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 a few years ago I encouraged him to attend 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 and again 9/11//17
As I Remember It…
I live in Brooklyn Heights, one block away 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 told him one of the towers was on fire. but while I was talking to my husband the second plane made it’s turn and I watched, horrified, as it plowed into the other tower.
Not long ater, the first tower collapsed. I was close enough to hear the sounds of these events through my window.
I watched, frozen, for a while. Then I went upstairs to the roof floor for a clear view of the World 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?
I Thought I Was a Widow
Somehow, realizing that my husband was right in the center of this disaster, I thought he must be dead. Instantly, I was a widow.
But I kept trying every couple of minutes to find my husband and couldn’t. My mind went into “practical mode” but there wasn’t any way to process what was happening. My brain began racing, wondering what I was supposed to do first if he didn’t come home that night.
Hours later, I finally did get in touch with my husband. I can’t even even begin to describe the relief.
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).
At first, he said, no one was allowed out of the building so they were trapped. But everything went dark. John 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.
Body parts and pieces of the jet plane were flying around, hitting the ground, so 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.
Back at home, I was watching the scenes of desperate people holding hands and jumping, or diving alone out of the Trade Center Windows to a solitary death. But these are scenes that traumatized my husband for months because he saw it live.
The body parts and pieces of the plane and fire and smoke reminded him of war, he later said.
Finally, a Phone Call!
My husband wasn’t able to call me for hours. Finally he ended up in someone’s uptown office and then, it had to walk all the way home to Brooklyn. It took hours. I think he said that Brookyn Borough President Marty Markowitz or his staff was handing out water to people on the Brooklyn Bridge.
We Are Family
That night, we had dinner with my husband’s sister and brother in law, grateful we were together. In our family for a few days were three survivors who had nowhere to go.
The next day I took photos of them on the roof with the smoldering ruins of the twin towers in the background and I still have those photos…somewhere, but I don’t want to look at them.
John and I helped the survivors we hosted to get back to Boston.
A Silent New York
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 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 in our own neighborhood, at least 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. Life would never be so free, again.
Anyone born after the World Trade Center attacks will never know what”freedom” used to be like when you didn’t literally disrobe at airport security or show your ID to get into a building, or have your belongings searched.
Pitted Windows, Broken Hearts
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.
For at least three months, debris was falling on our windows and all over the neighborhood, with the worst of it within the first 4 weeks. Then, as the weeks passed, my husband and I began to cough.
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 pitted the glass. We had to replace them as it looked like you were seeing through waxed paper.
Venturing 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 landing on our steps and everywhere nearby.
There was always a reminder, a soft dusting swirling around in the air.
All that Remains:
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 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 .
On the Red Cross help line, I really didn’t know what to say. 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.
In 2015 after I posted this on Facebook, someone wrote that he didn’t give a CRAP (his words not mine) and it is time to forget 9-11. because there are horrific terrorist acts around the world and why aren’t we remembering all of them?
I am not repeating my full response. But consider: by now, many people reading this 9-11 feature weren’t even born then And, like the holocaust and other horrific historical events, eventually everyone who was there or who were severely impacted by it, will be gone. We should never forget.
And, for the families of the victims these memorials are a way to heal, not rehash the day.
Alison Blackman Dunham, (aka. “Advice Sister Alison”)
Editor in Chief of the Advice Sisters Web Site http://www.advicesisters.com