Twenty years ago, the devastating attacks of 9/11, changed America forever when the unfathomable became a reality, as 19 Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial aircrafts and carried out coordinated suicide attacks against U.S. targets. Two of those planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, one hit the Pentagon, and the fourth crashed into a field in Shanksville, PA. Thanks to the heroism of the passengers and crew of flight #United 93 who fought off the hijackers, that attack which was meant for the U.S. Capitol was thwarted.
The tragic events of September 11, 2001, will be seared in our memory as if it were yesterday. Each one of us old enough, can remember with great clarity where we were and what we were doing as we focused on the most horrific attack ever on American soil. We can recount, in slow motion detail, our disbelief as we watched a second plane crash into the south tower. Now we knew.
No accident. Terror.
Our hearts were ripped out as our iconic twin towers collapsed and left Lower Manhattan engulfed in smoke and dust, killing thousands of innocent people and shattering America’s innocence. As the Pentagon was struck, and another plane went down in Pennsylvania, you could feel the wedge of history cleaving the before from the after.
In the hours, days and months that followed, many of us encountered recurring waves of nauseating visceral reactions of despair, incomprehension, fear, sadness, anxiety, anger, and vengeance.
One good thing to come out of this tragedy was all the unity on that day and what seemed like a good while. We were Americans first because that’s what mattered. Our nation was attacked and we came together strong. The problem is that Americans have a short-term memory, and that unity is long gone. As Jon Stewart said, “a delayed bomb filled with hate has exploded and it’s ruining our country.”
Yes, that about sums it up.
Those who experienced the WTC attacks and those who repeatedly witnessed the attacks, whether on TV or in the news, were at greater risk of the effects of trauma. PTSD was common bi-product of the events of 9/11, followed by depression and substance abuse.
Thousands were exposed to toxins either while in the towers or during part of the “Rescue & Recovery” effort at Ground Zero.
When the planes crashed into the towers, 24,000 gallons of jet fuel ignited a fire that spread to 100,000 tons of organic debris and 230,000 gallons of transformer, heating diesel oils in the buildings, setting off a giant toxic plume of soot and dust from pulverized building materials. Tens of thousands of people who lived or worked in the neighborhood at the time found themselves breathing in air thick with toxic fumes and particles from the pulverized, burning skyscrapers. Many have since become sick with cancer, but none have had the dramatic exposure to cancer than the first responders. Given what they are trained to do, they were exposed longest to all kinds of carcinogens and combustion products, and even with masks, their lungs were exposed to these toxins for longer periods. At some point, your organs will shut down, particularly with the added toxins of jet fuel.
But the good news, is that recent research has found, that first responders were also about 35% more likely than the general population to survive their cancers, which they found when comparing cancer deaths among first responders to cancer deaths in the population in the New York area.
Many first responders now suffer from respiratory illnesses such as asthma or COPD, a result of breathing in toxic fumes, and the giant WTC dust cloud that contaminated the air after the attacks and the collapse of both towers. Many with illnesses have been deteriorating over the last 15 years and more and more people who were at Ground Zero are sick and dying.
For many that were physically there in lower Manhattan, the 9/11 attacks have left psychological scars. It took months for people to work themselves out of this funk, though the truth of the matter is that New Yorkers were experiencing trauma, depression and PTSD.
And while the majority of New Yorkers, have more or less recovered in the last twenty years — a sizable share of survivors are still grappling with the shock and horror of that dreadful day.