I thought I was a widow, as I watched the towers fall on 9-11
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I was asked to write a personal statement about my experience that day. With great pain, I did so . In 2006, I was asked to write another story about the health effects of 9-11. My husband, John Dunham (in the blue shirt and khaki pants) still has issues with being at the World Trade Center, but finally last year, he attended a luncheon with some of his fellow survivors of the World Trade Center Marriott, and we also visited the museum.
Why dredge all of this up yet again? Like any major event where there is still “living history,” I believe it is important for those who were a part of it to share with those who weren’t (or who weren’t even born yet) . With that, I hope you will indulge me as I re-tell my personal story as I remember it. Your comments or stories, are more than welcome.
Statement of Alison Blackman Dunham – September 7, 2006 *edited 9/11/14
My name is Alison Blackman Dunham. I live in Brooklyn Height in an apartment building, one block from the waterfront. On 9/11, my husband called me from the World Trade Center from the Marriott, where he was attended a conference. He was still inside. He said he’d heard a huge explosion and asked me if something had happened. I turned on my television and reported that one of the towers was on fire. While I was on the phone, the second plane made it’s turn and I watched, horrified, as it plowed into the other tower, and then later saw the first tower, collapse. I was close enough to hear the sounds of these events through my window.
After watching for a while, I went upstairs to the roof deck on the 10th floor for a clear view of the trade center, to see for myself what was really going on. I don’t know why I did it but perhaps it was just disbelief. I left the television on, which is something I’d never do normally. But before I went upstairs, I left a message for my mother in law in Colorado on her answering machine, because I knew she’d wake up and see NYC in chaos and I didn’t want her to worry. She said she kept my message for over a year. I have no recollection of what I told her.
When I got to the roof with my camera, I took some photos. I guess I needed to document something my brain could hardly process. Both towers were completely engulfed in smoke. In fact, the thing I remember most about that morning was that the thickest, blackest smoke I’d ever seen literally engulfed my view, from the tip of the Battery, to nearly the Empire State Building. As I watched, fascinated and horrified, the wind shifted and the giant, black cloud moved towards Brooklyn Heights. It was so dark and nasty that I went back downstairs to close my windows. Then, the second tower collapsed as I watched on television.
My sister lived in the DC area and her husband worked on Capitol Hill. I called her and we tried to make sense of what was happening up here and down in DC. We couldn’t. Then I called my father. He didn’t have much to say about it either. No one really did. Who could make sense of this?
Meanwhile, I kept trying every couple of minutes to find my husband but couldn’t. I assumed he was dead. I wondered how I would manage as a widow. My brain began racing, wondering what I was supposed to do first if he didn’t come home that night. I couldn’t even think straight.
Hours later, I finally located my husband. Even though I am a writer, I can’t even even begin to describe what kind of feeling of relief this was. I may not have the exact sequence of events correctly, but as I recall John telling me his story, he said that while he was on the phone with me (and I was screaming for him to leave the building and he was arguing with me that he had to wait for some colleagues to come out of their hotel rooms so they could attend an economics conference) he went outside (or was close to the exit). I think he wasn’t allowed out of the building at first, everything went dark and he and a colleague tried to help some woman outside. They might have stood there for a while wondering what to do, and as the second plane hit, while body parts and pieces of the jet plane were flying around, hitting the ground, a they ran to the World Financial Center and didn’t stop running until they got to Canal Street or 14th Street, I can’t remember which. Meanwhile, the scenes of desperate people holding hands and jumping, or diving alone out of the Trade Center Windows to a solitary death are scenes that traumatized him and haunted him for months (and still do). The body parts and pieces of the plane and fire and smoke reminded him of war, he later said. He wasn’t able to call me for hours, until the finally got to t someone’s office uptown which took hours, and then it took hours more for them to walk all the way back to Brooklyn.
That night, we had dinner with my husband’s sister and brother in law, grateful we were together, and we took in three survivors who had nowhere to go. I took photos of them on the roof with the smoldering ruins of the twin towers in the background and I have those photos…somewhere, but I don’t want to look at them. Then John and I helped the survivors we hosted to get back to Boston. The next day we met up with some neighbors and lit candles on the Brooklyn Promenade. We didn’t know what else to do. The world was quiet. That’s what I remember most–New York has a pulse a hum…and we’d lost it. As I recall, there were men with machine guns on our street c corner, it was surreal. We couldn’t get over the bridges or through the tunnel to leave Brooklyn, even though we really wanted to go somewhere else. We were trapped there, for a few days. The lack of freedom, seeing tanks, machine guns, a silent world of grieving people, and trying to process our own grief, that was almost overwhelming. I couldn’t believe this was America. This was Brooklyn, New York, and this was our new reality. We never had to remove our shoes and bring our belongings in little plastic bags when we were at airports, and we didn’t have to continually show ID to prove who we were, and that is just for starters. Anyone born after the World Trade Center attacks will never know what”freedom” used to be like.
Our windows remained closed literally for two months, as particulate matter from the World Trade Center literally rained down upon our neighborhood, permanently pitting our windows, and leaving pieces of clothing, Kantor Fitzgerald papers, and human ash (plus whatever other toxic waste was at the WTC) on our doorstep, and in the air we had to breathe. We could keep the windows closed, but we had to go outside where there was a fine to moderate coating of ash on literally everything we touched, and swirling in the air. From the moment the world trade center was hit, until about three months later, the debris was falling on our windows and all over the neighborhood, with the worst of it within the first 4 weeks. For a while, we were so traumatized from the event, the ash and debris weren’t on our minds, but as the weeks passed, my husband and I began to cough. Even then, I didn’t really think much about it, figuring that the weather was changing and that could have caused the persistent wheezing. When my cats starting wheezing and coughing, however, I began to realize that something was wrong. One cat died the next year, the other has wheezing fits. We had trouble breathing, too.
As to what we were breathing…..we live near one of the most polluted arteries in the city. If you dust our shelves, they are dusty again (the kind of dust you can write your name in) within an hour. When the WTC came down, we kept all our windows closed, but the debris that hit the windows coated them and in some cases, left them totally pitted. We had to replace them as it looked like you were seeing through waxed paper. We didn’t smell anything but outside, we could feel the particles–even though they were quite fine–landing on our clothes, our hair, our skin…for about a week. The actual, physical paper and other assorted ash literally coated the Brooklyn Heights streets for about two weeks….and then we still occasionally found a piece of paper from across the pond, which landed on our steps or around the neighborhood, in gardens, etc. There was quite a lot of it, actually. But within a month or so after the WTC stopped literally, smoking on a continual basis, the air started to clear. It was never really a huge, choking-type of smoke,,,,,just a soft dusting swirling around in the air.
I thank the brave men and women who rushed in to help save lives, when everyone else was trying to escape. I thank the rescue workers, as well. In fact, I volunteered with the Red Cross. I really wanted to go to the World Trade Center site and work in the pit, but they had enough people there, so I ended up manning a 9/11 hot line . What could I really say to people, since there was so little information? All I could do is tell people that my husband had been there, I’d lost friends and colleagues too, and I understood and would try and get them whatever information I could. Maybe it helped these anguished people desperate for information, just a little.
All that separated my family in Brooklyn from those in the pit, is a small bit of water. There really has been no mention of the fact that so many people have been exposed to nearly as much toxic material as those across the water, and there is no safety wall between the air at the World Trade Center, and the air across the river in Brooklyn.
I will never forget it. Do you remember it too?
Alison Blackman Dunham, (aka. “Advice Sister Alison”)
Editor in Chief of the Advice Sisters Web Site http://www.advicesisters.com
*9/11/2015: on Facebook today someone posted that they believe 9-11 is over and we shouldn’t bother with it anymore. He mentioned that there are horrific terrorists acts around the world and why aren’t we remember all of them? Here is my reply (your comments are more than welcome)
I don’t know where you were on 9/11 but I was close enough to the Twin Towers to feel the shock as they fell down and see the great cloud that covered everything from the battery up to the Empire State Building. smell it, and find bits of dead souls and papers and who knows what else, on my doorstep )for months. If I recall correctly, there were people with machine guns on my corner, and tanks on the main street. Who would have believed we’d ever see that in New York (as long as it wasn’t for a movie)..I was on the phone with my husband who was there at the Twin Towers about to attend a conference, when the when the planes hit . I was seeing it on television, and when his phone went dead, and when I didn’t hear from him for hours. I was sure he was among the victims on the ground. And as I watched people, the other plane hit and people were jumping and fleeing for their lives. My husband survived but he had PTSD . He still he has residual issues from watching people helpless and burning, hold hands and jump to their deaths because there was no other way out, and watched body parts splat on the ground in front of him as airplane parts were literally pummeling him like shrapnel. We personally lost so many neighbors and friends. So maybe you don’t give a CRAP as you put it, but every year I put up my recollection of that day on advicesisters.com you don’t have to read it of course but for those who didn’t experience it I think it is important to share first hand experiences. Its like the Holocaust, we shouldn’t forget it. Eventually everyone who was there or who was severely impacted will be gone. It might be maudlin to dwell, but although I agree there are lots of horrible terrorists acts here and around the world, this one was something spectacularly unique. If you experienced it you know what it feels like to think it’s the end of the world as we know it (and it was). Did you lose something special or are you one of those who wasn’t there, and then complains that we should forget about it by now. . For the families of the victims these memorials are a way to heal, not rehash the day. When we remember and tell our stories, we share with younger people and those who don’t really have a clue what it was like, that this can happen again. This is my personal opinion. You don’t have to read my recollection or go to a memorial or click of the TV if you’re had enough, but IMHO, 911 day should be remembered in any way people wish.