8:46 AM EST this coming Saturday marks 9 years since that plane crashed through a crisp, blue Autumn sky and into the first tower. It seems both distant and like yesterday. Sitting here now in my office writing this blog I can easily conjure the acrid smell that took over downtown New York, came through my window, and then lingered for months. At the same time, it seems like something that never happened, like a distant memory I'm borrowing from someone else. Left to its own devices memory does that, makes that which is most salient most important while creating whatever emotional distance we need to go on. We have to expend effort remembering what actually happened. And if we don't, if we don't take the time to remember, we will forget.
I was listening to WNYC, our local public station, before leaving the house for a 9:15 appointment when I heard a casual report that there was some sort of fire at the World Trade Center. Not thinking much of it, I turned the radio off, left the house, and got on the subway.
After climbing the steps back up at 7th Ave. and 12th St. I saw the scar on the North Tower. People were starting to gather at the corners to stare. But I had that appointment so I high-tailed it east across 12th to get to my office.
By the time I got to 6th Avenue the stares had turned to fear, there were tears, and the South tower was also spitting smoke and fire. Several people were already saying "we're under attack," "it must be an attack, not a helicopter accident."
I make it down the block on time for my 9:15 appointment. As that first session inches towards its 10 AM conclusion, my patient and I feel things rumble and shake. Subtle, but unmistakeable. Palpable relief crosses both our faces. She says must be helicopters and planes flying to the rescue. I say something like "thank goodness, the cavalry"—sometimes hope is everywhere in psychotherapy.
My next patient comes in a little after 10 and says a tower fell down. What?!?! I leave her sitting in my office frantically calling her friend who works at the WTC. I run to the corner fully expecting to see both towers. Instead I see one burning tower and some smoked filled sky. I come back to learn her friend ran late that morning and was OK. At 10:28 the ground rumbled and shook, again. This was not hopeful. We both knew what had happened. Psychotherapy also has to let reality have its say.
It's now 11:15 or so. I had been on the phone. My wife and family are all safe. All appointments cancelled. I hear on the radio a request from the Red Cross for mental-health professional volunteers. I start trekking uptown to the Red Cross offices at 64th Street. No subways or buses. I know its more than 50 blocks but I had to go.
6th Avenue has few cars, no cabs. Instead, its filled with dazed, sooty people slowly walking north. Then I see a cab driver sitting on the hood of his car near 14th Street. I tell him I'm a psychologist and have to go to 64th Street to volunteer for the Red Cross. He says get in, tells me he's from Pakistan. He leaves the meter off and won't take any money.
Several hours later I'm on Pier 94 on the west side of Manhattan, one of three professionals with several dozen other Red Cross volunteers. We are assigned to what is supposed to be the secondary morgue for when the responders begin pulling bodies from the ruble. We set up the waiting area and the walkways. We are told what to do, how to escort family members. My job was to be "mental health triage." When relatives and friends walked from the waiting area to the morgue to identify remains, I was to tag along with the volunteers, accompanying them whenever I thought someone might need professional help.
Then we started to wait. We drank bottles of iced tea. We waited some more. More tea. We watched the smoke rise and at 5:20 saw 7 WTC collapse. Eventually the unimaginable horror of the day started to dawn; there would be no remains to identify, at least not by friends and family and not on that day.
At 9:30 PM, the Red Cross sent us home. I start walking. I keep wearing my Red Cross vest. A city bus pulls up. The driver, disheveled and exhausted, opens the door to the nearly empty bus, asks where I'm going, and tells me to get in. He wasn't collecting fares.
Three days later I'm back in the office sitting with a young pregnant woman I had only known by name. I knew they married—it was a source of tremendous joy—but he had finished therapy before they decided to start a family. A former hipster then budding family man and commodities trader already hard at work at his desk when the planes hit. She and I cried together. She asked if she should start therapy. I told her maybe eventually if needed but now she should surround herself with family and friends, she needed love and time right now, not treatment. I got a birth announcement and then Xmas cards for the next few years.
That weekend several colleagues and I created an online database to register mental and behavioral health clinicians who wanted to volunteer. Over three months we registered more than 2,000 licensed professionals. We sent along hundreds of names to those who requested volunteers. One request came from St. Paul's at Ground Zero. They needed a mental health presence at their relief station. I submitted my name and was selected.
Wearing hard-hat, paper mask, and gloves I walked around Ground Zero with ministry students giving bottles of water, Red Bull, and chewing gum to first-responders working the pile. Every few minutes everyone stood respectively still while remains were removed. Life is cherished when it gets taken away.
I met Janet Bachant that night, another psychologist volunteering like I had. She had already started NYDCC (the New York Disaster Counseling Coalition). Her vision was free mental and behavioral health services for all first-responders and their family. They helped us, no questions asked. Now it was our turn. I joined the Board.
Firefighters, cops, EMS workers are helpers, they don't ask for help even when they need it. So, we went to them. For 6 years, until people started forgetting to remember and funding dried up, we reached several thousand first-responders and family members. We arranged for free, confidential treatment for PTSD, depression, anxiety, and the like. We arranged treatment for individuals, couples, families. We did resilience and relationship training, helped with retirement planning. And, at the same time, we also helped ourselves; when you're feeling helpless, the best thing to do is help someone.
Taking time to remember is the only way not to forget. And we need to remember—especially now—that this happened to all of us and to values I hope we can still cherish. Our "indivisible" nation "with liberty and justice for all" has become destructively divided with shrinking supplies of both liberty and justice. We need to take time to remember that 9/11 happened to all of us, and we still need all of us to heal. So, take a moment over the next few days to remember 9 years ago and then use that memory to fuel some old-fashioned American religious tolerance, inclusiveness, and political honesty: with liberty and justice for all.