Thursday, September 17, 2009

Survivors, public try to cope

By Donna St. George and Avram Goldstein

Washington Post , September 24, 2001

WASHINGTON — His red-brick town house is draped with an American flag. Inside, the sofa is a soft shade of Army green, and the room is fragrant with roses. Two dozen in one vase, two dozen in another. Maj. John Thurman, still recovering from the Pentagon attack, has found new comfort in all of these things.

At night, it is harder.

In his dreams, Thurman sees the two colleagues he was with the day the Pentagon exploded, fellow workers who succumbed to the heat and smoke as he tried to lead them toward an escape route.

In his dream, his office mates are not missing or dead. They are unscathed, talking, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

"How was your weekend?" the conversation starts.

"How about those Dallas Cowboys?" someone says, laughing.

The dream is a soothing wish for the life John Thurman left behind, the way the world looked before Sept. 11, before he crawled on his elbows in utter darkness, choking on a dense, unbreathable smoke that ultimately claimed many lives. But not his.

That was the day that America watched the unthinkable unfold — mass violence from abroad descending on U.S. cities. More than 6,000 people dead or missing. Two American icons up in flames. And now, the specter of a protracted, vexing war.

It remains so great a trauma to the national psyche that experts say it is not just injured survivors such as Thurman who struggle with the implications.

It is the country at large — anyone who can imagine being seated on one of the hijacked planes, trapped inside a burning office, bidding goodbye by cell phone in the face of imminent death. It is not only those who empathize or grieve but also those who in small moments — dropping a child at school, leaving a friend, boarding a jet — find their confidence shaken. The ordinary is not as predictable as it was.

"We're all changed by this," said psychologist Ronald Wynne, president of Washington Assessment and Therapy Services, which has gone to 20 Washington, D.C.- area businesses to assist workers struggling with the emotional fallout.

In Washington, members of the clergy have become so overwhelmed by questions and anxiety that crisis training is planned for about 200 of them and a comparable number of mental health professionals, said Renee Lohman, executive director of Washington Behavioral HealthCare.

"Everyone is feeling inundated and not adequately prepared to deal with the questions they are getting," Lohman said.

These are questions that arise from shattered expectations, uncertain futures, amorphous fear, anxiety and anger. As so many people have observed, America will never feel as safe as it did before Sept. 11. The illusion of homeland safety is gone.

Perhaps no one knows this better than survivors of the terrorist attacks — those who got away. Many are only now being released from hospitals, going home. Like the rest of America, they struggle to move on, but many find themselves captive to the power of human memory and to the enormity of what has happened in the past 12 days.

Thurman, 35, does not shy away from the details. They are hard, and some, he says, still hurt.

The Army major was at his computer in the office of the deputy chief of staff of personnel at 9:38 a.m., when he felt a percussive WHOOSH, then a blast. Almost immediately the blaze was so intense that the only available air was at floor level.

At first, two colleagues crawled behind him in search of an exit. But when Thurman found a door, it was intensely hot-fire on the other side. By the time he made his way to an opposite exit, one co-worker had fallen silent. Then the other did.

He pulled on his colleagues. They did not respond. He was gasping for air, knowing he was about to collapse. He staggered out the exit and pleaded for help. "They're in there. They're in there. You've got to go get them." But by then, the fire and smoke made it too dangerous.

"I feel I should have been able to do something," he recalls telling one friend in recent days.

"Had you done any more, you would've been among the missing," the buddy reassured.

At his home in Washington, Thurman reflects on this: "That's hard to get to. Objectively, you can. But emotionally . . . I'm going to think about these people for the rest of my life."

In her gracious colonial in Mitchellville, Md., Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills is resting reluctantly, two days out of the hospital. Her skin is bruised. She has burns on her shoulder, and her left arm is injured.

But Wills wants to be back at the Pentagon. For days, she has been focused on the work she did not complete Sept. 11, when a staff meeting that dragged on too long probably saved her life. Her close friend, a co-worker whose desk was so close the two could almost whisper, is missing.

Her tortured push to get out of the building, head-to-toe in a human chain of fleeing colleagues, is still vivid in her mind. She very nearly died.

Still, the unfinished work is nagging at her.

"Don't worry about that stuff," colleagues have insisted.

But the work, the job, is a stretch for the old normalcy. The experts say that this is healthy. They say that when crisis strikes as intensely as it did Sept. 11, there are some predictable patterns of human behavior, in spite of many personal differences.

That goes for survivors such as Wills and for the country as a whole.

Once the initial state of emergency is over, many people grow numb, the trauma being too much to process. How do you understand what was once unimaginable? Often a little later, emotional realities bear down — feelings of sadness, rage, fear, horror, confusion.

"I call this the world of terrible knowledge," said psychologist Jeffrey Jay, director of the Center for Post-Traumatic Study in Washington. The rhythms of ordinary life, he said, are shocked by "a sense of vulnerability of oneself and everyone else."

Twelve days after the Pentagon attack, Michael Petrovich, 32, is out of the hospital, his body healing well from first- and second-degree burns on his face and ears. But he finds it hard to get over his anger.

"I'm getting very argumentative with my wife, my friends, everyone-and that's not healthy," he said.

An Army specialist who lives at Fort Belvoir in suburban northern Virginia, Petrovich works in the Pentagon's office of personnel, which was particularly hard hit. He joined the chain of workers trying to escape through the suffocating smoke and approaching flames. The dead included his car-pool buddy.

"I'm angry at myself for not getting this guy out I drive to work with every day. I'm angry at him for not getting out. I'm angry at the terrorists, for sure. And I'm angry at the people who don't fund our intelligence community enough."

He reflected, "I'm very angry at a lot of people — and some of them for totally irrational reasons."

His brittle emotions are more common than not — among survivors and much of the nation.

"People are just so raw right now," said Patricia Hawkins, a psychologist at Washington's Whitman-Walker Clinic who said the issue has come up in therapy sessions. "People are in a state of shock and disbelief."

Another attack in Washington is about the worst of possibilities for Racquel Kelley, 32, a mother of four who works as a civilian computer technician in the Army's Information Management Support Center.

When American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon, the impact knocked the shoes off Kelley's feet. As she and two office mates held each other tightly and tried to flee, she cut her feet badly. She was burned, too — on one hand, her ears and a lip.

"I'm just grateful to God to be given this second chance," she said.

Still, as glad as she is to be alive, living itself is sometimes hard.

"At night I just sit up in the bed with my husband," Kelley said. "I'm just terrified. There's not much he can do but hold me and tell me it's going to be okay. He's been very supportive, but he can't make the dreams or the thoughts of the terrorists go away."

She worries that this may not be the end. "It's not over. There's going to be a lot more killing before this is over, and there are going to be innocent victims," she said. "I can try and hope, but I don't think I'll ever be normal again."

Lt. Col. Marion Ward is still on crutches. As he escaped from the Pentagon, in the human chain of workers crawling out of the personnel office, he finally was so overcome by smoke inhalation that he jumped to safety from a second-story window.

His left knee, shin and ankle were severely strained.

Now home in Springfield, Va. with his wife and three children, Ward cannot help but dwell on those who did not make it. He was at the staff meeting that Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills attended. Three of their colleagues, he said, are unaccounted for.

"I still wake up and try to remember where those three people were and why they weren't in the chain," he said. He knows others who didn't make it. "It keeps you awake at night, and when you open your eyes, there's invariably another question on your mind."

The way Ward comes to terms with the heartache, he said, is through his larger religious faith. It is what kept him going when he thought he might die.

And he offered his own belief: "There are two things to take out of this: Good wins in the end, and love is stronger than hate. We haven't seen the end yet, but good will win."

September 24, 2001

No comments: