Survivor of the 2001 and 1993 Attacks on the World Trade Center
Each year on 9/11, James listens intently as family and friends recite the list of names of loved ones lost on that fateful day in 2001. Every year on 9/11, James knows where his name would be on that list had he died.
Working for Fuji Bank on the 79th Floor of Tower 2, James recalls talking with a friend who was starting her first day at the bank. Looking out a window facing north, James saw something out of the corner of his eye and suddenly thought to himself, "Damn, that plane's flying low." The plane was flying at face level and appeared to be heading straight for the North Tower. James recalls hearing the plane cut off its engines and saw it dip its wing. When asked how he knew the plane's engines cut off, James described how he heard the sounds normally expected of a flying plane. Then, all was quiet and still; the vibrations stopped, the noise stopped, and the plane glided toward its final destination. Then BOOM! Fire, smoke and papers of every color permeated the air.
James' employers occupied the 79th through the 82nd floors of the South Tower of the World Trade Center; the second tower hit – the first to collapse. After witnessing the plane crash into the North Tower James did what he was compelled to do and ran through the offices on the four floors yelling to coworkers, "GET OUT!!" On James' advice, most workers took heed and headed down the stairs to safety. Sadly, many workers chose to stay in the office.
James recalls a colleague who worked in the capacity of security and general affairs, saying to him, "People need help getting down. They trust you…take them down." With this, James took the lead and began the trip down from the 82nd floor and hopefully out.
Once James started heading down the stairs his group decided to stop and rest on the 66th floor. While waiting there an announcement was made that Tower 2 was secure and evacuees were instructed to stay where they were or return to their workstations. Ignoring the announcement, he organized his group and encouraged them to continue down the stairs. While descending the stairs the tower he was in was hit by the second plane and the whole building shook; however, no one in the stairway had any idea what just happened. James describes the feeling of having his soul and Spirit disconnect from his body for a few seconds and for these few seconds he was afraid for the first time but that did pass.
While continuing down James spotted a heavyset woman having difficulty moving down the stairs and introduced himself and offered to assist her. She was carrying a heavy bag which did not make things easier. James chuckles as he remembers carrying the bag on one shoulder and supporting her on the other and thinking that the bag she lugged was about as heavy as she was. James and his new friend prayed together as they made their way down the seemingly unending magnitude of stairs – "Satan be gone!"
Feeling as if they were descending stairs forever and not getting anywhere, James recalls hearing the words "excuse me…excuse me…excuse me" as a man, covered in blood, ran passed them in the stairwell; possibly a casualty of the hit they encountered minutes ago. There is also the memory of the young firefighter ascending the stairs while James and the many others continued their descent. By the look on this young man's face, James knew the situation, whatever it was, couldn't get any more dire.
Still unaware that the building they were evacuating had been hit by a plane, James and his group, which grew in vast numbers on the way down, made it down to the once-pristine lobby, which he described as a "dark mess." Once in the lobby James stopped and began encouraging the evacuees with pats on the back and messages of "good job!" James felt that, seeing how tired and frantic the masses were, his goal was to instill hope.
Going out on to the street, James looked up in horror as bodies fell from the building. Still not knowing what had occurred, he then heard the news on his Sidekick (phone) that this was a terrorist attack. Reuniting with his friend who was to begin her first day, they ran away from the collapsing building and headed toward Chinatown, thinking the area would be least likely the target of another attack. To their amazement, they were able to hitch a ride on a city bus, which transported them up to Bloomingdales where James' friend's husband worked. When the friend's husband saw James' head above all the displays, he immediately thanked God because he knew James had brought his wife to safety. After this James and his two friends reunited with James' wife at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, which was a preplanned meeting place in case of an incident such as this. When James met his wife she was overtaken with emotion and hugged him as if she would never let him go. Seeing this, James' friends cried at the site of the reunion between him and his wife.
In the meantime, back in New Jersey, James' daughters, Lindsay & Eliane, were sitting in their respective classrooms witnessing the events of the day from a distance. Recalling the school announcement asking for a moment of silence for a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, still brings tears to Eliane Outerbridge's eyes. When the announcement continued by instructing all students who have a family member working at the World Trade Center to report to the office, Eliane was the only child to leave her 6th Grade class. She and two other students from the school sat in the school office, not knowing the fate of their loved ones. Upon being picked up at school by her babysitter, the two watched the events on television, without word of James' whereabouts. Eliane shared that she knew in her heart that her dad was okay but after watching the building hit and eventually collapsing her brain was telling her that her dad was dead. Knowing the helpful, take control type of person that her father is, she was holding on to hope that he was in the midst of helping others at the scene.
James self-describes as a take-charge type of person who people look to for support. He feels that the events of the day were actually harder on his family and friends than they were on him. Reason being that he knew he was alive and was doing everything to stay safe, whereas they did not. James said that his wife worked uptown at the time and witnessing the terrorist attack on the big screen at the GM building, she got weak in the knees and almost fainted in the street thinking her husband was gone. James also shared that a friend of his, who knew that James' van was parked at the train station in New Jersey, drove around the station, checking in from time to time, to see if James' van was still there. The friend kept this up until James' van was finally absent from the lot later in the evening, indicating that James had made it home.
Upon arriving home that evening, there was a great commotion on the street where he lived. Neighbors were out around his house, waving flags and welcoming his arrival. James recalls a neighbor who he had never spoken with in the past, giving him a warm hug. Another neighbor, who had been a Marine, told him, "Jimmy, we're gonna get them!"
One week later, while commuting on the train to his organization's new office spot in Jersey City, James broke down. He recounts how his heart was pounding, adrenaline was flowing, and he required transportation to the hospital. While there, he did not mention his experience on 9/11 but his wife did. Upon hearing it, the nurse who was caring for James broke down and cried. The doctor there recommended James see a psychiatrist, which James indicates may not have been the best thing for him to have done. He shared that he did not respond well to the prescription medication and he became quite paranoid. He spent the period of one week taking the meds, drinking, and smoking heavily. At this point, he told himself "I'm killing myself" (by my actions). As quickly as he started the destructive behavior, he stopped. Again, he reasoned with himself and said, "you never let anything in your life control you (dictate you). You have to be in control. You cannot let anything else control you." He was referring to the use of tobacco, alcohol, medication, and yes…the events of 9/11.
Afterward, James suffered horrible nightmares centering on terrorist attacks and awful colors; colors that, in James' opinion, represented what hell must look like. James also dealt with and continues to deal with many medical issues after the attack. Some of which were directly attributed to 9/11… some perhaps not… and some he may never know. James shared that he suffers from Sarcoidosis and other related lung issues. He is monitored regularly by the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program. When asked if he would do it all again (helping others), James suggested that he had no time to think of anything except…holding on to Hilda…being in control…displaying a sense of cool for others sake...
James was also working at the World Trade Center during the 1993 terrorist attack. He recalls walking through a revolving door when he suddenly heard a loud boom. He continued to push the door and headed back in the same direction he was coming from and ran as fast as he could outside the building through the icy rain and snow. Though difficult, James says that dealing with the aftermath of that attack was easier for him as he did not know any of the victims directly. He remembers believing, at the time, that "no one else is ever going to come in our backyard and mess with us again. This was just a lucky shot." Thus, he did not feel a sense of fear in returning to the World Trade Center for work.
In the aftermath of 9/11, James considers the fact that, just one week prior to 9/11, his employer had moved many of their employees to the North Tower on a lower floor. Many lives were saved by this twist of fate. Conversely, James ponders other lives that were lost that day when fate twisted in the other direction. James has worked hard to find a sense of peace within him, and a sense of closure.
On September 11, 2002, James received an emailed message from a colleague that he had helped guide to safety one year prior. The email started out with, "You, my friend, were an angel sent by God to save lives on that day." The writer continued by saying all his friends and family offer their gratitude for what James did by saving his life and hoped James would always continue to be there for others in situations. This heartfelt expression of gratitude started James back on his road to spiritual belief; a belief that he had previously questioned. When probed, James conceded that he feels like an angel; a vessel of God in many respects. He hopes to be able to continue to help others, especially teenagers in need of help.
In reverence to James' heritage, this writer asked him what the Lenape term for "angel" would be. James responded that "Metschitschank is Spirit and that's the closest I can come to angel." I think James is right…he may just be the closest we can come to an angel.