My Experience During 9/11

At the time of the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 I reflected on my experiences at that time. The phenomena of “missing persons” posters which appeared throughout Manhattan shortly after the tragic events is discussed as well as some other observations about this fateful event.

Several weeks ago we commemorated the 10th anniversary of 911 and like many of you. I reflected back on what I was doing and how that event impacted on our lives. The latter question will require much more continued contemplation. However, the memories of that day and subsequent weeks were quite meaningful.

I lived in the northern suburbs of New York City at the time and the local newspapers had photographs of cars in train station parking lots that were not picked up by commuters who had perished in the World Center attack. I did not think that I knew anyone personally who died or had a close family who was killed  in the tragedy. Several months later I found out that  a chaplain with whom I worked with from time to time at the medical center had lost his son who worked at the World Trade Center. Over the ensuing years I saw many patients whose lives were impacted significantly by this event and worked in intensive therapy with several of them.

On the morning of 9/11/01 I was at Westchester Medical Center when I heard of the unfolding events. The nearest television set was on a psychiatric inpatient service near my office. I sat with staff and patients and watched the second plane hit the tower. Although many of the patients had severe acute mental illness-schizophrenia, other psychosis, suicidal behavior etc., we all responded in the same manner. There were groans and tears and statements of  “those poor people.” There was no panic and no apparent incorporation of this reality into the patient’s delusions. It has been shown that people with decompensated mental illness often show improvement at least in their short term symptoms when they are faced with emergency or tragic events.

I was reminded of an experience I had while I was in training in New York City many years previously when there was a sudden unexpected blackout with loss of power citywide for at least several hours. I also was visiting on a psychiatric inpatient service when it occurred and most people handled it quite well. I eventually published a paper how this event did interact with the psychopathology of a two patients.

By coincidence I was scheduled to give a Grand Rounds presentation on September 21 , 10 days after 9/11 at a hospital in downtown Manhattan from which you would have been able to see the World Trade Center. Ironically the topic of my talk had been about disaster psychiatry but I changed it to specifically allow a discussion on how my colleagues had responded and what they had done to address the mental health issues related to this tragedy in their backyard. A center had been set up on Pier 92 for the survivors, families and friends  of the victims. Mental health professionals from all over the Metropolitan area donated their services to work with the Red Cross in helping these people with their physical and emotional needs.

At the time of this presentation, I walked around downtown Manhattan and the area surrounding ground zero. I noted the presence of something very interesting there and also scattered throughout Manhattan.. There were posters with pictures made by family and friends of people who had been in the World Trade Center at the time of the tragic events and did not come home. The posters, as you can see, were made from the point of view that these people were “missing.” They provided a description of the person with the request that if anybody were to see them they should call a specific telephone number. There were numerous such posters. The fact is that people were not found wondering throughout the city. The relatively few injured people who were brought to the hospital were identified and families were notified. Of course, the New York City morgue had a very sophisticated system of trying to contact any family members if they had made identification of the remains of victims. So what were these posters about?

They obviously were part of the denial phase of  the acute complicated grief that the survivors were beginning to feel as on some level they realized their  loved ones were killed. Within the next two weeks people began to make alterations in these posters which showed that they recognized that these people had died.  They crossed out the words “lost” or  “missing” and would write things like “in memory of”. The posters now would be adorned with flowers. I don’t recall this phenomena ever being reported in the psychiatric literature.

While I did not participate in the work on Pier 92, I was asked to do some “debriefing” activities for some organizations. One such group was the personnel of a major TV network. (I had done some previous work identifying the psychological trauma that members of the working press often experience in the course of their work). I was the co-leader of this group with a Professor from the Columbia School of Journalism.  Prior to this time debriefing activities would have meant trying to get the participants to express their emotional reactions to their recent experience in the disaster. More recent research had suggested that this wasn’t the best approach. In fact,  it might even make things worst. So our approach was a much more general approach in which we acknowledged the type of emotional symptoms that they might experience and made suggestions how to minimize them.

The evening before I worked with this group I had spoken with a family member of mine who told me that she had a dream that the well known television anchor from this network was having a personal conversation with her about the disaster. This dream appeared to reflect the importance that such TV personalities have in reassuring people at the time of frightening events. I was able to tell my relative that I spoke with the TV producer who worked with this anchor and she was going to tell him about her dream .

There has been a great deal written about this disaster in professional journals as well as in other media.We also will dearly hold on to our personal memories of that fateful day. Feel free to relate any of your experiences or thoughts about this day in the comment section below.