World Trade Center attacks: secondary impacts
Lied to by EPA Chief Christine Todd Whitman, pictured above with President George Bush, those of us living downtown, near Ground Zero, struggled to breathe poison. Relationships fell apart or came together, in the tense days following 9/11, as couples sought to cope with the airborne toxicity and the emotional aftershocks of the attacks. Nine years later, and the disaster still reverberates through our lives...
Life unfolded in a mist of receding ash and dust. The smoke altered with the shifting winds. It curled around divorces, addiction relapses, arguments, and loving acts. The EPA said the air was safe to breathe.
B, whose marriage I had admired for years, took me aside on the NYU playground and said her home situation was “like Auschwitz." She had known her husband had a cocaine problem early in his twenties.
They’d married in their thirties, when the problem was in the distant past. He had snorted a line, and then from there, kept going and, in his mid-forties, he couldn’t handle it.
“He was standing outside naked, out on West Broadway. I was begging him to come inside.”
“Oh, c’mon,” I said, having a hard time imagining this responsible-looking father, whom I’d known for over a year as a loving husband and dad, taking off his clothes in a public setting and going haywire.
B shook her head. “I swear he’s lost his mind.”
It wasn’t like he’d lost three friends who worked at Cantor and Fitzgerald near the top of the north tower, or nearly missed being in the towers himself. His office had been nearby.
He had seen the first plane crash into the building. He had run to rescue his children from the school four blocks away, PS234. B said she had kicked him out of the house. She didn’t know where he was spending his nights.
My friend, L, a fashion designer, called me distraught because her husband, J, had become a sudden patriot. They had always agreed on how to live their lives. They had enjoyed his large income and her creativity and their two children. Their political views had been different, but not so different that it affected their relationship.
J wanted to drape American flags around their SUV. J wanted to move to the country, probably Vermont, and stockpile food and support Bush, even though he had always voted Democratic in the past.
My friend, L, couldn’t believe it. “We can’t even talk about it,” she said. “We start screaming at each other and calling each other terrible names, then he slams out of the house and comes back after I’ve gone to bed.”
Then there was the woman who had managed the year before to help run the preschool as a volunteer job while working for a top PR firm in NY. She was glamorous and beautiful and her husband, a psychiatrist who worked at the largest state run hospital, seemed a perfect match. I didn’t know the details, but she told me in passing that he had moved out.
Meanwhile, my friend, G, still staying with her kids in her cottage in the country, tried to figure out what to do. She was still furious with her husband for failing to turn around when he learned a plane had smashed into the tower and go back and get their kids, whom he’d just dropped off at school.
She couldn’t get over it, that he had gotten back to his office, called her, and told her, “You better go pick up the kids right away, there’s been a terrorist attack.”
She had no car. He had the car. He should have turned around. But he treated that day as he'd treated her every other day since they’d had kids.
He put work first. He gave little thought to her or the kids or what they needed from him.
They’d been struggling for the past few years over just these issues, she trying to engage him more in their family life, him resisting by spending his rare free hours working out at the gym.
I tried to argue that he had been in shock that day. That we were all in shock. The whole city. The whole world, but particularly those of us right in the neighborhood.
She jokingly answered that he was always in shock, but she couldn’t get over it. On top of that, the night before the disaster, they had gotten together with a marriage therapist to discuss the possible end of their partnership. She had had it anyway. And then came this ugly mirroring of his character.
By the end of the day, G had decided to put her kids in the car upstate and take them to Canada. She had relatives across the border. She was in fact born in Canada.
She wouldn’t have to worry that he would somehow place her in a shared custody situation where she would do all the hard parenting work and he’d swoop in for the fun, disrupting her structures.
Even though, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that the air was completely safe to breathe, it was impossible to inhale without feeling something vile was entering our lungs.