?
Suddenly, I did have a reason to go on. For Rich, whose voice was silenced on 9/11, I had to ask the questions burning in my mind. I had stepped past the personal "why" to the bigger "why" and found too many unanswered questions. On 9/11, I had no control over what happened to my gentle husband. However, I did have control over how I was going to react to it. With each question raised publicly, I felt control returning to my life. I realized that Rich was the true victim in need of a voice. I had only been victimized, and I had no choice but to speak for him. Thus, my search for answers began.
Unfortunately, almost three years later, I still have far too many questions for all our intelligence agencies, FAA, NORAD, for our airlines and our airline security companies, for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the City of New York and even for our all our elected officials. Nonetheless, through this journey I have been able to discover some things about our society, about our government and about me.
I have regrettably discovered that we never really do learn those lessons.
I have realized that all too often safety is of far less concern than economic gain.
I have learned that we allow critical exemptions from basic building and fire codes, most unbelievably to buildings that have high occupancies including thousands of daily visitors.
I have learned that as a routine, we dont practice full evacuation and emergency response drills, leaving occupants uninformed as to viable routes to safety and any deviations in a straight down and out escape even after 9/11.
I have learned that the agencies charged with our protection are embroiled in constant turf wars and dont share information like a bunch of school children.
I have learned that our intelligence community lacks intelligence and common sense.
I have learned that there have been many detailed investigations and reports on topics of preparedness, aviation security and terrorism all of which have been largely ignored.
I have learned that too many times approval of critical programs and reforms by Congress have lacked the necessary fund appropriations to ensure their implementation, leaving me to wonder about the process.
I have learned that Congressional oversight exists in name only because of either disinterest or lack of support.
I have learned that we have been all too keen to accept the notion of a no-fault government lacking the necessary accountability to ensure the protection and well being of our citizens.
I have learned that most of us are willing to accept systemic failures as inevitable and apathy preventing accountability for those failures.
I have learned that patriotism and heroism have been used to shroud the fears of responsibility and the courage to learn from mistakes.
I have learned that we have been living under false assumptions of safety and security for a very long time!
I have learned that we need to rise to the challenge of creating a world where differences can be resolved by strategic thinking and careful policy making without ever firing a shot.
I have discovered I possess a deep well of strength from within to draw from.
I have discovered that I can no longer remain sitting silently on the sidelines waiting for someone else to step forward.
I have discovered that knowledge is power and a great healer.
Unfortunately, the mark of terrorism is not new. I have been inducted, without consent, into an exclusive club. The doors to this club remain wide open with absolutely no discrimination! Also quite unfortunately, it is most often not until you are forced into membership that you realize perhaps more attention should have been paid to events around the world. My innocence is gone. I have woken up to a world filled with much hatred and injustice; yet most disturbing to me is the apathy. What do we hope to leave for our children?
My desire in moving forward is to create the catalyst necessary for true reform. To open the eyes and ears of any who will see and hear. For unless we begin to listen and listen well, YOUR children and their children will continue to be at risk. The killing for ideology will continue and in the end everyone loses! The 9/11 Families are living proof of the failures to protect us, and the result of hatred. We, as a global society, are at a critical juncture the way we view, investigate and study 9/11 will determine how we proceed. It is for this reason that I am willing to endure the very painful retelling of 9/11 I pray we take the right fork!
Sally Regenhard, one of my lifelines and mentor in this new life of advocacy, has been know to say "its so hard to do good." I agree it is even harder to do it right! Anything worth having is worth fighting for and I plan to continue fighting for my husband, for my daughter and for you!
Accountability, responsibility, courage, truth and finally hope.
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