Anniversary brings grief, hope

"The anniversary is that time of year where you really, in a palpable way, recognize how much your scars have or have not healed."

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW YORK CITY | September 11, 2006

"The anniversary is that time of year where you really, in a palpable way, recognize how much your scars have or have not healed."

Those words come from Peter Gudaitis when he notes that the memories of the Sept. 11 attacks are not usually fresh in his mind. The executive director of New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS), Gudaitis' office overlooks Ground Zero. He walks by it everyday. Yet it's around the anniversary itself when he says the reflection and introspection happens.

"Those days you find yourself kind of slipping back into a little bit of melancholy and mourning, sort of digging up really deep memories, reliving experiences," said Gudaitis. "You pause, look back, reflect, find yourself getting teary thinking of those you know who died, and their families - and all those clients that have touched me over the years."

With Monday being the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, people around the country are taking part in memorial services and remembrances of those lost when terrorists flew two airliners into the World Trade Center, one into the ground near Shanksville, Pa., and one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Gudaitis' own residence suffered on that day five years ago. The explosion from the World Trade Center blew out the windows and filled the apartment with debris. He wasn't allowed to return for months, and then only with an armed military escort after passing through several checkpoints. He said he doesn't always share his story because of what others experienced that day, with everyone having so many different levels of trauma based on what they experienced.

"Sept. 11 impacted so many people in different ways. I don't always tell my story because I feel like there are so many other people that had so much more happen to them. Sometimes I think my story isn't as important. Yet it's really critical to remember that day was traumatizing in many ways for people across the country."

For this anniversary, he has noticed a difference in emotions and reactions from those around him. Gudaitis sees more hope than before. "Everyone seems to have more of a combination of profound sorrow and a palpable sense of hope for the first time," he explained. "Enough time has passed, enough progress has been made in many ways that people are optimistic and hopeful in some ways. The memorial is finally on its way, the tribute visitor center is open.

"I think the story is being told by the right people. Ground Zero is emerging from that kind of empty quiet void it's been for the past few years. I guess I have a sense that there's some significant healing. That doesn't mean the scars aren't still there, some still have a long way to go. But it does seem like there's more hopefulness this time."

Gudaitis echoed the sentiment in a message written in a weekly NYDIS email newsletter. "For most of you...this date marks the beginning of a long journey from the horrors of that day toward healing and recovery. This day has become an opportunity... to look back over the past five years and acknowledge the work we have each done to heal our own wounds."

Disaster responders are encouraging everyone to not forget those still in need after the Sept. 11 attacks. Agencies like NYDIS, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), 9/11 Environmental Action, the United Church of Christ (UCC) Office of National Disaster Ministres and Lutheran Disaster Response New York (LDRNY) are all still providing help to individuals and families impacted by Sept. 11.

Those same agencies also continue to act as advocates for the many residents and recovery workers still suffering from health problems due either from working at Ground Zero or from dealing with the contamination forced into buildings when the World Trade Center towers fell. A study released last week from the Mt. Sinai Medical Center showed that 70 percent of World Trade Center responders had a new or worsened respiratory symptom that developed during or after their time working at the WTC.

Advocacy groups continue to push the city, state and the Environmental Protection Agency on testing these buildings for toxic contaminants left by Ground Zero's cloud of dust and smoke.

"We are very much aware of the residents and office workers in the area of the World Trade Center buildings, and their issues have to be addressed in terms of health and contamination of those buildings," said Florence Coppola, coordinator of the UCC Office of National Disaster Ministries.

Coppola said the UCC will continue to support health screenings and outreach to impacted people done through NYCOSH and Mt. Sinai Hospital. They will also reach out to people across the country who worked at Ground Zero and are now eligible to file with New York State workers' compensation should health issues arise. "It's good that things are moving forward, but it's bittersweet," she explained. "People are ill and dying."

Mikki Balloy of LDRNY agreed with Coppola, and emphasized that some impacted people still may not have come forward for help that is available to them.

"Many of those affected are undocumented workers, and that means they're afraid to come forward for care and the few entitlements they can get," said Balloy, LDRNY's coordinator. "Even American citizens have a limited amount of funding and aid available to them. So I think as we're remembering the day, we need to remember that there are people still very much in need."

Balloy pointed to mental health impacts as another need, noting that some post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms do not appear until four or five years after the traumatizing event. She added that anniversaries can heighten those symptoms as well.

For the many responders who have been involved since Sept. 11, the work can be overwhelming, saddening and frustrating. Yet they all talk of the hope they get from the community of those they work with and for. "It can be very taxing and trying to do this work, you know, to see the needs evolve but not really dissipate. But I'm really inspired everyday when I talk to one of my colleagues," said Balloy. "I've met some really outstanding and compassionate people. We're all in this together."

Life in Shanksville, Pa., is busy again with the arrival of the anniversary. The site where Flight 93 crashed into a field is just outside of the small town, a temporary memorial standing near it while a more permanent one is being planned. The Rev. Robert Way said residents are accustomed to the attention they receive annually.

"The culture has changed here," said Way, pastor of the Good Shepherd Cooperative Lutheran Ministry. "Six years ago we'd have said, 'What is going on here?' if all these news folks showed up. Now it's normal."

Way said the five-year anniversary strikes him in different ways. "For us, in one light you think that it can't be five years already. In another, it seems like it's been longer."

He said Shanksville residents are protective of the crash site, stewards of the area. Way and more than 40 other residents act as Flight 93 Ambassadors at the memorial site, answering visitors' questions and sharing stories. The site does host a steady stream of visitors, and he noted that emotions and reactions are mixed still at this point five years later. "Some people who come to the site are speechless, and some break down in tears. The site emotes feelings from people that they aren't realizing until they get there."

For Way, the triggers are there and sometimes he initiates discussions without realizing how he may react. He's noticed that while serving as an ambassador and answering questions very candidly about the day the plane crashed into the field. He arrived at the site just an hour after it came down, having been summoned to give last rites.

Since then, involvement with everything related to Flight 93 has just been part of his life. "There's a piece of Flight 93 with everything I do."

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