The 9/11 stories we've never told anyone

After I saw the towers fall at 12, fear took over my life. I interviewed my classmates -- and found I wasn't alone

Published September 11, 2011 1:01PM (EDT)

Christine Byrd-Tucker, Mike Mazzarise and author Helaina Hovitz were children living and going to school in downtown Manhattan when they saw the towers hit on 9/11.
Christine Byrd-Tucker, Mike Mazzarise and author Helaina Hovitz were children living and going to school in downtown Manhattan when they saw the towers hit on 9/11.

We were 12 years old and in our first-period class at I.S.89 when the planes hit the twin towers. It was the second day of seventh grade, and the only thing separating our school from the World Trade Center was a highway.

Parents rushed in to the cafeteria where we had been evacuated and pulled out their children amid the chaos. I knew mine would not be among them. My dad worked in Staten Island; my mom, far uptown at Rockefeller Center. I began panicking, wondering how I would get home to my elderly grandparents. Eventually I begged my neighbor and her 13-year-old son to walk me home. We left just minutes before the first tower fell.

What we witnessed as we pushed through crowds and ran for our lives has become common knowledge in the past decade, though it is still fresh in my mind. The sickening thud of bodies hitting cars, the sound of the tower crumbling, and our universe engulfed in the cloud. People screamed and sobbed and suffered heart attacks on the spot. The other kids in I.S. 89 had gotten out of the war zone, but only my neighbor and I were running into it. We wandered around desperately for hours, trying to find a way into the east side where my grandparents lived, thinking that bombs were being dropped on the surrounding buildings, that fighter jets were shooting at us. We had no idea if we would be killed in an instant, or what was going to happen next. It seemed the world was ending. But it was only the world as I knew it that ended that day.

Life after 9/11 was just beginning.

In the days that followed, we remained without water, electricity or anybody to help us as the fiery remains of the nearby twin towers burned on. We avoided going outside at all costs as the air was full of toxic particulates. Armed National Guardsmen were posted at every corner, and streets were barricaded. I didn't have school for weeks. We didn't have a phone for months. We got power back in time to see Giuliani telling us to go about our normal lives.

"We're a free country. Let's act like free people," he said.

But "moving on" was not easy in the era of orange alerts, anthrax scares, "weapons of mass destruction" and shoe bombs -- particularly for the kids living and going to school in Lower Manhattan. For 10 years, we grew up physically ducking planes as they flew overhead. A siren, a scream, a bus passing over a speed bump, could send us into a state of panic. These sounds are as common in New York as the sound of crickets in the country. Our class relocated to a school in a different neighborhood, and when a truck tire popped once during recess, the I.S. 89ers hit the ground or ran around searching for teachers, sobbing and hyperventilating. The other kids just stared at us like we were crazy.

I had always been a sensitive, anxious child who suffered from insomnia and cried every day when my mother tried to leave me at school. But in the months that followed 9/11, I lived in my head 24/7, and that was a frightening place to be. On Christmas Eve 2001, I was at Toys R Us in Times Square when I became seized with the certainty that bombs would fall on us and mobs would trample each other. I had panic attacks on the subway long before any psychiatrist could prescribe sedatives, shaking whenever the train stopped in the tunnel. "I'm going to die! I have to escape!" I would think, biting my nails and silently screaming as everyone else read the newspaper.

Twelve is a hard age for any kid, and it's impossible to know if fear and despair would have been a part of my story regardless of that day. But in the wake of 9/11, fear and despair took over my life. I slept on the floor of my parents' room. I clung to my family as friends went to sleepovers and sleep-away camp, afraid I might lose my parents and grandparents unexpectedly. My inner life became chaotic, and paranoid thinking became a way of keeping myself safe. I began physically hurting myself and my parents. I had humiliating crying fits on the city sidewalks, public fights with boyfriends, and normal city kids began to talk: That girl is out of her mind. I became dependent on sleeping pills to quiet the hell of my imagination. By 10th grade, I could no longer drag myself out of bed in the morning, which resulted in more than 20 absences within five months. I used to be so brave -- one of my mother's favorite things about me. Now, I struggled every day not to jump in front of the 6 train. How could I live the rest of my life like this?

I went from therapist to therapist, trying dozens of medications that made me sick to my stomach but didn't work. Then, in 2009, as I neared desperation in college, something finally clicked. A psychologist suggested cognitive behavioral therapy, which turned into work with a dialectical behavioral therapist, all of it leading to one diagnosis that finally made sense: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

It had never occurred to me to seek this therapy before. My first therapist at age 12 mentioned that she saw signs of PTSD, but no other therapist or psychiatrist had so much as mentioned it since. And why would it occur to me? Wasn't PTSD for war veterans? Then again, hadn't I been in a war zone?

This therapist -- my eighth -- showed me how I was reliving the trauma of that day every time something bad happened. Instead of slapping prescriptions into my hand, she helped me to change from the inside out, helping me unlearn patterns of thinking, reacting, interacting and perceiving the world around me that had kept me rooted in fear for so long. It wasn't easy; it's been a lot of hard work over the past three years. As I stumbled down the road to recovery, occasionally slipping on the alcohol still in my path, I realized I couldn't be alone in this. What about the other children who had been there with me on that day -- what had happened to them? How had their lives been affected? I needed to find out.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

At the end of 2010, I began getting in touch with my former classmates. In the course of many interviews, I heard about struggles and pain that could have been lifted from my own story: I thought I'd never be normal like my friends were. I couldn't just relax and have fun. I panicked if plans changed. I cut myself. I banged my head against a wall. What seemed like a small problem to others felt like a tragedy to me. I felt branded, wounded, damaged and crazy. Getting upset was never just getting upset -- it lasted for hours, days and months. I cut off friends at the first sign of betrayal, but mostly they were paranoid delusions.

Only a few of my classmates had tried therapy, and those who did became lost in the same labyrinth of misdiagnosis and prescription pills. Some had become shut-ins, some became crystal meth addicts, but whatever their story, normal teen angst seemed to be amplified, and their parents -- caring, supportive -- watched helplessly as the happy children they loved receded into a dark place nobody could reach.

But the most common thing I heard was this: "I've been waiting 10 years for someone to ask me my story."

It was shocking. You would think the kids who had witnessed the trauma would be the ones who told their story most often. But instead, my classmates stayed quiet. They didn't want to sound like they were bragging. Or they were frustrated listening to stories that began, "I was freaked out when I saw it on the news." Or they were horrified listening to ill-informed, insensitive accounts of the day from people who hadn't been there, people who didn't know what it was like to know that your parents could not protect you, that no one could. Or they were furious when people told them to just "move on." They stayed silent for the same reason teenagers throughout history stay silent about what cuts deepest: They did not believe anyone would understand.

My neighbor Michael Mazzarise, then 14, stepped onto his terrace on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, collected handfuls of debris and held them in his hand, thinking, Who am I holding? What else is in here that's going to kill me?

That night, he helped doctors and nurses in residence at the neighboring New York Downtown Hospital up and down the slippery, ash-covered stairs of his building with a flashlight. Mike wanted to go down to ground zero to help with the rescue efforts, but his parents wouldn't let him. Those are stories he never tells, though, and he has not talked about that day with his own family since.

"Whenever I left the state and people knew I was from Lower Manhattan, I lied about being here at the time to avoid what I perceived as intrusive questions," he said. "My counselors at school tried to talk to me about it, but I was unresponsive." Our interview was the first time he'd spoken about his experience. Afterward, he had nightmares five nights a week and was sick to his stomach upon waking.

After 9/11, the talkative kid who worked the room on his first day of high school became silent. He stopped socializing, began crying for no reason, and exploded at people with unbridled anger. He felt a strong dissociation between himself and the world, which now felt surreal.

"I didn't understand the way I thought and acted, but I knew I was overreactive and prone to emotional outbursts," he says now. "My friends were always telling me to chill out. I only slept for a few hours every few days. My parents saw how pale I was. I looked sickly. But the nightmares were so bad that I avoided sleep. The thoughts that came when I tried to lie down were morbid."

He began getting into fights and acting recklessly. The lines between reality and fantasy were blurred. He fell in with criminals, repeatedly put himself in dangerous situations -- from speeding down highways at 120 mph to provoking fights with cops. Desperate for an escape from the misery of simply being, he began binge drinking day and night, which continued throughout college. After losing a friend in a plane crash his senior year of high school, he wondered about therapy but was still too afraid of being "labeled" to seek help. He self-medicated with psychotropic and prescription drugs, attempting to try to "map out and see what was happening in my mind." Today, he still asks himself, "Is taking a harmful drug so willingly and excessively a form of suicide?" He dreams of joining the Coast Guard to help rescue people in disaster zones, but his psychological issues still stand in the way.

"I'm not even sure someone like me can make it," he says.

Former I.S. 89 student Michael Lewis, now 22, developed severe depression by age 15 and stayed locked in his room alone on weekends and after school. He began to have dreams that he was carrying out school shootings and started making plans to drop out and run away. Soon he began planning to take his own life. Another former classmate, Greg Shultz, also 22, started having violent thoughts in high school. He describes it as "being strapped into a chair and forced to watch your mind torture you 24 hours a day." He was in and out of rehab for drugs and alcohol abuse until his parents sent him away to a mental health wilderness facility in the 11th grade.

Former I.S. 89er Christine Byrd-Tucker, now 21, remembers what it was like to be a teenager always on the lookout for another attack. The first thing she still does whenever she goes anywhere is hatch an escape plan. She avoided the subway at all costs, even if it meant walking for miles or taking three buses and tripling her commute time, but soon, buses came to feel unsafe too.

"I had to make it my business to know as much as I could about everything and everyone in the world around me," she says now. "People in other countries are blowing up buses? Well, I take the M22 bus, so that's what's going to get blown up here."

She battled chronic insomnia and had no energy to do the things she used to love that now, like everything else, had a new darkness to it, a shadow of what it used to be. Her high school was on the 13th floor of a high-rise building on Wall Street, and she often worried about not being able to get out.

"I was a mess," she says. "Everyone seemed to be making friends, but I couldn't. I wouldn't give anyone the opportunity to know me."

She still avoids crowds at all costs. She still steps off the subway platform if she doesn't feel safe and waits for the next train. "We're always the first place people want to attack." For years, she says, "the media and government kept telling us about new plans to attack this place on this day -- when do I finally get to live?"

Like other former classmates I interviewed, Jaclyn Kopel was not just crippled by that day but also inspired by it. She still suffers from a number of life-threatening health problems she traces back to 9/11 but pushes through as a teacher who wants to be part of a generation that finds solutions to the problems we're facing now.

Thanks to 10 years of misinformation, Kopel, now 23, still hears questions from her students like, "Are all towelheads terrorists?" A 9/11 curriculum does not exist, not in New York State, not anywhere, and it is disturbing how many lessons we have not learned  (as proven during the Park51 debacle). Kids show up to the tribute site not knowing what happened there on that day.

The media likes to talk about kids growing up in the "shadow of 9/11," the idea that this generation has inherited a sense of impending doom. It's an idea held up by studies showing a hyper-awareness of danger and a sense of hopelessness among American children and teenagers. According to a 2008 survey in the Journal of Adolescent Health, many U.S. youth ages 14 to 22 expect to die before age 30.

But "living in the shadow of 9/11" means something very different to at least 16 children who grew up in Lower Manhattan. It means being engulfed in the "shadow" of the dust cloud, then watching it hover over your home for months (if your home wasn't destroyed). It means standing in the "shadow" of your apartment building whose entire north side had been burned off, allowing you to look directly into people's apartments. It means living in the "shadow" of your health that's been compromised from breathing toxic fumes. It means living in the "shadow" of the person you could have been, which was more than just interrupted.

Thomas Panevino, then 11, was the first child to be picked up from I.S.89. On his way home to Gateway Plaza almost directly underneath the towers, he looked up to see a woman in a blue dress holding hands with two men as they jumped to their death, splattering down onto the pavement in front of him. He turned to see another woman half melted away by jet fuel lying in a pool of blood on the sidewalk. He and his father soon found themselves crawling under benches as the first tower fell, debris blowing across his face in the darkness. After the second tower collapsed, the police frantically warned everyone that the entire island was going to blow up, and Thomas and his father joined thousands of others swarming boats that ferried survivors to New Jersey. His boat nearly capsized under the weight of the crowd. As he looked behind him, he saw the smoke spread over the city. Thomas' mother went for coffee every morning with her friend at a cafe in the World Trade Center. He did not know if she was alive or dead.

Now, when he hears the term "9/11 generation" bandied about, he wonders, "Who are these other people? A generation of what? A generation of whom? For me and others who lost everything on that Tuesday morning, 9/11 isn't a generation; it is my life. It is my every day. The idea of this simply being a generational movement seems to hint at the idea that there will be a definite ending to all that we have endured, and that will never be the case."

A grand total of two studies have been done on the effects of that day on children who were there. They have not found anything substantial and were only conducted with grade school children. The World Trade Center Health Registry is just now starting to collect data on young adults. But I can tell you from talking to my classmates that we have wounds that were left untreated, and we became worse because of it. It was as if we all just became invisible.

Now, it's time to be seen.

By Helaina Hovitz

Helaina Hovitz graduated from the New School in 2011. She is an experienced journalist who has written for The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Teen Vogue, among other publications. She is currently writing her first book.

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9/11 Life Stories