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911 Manhattan Tale

Updated on September 12, 2009

A MANHATTAN TALE: Remembering 9/11

by Helen Borel

I awoke that day to a station on my TV showing a rerun of a downtown disaster in Manhattan. Heavy, black smoke was issuing from the top section of a skyscraper. Newstalkers were talking animatedly. Orange flame shot out. I rubbed my still sleep-filled eyes. This was a rerun of the 1993 catastrophe where hundreds of workers, forced to walked down endless stairs, escaped the tall buildings, faces blank or contorted in fear, or flattened by shock.

All the fleeing faces with black ash lip-sticking their mouths. I had thought, then, "If any of these people were asthmatic, they’d have died from the smoke inhalation. Their bronchi would have closed from the thick smoke triggering brochospasm. Zero oxygen would have reached their lungs." A handful of people had been murdered in this 1993 attack.

I wondered, "Why are they rerunning this footage? Is this the anniversary of 1993? But why have this TV show so early in the morning?" Still wondering, I got myself some orange juice, then, remaining glued to the TV...I began clicking around for the day’s news elsewhere. And there it was on all the other channels. So it couldn’t be a rerun. What was it then?

A plane had accidentally hit a tall building this clear, sunny morning. This was in real time. Conjecturing TV newspeople were theorizing about the awful air-traffic-gone-awry accident. And my brain reran newspaper pictures from long ago. I was remembering the day the Empire State Building was accidentally crashed into by an airplane. (Like an eerie movie reminiscent of King Kong.) The heaven-thrust skyscraper...wounded. Impregnable like the Titanic. But the impossible had happened then. And, this morning, the impossible had happened again.

Suddenly, speeding out of nowhere, came another plane and an inferno of orange pluming out of a second tall building. All speculation ceased as I, together with the TV reporters, realized this was an attack on New York City, on the fabric of America.

The horrifying scenes enfolded one another. New Yorkers running as toxic clouds and white ash surrounded and pursued them. My mental images of those trapped who were perishing in their offices consumed my emotions. Then visions of others dying flying out windows triggered the thought-flash: "I’ll never again work in a building taller than two or three stories high." Morning melted into late after. I’d been mesmerized. The unfolding disaster nudged at me, reminding me that, "Here, I am safe, I’m alive. And I’m a nurse.

I grabbed my RN license, found a white uniform top in my closet and my stethoscope, and ran to the Broadway 104 bus to Roosevelt Hospital on 59th and Tenth Avenue. There I would volunteer to help the staff handle the myriad victims of this tragedy who would be rushed to Roosevelt, I was sure, by ambulances being triaged from downtown to every hospital in the city. The bus driver refused to take any fares from riders. All public transportation was suddenly free, he said.

A serene twilight began tenderly blanketing the West Side as halos of soft-glowing street lamps lit our way, illuminating what felt like my spiritual transportation to the hospital.

Arriving at the hospital Emergency Department I saw, parked nearby, NYPD cars and fire trucks covered in that same thick, dry, white ash from hell. "They must have transported some of the victims here," I thought. I told the front desk person, "I’m an RN, here to volunteer because I know your evening and night staff won’t be able to get here."

Immediately, after checking my credentials, the evening Nursing Supervisor welcomed me and assigned me to the general ER triage area. There was a TV high up on a ceiling shelf in the ER entrance lobby. And interns, residents, nurses, firefighters and police kept coming by, standing around, watching for updates on what was happening downtown. And NYPD had set up a satellite police division in that ER area.

I took care of a crying 2-year-old brought in by his parents because he’d had an allergic rash that was red and itching badly on his abdomen. And I triaged police and firemen mostly suffering respiratory crises and fractured ankles and feet from climbing atop brick, glass, wood; uneven, jutting debris of all kinds, trying to rescue fellow New Yorkers. These who had witnessed the tragedy close up, of leaping souls, feeling the grief of copelessness in the face of the unthinkable, would often refuse to ride in a wheelchair to X-ray because they wanted to be brave and walk there.

Most of the time, I and my colleagues, stood around hoping to hear fresh ambulances arriving with patients we could save. But no disaster patients ever arrived.

Aware of my psych specialty, the nursing supervisor then reassigned me to the ER’s psychiatric section. Soon, in came a victim of the disaster. Walking into Roosevelt Hospital. An unlikely victim, but a true one nonetheless. For confidentiality, I’ll call this 22-year-old Harry L. "How can I help you?" I asked as he breathlessly told me he’d walked a very long distance to get here.

Harry L. added, "There’s no way I can get back to Brooklyn, where I live, tonight. I work here in the city. I don’t have my 9 p.m. medicine with me. It’s at home."

"Don’t worry Mr. L," I reassured him, "we’ll find you a place to sleep overnight and get you an emergency supply of your medicine from our pharmacy." "Thank you," he sighed with relief, "I’m a paranoid schizophrenic and my medicine helps me a lot."

In the midst of all this day’s chaos, abomination and grief, here was a touch of sanity. I marvelled. It wasn’t too long ago that people cringed, branding every mental illness and its sufferers with indelible stigmata, ostracizing them instead of helping them to live to the best of their abilities in our communities, instead of being sealed away in asylums.

Out of all the craziness of this day, and despite our overwhelming distress over the lack of salvagable disaster victims, along comes a young man, sane enough to know he had to get to an ER to get his medicine. Sane enough to remain clear-headed enough to bravely name his affliction without flinching. Sane enough to know he wanted live out in the world among us. Sane enough to hold his head up high, despite the anguish and fear this day’s happenings should have caused him in his mental fragility, and reach out for our help. Harry L. was a victim that day. You just couldn’t see his wounds on the outside.

I do not believe, however, the 9/11 killers had any mental illness I know of. Robotic, determined evil is what drove them into those buildings that morning. And no amount of human rationality could have penetrated their inflated paranoia and grandiosity. Where they were triaged that day, there was no ER to receive them, there were no nurses to revive them. There was only obliteration. Now that’s ultimate insanity.

(c) copyright 2001-2009 by Helen Borel.  For permissions, email to: and type in the subject line: BOREL MEDICAL SYNDICATE.

To read other of my writings on psychiatry, psychotherapy, medicine, creativity, advertising agency work, nursing, satire, commentary, etc. - please visit my other hubs such as and   See also:  BOREL SATIRE: FREUD  and many more. 


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