From the editor: As the 9/11 museum has now opened for the public, 9/11 survivor, Artie Van Why shares his experience of reliving that day. Artie left The United Methodist Church in 2012 following General Conference because of the oppression he continued to experience as a gay person in the church. Read more of his stories at www.artievanwhy.com.
That Day In September
I am a 9/11 survivor. There have always been other aspects and qualities of myself that made me who I was; or had been. But on 9/11, when I stepped through the revolving door of the building where I worked (which was across from the World Trade Center) out onto streets that were literally covered by a blanket of continually falling sheets of paper, everything changed.
I had not been trained for battle. I had never been in boot camp. But that morning I stepped onto a war zone; not just as a spectator put also as a participant. A willing participant, though. One still achingly encumbered with a yearning that I could have done more.
Transfixed by the billowing smoke and flames shooting out of the wounded north tower, my accompanying inability to move was broken by the realization that people were jumping from the tower. Led only by my instinct, I charged forward in a vain attempt to save the lives of the falling; my self-preservation ultimately causing me to leave the dead and dying where they fell.
Because of my will to live I ran along with everyone else when debris from the second plane’s explosive contact rained down on us. But then I fell and, in a brief moment, I thought I might not live as the feet of the fleeing stepped on me; pinning me to the ground momentarily; before I was able to heft myself up and continue running.
I stopped and knelt beside a dying man on the street trying to stem the blood flow from his massive head injury. I cleaned out his mouth; filled with debris. I whispered to him that he would be alright; knowing he probably would be dead by the time he reached the hospital.
My perfectly fulfilling, content life, along with everything I thought I knew and/or believed, was shattered into fragments of a former self and I am still, 13 years later, trying to put Humpty back together again.
But I lived. I am a 9/11 survivor. And that is both a blessing and a curse, because some days I wish I wasn’t a survivor. Because being one who survived means living each and every day with the memories and images I wish I hadn’t seen or, more importantly, I wish had never happened. I am a constant reminder to myself of the atrocities of my generation’s day which will live in infamy.
That Day In September Remembered
The week before the 9/11 Memorial Museum was to open to the public there was a Dedication Period where those affected directly by 9/11 could walk through the museum with others whose lives had also changed that day. The families who lost a loved one, the first responders, the fire fighters and police, the cleanup crews that cleared away all the debris of the fallen towers and the survivors were extended the privilege and the honor of remembering that day and those who died.
I knew that, for me, and probably for all of us, it would also mean reliving that day. But I had to go.
I had left New York City in 2003; a direct result of my surviving 9/11. I moved to Lancaster County in Pennsylvania to be near my parents who lived there. Family had become my life’s priority.
The invitation to visit the museum allowed me to bring a guest. Neither of my parents would be able to make the trip with me because of their health, so there was no question who I wanted to go with me; my therapist. Over the past years she, more than anyone, has listened to the intimate details of my story of 9/11; the details that I leave out if talking to others about that day. She is the one who sees the tears that I try to keep my parents from seeing. She graciously accepted my invitation.
We took the train to NYC on May 17.
At the museum there were no lines; no waiting; no tourists. We were ushered into the massive halls of the museum; filled that day with the stillness of sorrow. The only sounds I was aware of, initially, were my own sobs; which were caused by what we first we encountered as we began our walk through the memories of 9/11. It was black and white photos of people in the streets that morning staring up at the towers; just as I did. Though my face wasn’t actually in any of the photos, it could have been in any and all of them. The one unmistakably noticeable thread that wove through each of those photos was the faces titled upwards all had the same look; that of shock, disbelieve, fear, horror. All the raw emotions that I’m sure were on my face as well that morning as I, too, looked up in total incomprehension. As the photos of faces in the streets faded one into another there was audio playing of eyewitness accounts. Just one or two sentences from many of those who had been there that morning describing what they had seen and felt. Descriptive and detailed words that my therapist later told me she had heard before; from me in my numerous sessions with her over the years.
The museum is filled with historical artifacts that I’m sure will elicit emotional responses from future visitors. For me, it was the things that are part of my own story that connected with me; that caused me to continue to cry till I didn’t have any tears left nor the physical stamina to allow any to flow; the wall with images of the flyers that had been posted throughout the city in the days that followed 9/11; each with a different face and the word “Missing” on them. The room discretely placed in the museum with photos of the victims often callously referred to as “the jumpers”; who will always be courageous heroes to me because they were faced with the decision of how they would die. They are who I think of often; the falling people. Their descents towards death are the images that haunt me the most. I often wonder how many of them had prayed to God that morning they wouldn’t die. Prayers that, if heard, were unanswerable.
Upon turning one corner, we were confronted with walls of photos of every person who died that day. There, in that room, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of faces that reflected just how unbelievably horrific 9/11 really was. And being one who lived, staring at those who didn’t, I was conflicted by the wavering emotional pull of being grateful my face was not on those walls while also partially wishing it was. Does survivor’s guilt ever go away?
As our two hour tour of the museum was drawing to a close we came upon a room that I had so hoped would be there; a room dedicated to what the World Trade Center was pre-9/11. In the center of the room was a large scaled model of the twin towers and the massive plaza that connected them and the surrounding buildings that were also part of the World Trade Center. I was able to finally show my therapist what I had only been able to describe in our sessions. I pointed out to her my path that morning; where I ran to when I so desperately wanted to reach the north tower; and where I was when the second plane hit the south tower. What stood before us was the place I had worked across from and had grown to love; where I would sit with a cup of coffee and the newspaper each morning before going into my office building; the plaza where I spent most lunch hours. The place that was to become, and will always remain to me as, “Ground Zero.” Sacred ground that I wish had remained untouched.
This Day In June
It has been a few weeks since I walked through the 9/11 Memorial Museum. It has been a difficult couple of weeks. I was affected by the museum more acutely than I had expected. But I’m glad I went. I had too because I was there the morning of September 11, 2001; a date now etched in history books and the memories of those personally affected by the catastrophic tragedy on that date.
The words “Never Forget” expressed our country’s emotional response to the senselessness of 9/11. The 9/11 Memorial Museum will now remind each generation to “Always Remember.”