I was standing on the balcony of the 17th floor of 39 Broadway in Lower Manhattan, where I worked as the communications director of a national nonprofit organization, drinking a hot cup of coffee on a crisp morning, September 11, 2001. The balcony overlooked Rector Street, and the view looking north included the south face of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I watched, dumbfounded, as a Boeing jet dropped from the sky, flew in front of my nose, and crashed into the North Tower. Less than 10 minutes later, after watching the second plane hit, and seeing and smelling acrid smoke billow into our office, my colleagues and I slammed the balcony door shut, and evacuated the building.
Outside, we found chaos. Smoke-filled streets. Subway trains stopped. People looking up, watching for another attack. Uncertain about what would fall from the sky next, we returned to our lobby, where we huddled together for hours, watching the news—and waiting to learn when it was safe to walk home. At 11:30 a.m., 17 of us left together and walked north, through the dust of jet fuel and asbestos-laden building material. I fell through the door of my apartment on 35th Street around 3 p.m. Traumatized. But safe.
A Day to Remember
For many—myself included—9/11 is a day to remember the details. To never forget that a single terrorist act took the lives of our family, friends, and colleagues. I remember it as the day I stopped being so naïve about my safety. For days, ATMs were out of cash. Gas stations dried up. Grocery store shelves empty. We felt trapped, and violated.
I remember observing the U.S. military campaign “Shock and Awe” unfolding on the other side of the world, and feeling that going to work every day felt like visiting a war zone. Toxic dust covered the streets. I stopped sitting on the balcony to drink coffee. I started wearing a dust mask to walk from the subway to my office. I remember hearing about first responders getting sick from working at “the Pile.” And thinking, I’m only a few blocks away.
A Time to Reflect
In the 13 years that have passed since the terrorist attacks, I got married, had two children and moved an hour north, to Westchester County. The world has changed. I’ve had a chance to reflect on the amazing generosity of others who reached out to us New Yorkers and helped in the days, weeks, and months after 9/11. Over a decade later, many still dedicate their lives to helping those affected by 9/11.
I’ve learned about the strength of some of those affected, like Liz and Steve Alderman, who founded the Peter C. Alderman Foundation, in honor of their son, who was killed on 9/11. Their work has benefited the mental health of thousands of trauma victims around the world. I also admire the work of the Feal Good Foundation, an advocacy group that assists first responders whose health suffers as a result of their rescue and recovery work at Ground Zero. I’ve encountered local heroes who died as a result of illnesses contracted from working in the rubble—and learned about the scope and dangers of 9/11 illnesses, including deadly cancers such as mesothelioma, that have affected tens of thousands exposed to toxic dust in Lower Manhattan. Many health organizations continue to offer service to 9/11 responders, such as the World Trade Center Health Program at Mt. Sinai Hospital.
Studies have shown that Ground Zero workers needed more than a dust mask to protect themselves from the direct exposure to the poisonous, asbestos fibers released into the air after the collapse of the Twin Towers. Exposure to asbestos from the World Trade Center is a large-scale public health problem that will take decades to remedy.
Working with RTK Environmental Group has opened my eyes to just how much (or little) exposure to asbestos can cause serious health problems, including mesothelioma, asthma, and other respiratory ailments. Most people—as I was—are unaware that thousands of building materials used in the construction of homes and commercial spaces have been manufactured with asbestos (think insulation, pipe insulation, floor tiles, adhesives, roof shingles, siding, and textured ceilings).
Sadly, the collapse of a 110-story building is how many people first became aware of the dangers of asbestos exposure.