On the 3rd anniversary, my heart is weighed with many emotions. As a survivor of the attacks, I narrowly escaped the Marriott World Trade Center at 3 WTC on Sept 11. I remember the noise of the 1st plane hitting the tower and how the hotel shook from the crash as the landing gear fell into the roof of the hotel. I saw and heard the 2nd plane crash. In my escape, debris from the 2nd plane flew all around me as I ran for my life.
My memory of Sept 11 is acute but fragmented. Some of it is captured in my mind with startling clarity, some in sound or smell or bits of interactions with other people. Other pieces have been deposited and locked in my head, refusing to resurface until it is triggered by another memory.
Not many people are sympathetic to the lifelong trauma of survivors. I hardly bring it up for fear of indifferent reactions. Also, how do you convey the intensity of emotions and feelings I experienced that day without sounding like I am not “handling it?”
Survivors are a neglected group. However, we shouldn’t be marginalized because we survived. The worry of being forgotten weighs heavily, however irrational this feeling is. I want to make people remember. I need to remember for myself and put meaning behind what I experienced.
My journey as a survivor consists of a mixture of denial, an aspiration to live life completely, a desire to help others, and also a deep sadness of the lives lost that day. A few days after Sept 11, I wrote my account and sent it to my friends, family and colleagues. It was widely circulated.
The year following Sept 11, I never wrote about it again.
I wanted to forget and move on. I was also afraid to dredge up all those feelings and thoughts again.
It was still difficult to recount the experience of that day. How do you explain what it is like being a witness to mass murder and bloodshed?
I have read through many collections of individual accounts from survivors, and many times fought back tears as I read the various stories. Three years later, I still continue to read stories. The impact is still as strong.
When creation of the Sept 11 Survivors site started taking fruit over a year after 9/11, I realized I needed to start recording my thoughts. So I took a deep breath and started writing and remembering. I’m glad I did. I hope my experience will help others who have been affected by that day.
After Sept 11, I had frequent nightmares. I had nightmares almost every night for weeks. Then the nightmares came weekly. This went on for months. When it stopped coming regularly, I decided to start writing about my experience, not only on that fateful day but the days and months following it.
Those nightmares are still clear to me when I take time to remember them. And they are also still as terrifying. They are the chief reason I was reluctant to write down much of my post – Sept 11 experience. I wanted to forget and not dredge up any more painful reminders. On occasion, those dreams re-visit me and I wanted nothing to do with writing a story that might make them come alive again.
The nightmares always revolved around me in New York being chased by terrorists. In one dream, a small aircraft was flying low all over the city and I could see the terrorists standing in the airplane’s doorway looking for me. They looked like angry pirates with masks over parts of their face. I ran to the subway and realized there was not a person in sight. Then I realized it was because everyone was dead, except me. Being a survivor of the attacks haunted me in my sleep but did not bother me when I was awake.
I still have the hotel key from the Marriott Hotel at 3 World Trade Center and store receipts from the World Trade Center shops. I also have my mental image of the wonderful view looking out at the river, the grand plaza with the sculpture, the remarkable pushing of humanity endlessly pushing through broad basement corridors and the gleaming Twin Towers, which looked so tall they seemed to reach the sky. I remember the bronze statue of the businessman that fiercely stayed put in Liberty Park and all the small shops I used to visit on my frequent business trips there.
This memory now bears no resemblance to what was left after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. It is changed forever.
For people who were not affected by Sept 11, there is a huge disparity between what I experienced that day compared to what is seen on television and media. This disparity is evident in people’s comments.
People say, “You were smart to leave the building.”
I respond with,
“Smart has nothing to do with me getting out. I was just lucky to have left at the right time in the right place, where no debris fell on me outside. In fact, at that moment, it may have been smarter to stay put because there were risk of getting killed by falling debris outside.”
People say, “You should forget about this and put it behind you.”
I respond with,
“Yes, I escaped and am moving forward with my life. But how do you explain the feeling of having survived when so many others didn’t. Being a survivor and bearing witness to death and bloodshed is not something you can forget easily. Being a Sept 11 survivor will always be part of me.”
When Sept 11 anniversary approaches and I walk around with a heavy heart, people ask, “Who did you lose on Sept 11?”
My response is “I lost myself on Sept 11.”
Joyce Ng, Survivor 13th Floor, 3 World Trade Center
Living Beyond Sept 11. Copyright © 2004 by Joyce Ng