In the aftermath of the 17th anniversary of September 11, I offer a remembrance of several groups of people—all Queens court personnel—whom I spent a day with in their courthouse, just three days after the 2001 terrorist attack.
The people I met with included individuals with missing relatives or friends, individuals with relatives or friends confirmed dead, individuals who were in the World Trade Center complex during the attack, individuals with family members who barely escaped, and individuals who witnessed the attack and collapse of the Twin Towers from courthouse windows. All were deeply affected. Most were in a state of shock and disbelief.
When I arrived at the courthouse, I learned that I would be meeting with three groups of 8 to 12 people each. I was called in by an official from an Employee Assistance Program to offer a supportive group experience. We met in a vacant courtroom. I arranged chairs around two adjacent prosecution and defense tables.
As I awaited the first group, a court officer said, “Today should be interesting.” I asked him what he meant. He said, “It’s foreclosure Friday.” He explained that every Friday they have an auction of foreclosed property and, typically, about 200 Arab-Americans participate in the auction, signaling a sense of mounting unease with people of Middle Eastern descent.
I greeted the first group, and one by one the participants revealed signs and symptoms of trauma and stress. These included numbness, shock, headaches, loss of appetite, aches and pains, frequent trips to the bathroom, sleeplessness, flashbacks, startle responses to loud noises (especially airplanes), helplessness, gruesome nightmares, anger, uncertainty, guilt and fear.
Fear was a powerful theme. Many felt that the courthouse was unsafe. During the final group meeting a female court officer walked in unannounced and searched for explosives, explaining there was a bomb threat.
At least one or two people wept openly in each group, women and men. In each group at least one person left the room to compose themselves and then came back. More than one person said, “I can’t stop crying.” And more than one said, “I can’t cry.”
Anger was a prevailing theme. There was anger at the government. “How could they let this happen?” they asked.
Many shared feelings of disbelief, saying how surreal it seems. One said, “I am in a semi-daze; I feel like I’m not even here.”
Guilt was prevalent, especially about going on with mundane day-to-day activities. A court officer said he felt insignificant, like “a grain of sand.” He said he felt helpless and wondered if he was going crazy.
One group participant’s son escaped from the 78th floor. He took the stairs. His co-workers waited for the elevator. They didn’t survive. The son’s story was retold by his mother through sobs. When he emerged from the building, she shared, he witnessed “flaming bodies falling from the sky.” Two others held her hands as she told the story.
In each group people reached out to comfort one another through physical touch and understanding words. In one group a woman who said she couldn’t understand why she hadn’t cried was brought to tears by another’s pain over a missing sister.
In closing, the participants in one group agreed that “it’s good to know you’re not alone,” and “it’s good to know you’re not going crazy.”
I found the intensity of that experience and the participants’ ability to reach out to one another moving. Although I was there to facilitate, my role was to bear witness. It confirmed for me what I was already feeling; when facing incomprehensible tragedy and overwhelming grief we must push ourselves to forgo isolation and reach out to one another.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.