‘He would count, look up, then scream ‘GO!’ The officer was helping us avoid the falling bodies.’: Woman describes feeling like a ‘walking zombie’ after surviving 9/11 attack in World Trade Center

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“I still can’t fathom that I was actually there, but as every year passes it gets a little bit easier, and the memories of all that I witnessed begin to fade a little bit more each year. And as the years pass I’m torn; while the memories fade, I never want to forget that day.

Courtesy of Shana Sissel

I am truly blessed to be alive today, things could easily have been so different. While I was so fortunate to survive not everyone was as lucky, today I remember Linda George, who was the captain of my high school varsity soccer team and served as my ‘senior leader’ during my 8th grade year of junior high school, and Sean Nassaney, whose family I was blessed to get to know a many years ago.

I was always told that the best therapy to help recover from the trauma was to tell my story. At least that’s what my trauma therapist told me. It was hard in the beginning, but over the years it’s become my little tradition to post the details of that day in a note on social media, my own brand of therapy. As we all remember those who were lost on September 11, 2001, here is my story:

Courtesy of Shana Sissel

I was attending a training seminar for work at Morgan Stanley and was supposed to be in NYC from September 10-29, 2001. The seminar was on the 64th floor of 2 World Trade Center. We had just finished hearing from a speaker, Phil Roth, Morgan Stanley’s Technical Analyst. He finished early, around 8:30 am, and we were given a break until 9 am. I was chatting with some other people in the class and we were admiring the view over the Hudson River on this clear and sunny morning. I couldn’t really tell you exactly what happened next, but what looked like ash started falling from the sky, we didn’t have any idea what it was so we didn’t panic. I kind of looked down and watched the ‘ash’ fall on cabs down below. Then a half-burned copy of USA Today kind of floated (I don’t know why that stands out to me so vividly but it kind of floated by in slow motion) by the window followed by a HUGE fireball.

That was kind of shocking, we all kind of jumped back from the window, and then the team leader for our group came running into the room and told us to ‘get the f*ck out.’ At this point, nobody knew what was happening, but people started to panic. I still had no clue what was going on but being a bit of a do-gooder, I walked to my table and picked up my books and notes, my purse, etc. and walked to the stairwell. The evacuation was pretty orderly. We took our time, chatted with people around us, nobody seemed worried, rumors had started to circulate that a small plane had crashed into the other building. Yet nobody seemed to realize it was as serious as it was. Later, the newspapers would report that the intercom system requested that people go back to their desk–that was indeed true–that message was repeated several times over the public announcement system. However, Morgan Stanley’s corporate security team led by Rick Rescorla provided the leadership that would save our lives: keep moving and evacuate.

I think I was on the 32nd floor in the stairwell when the second plane hit 2 World Trade Center. The force of the impact threw me up against the wall. I distinctly remember the walls cracking up the center of the stairwell. It was at that point that people panicked. People screamed, I think I even screamed. The whole building shook like we were in the midst of a devastating earthquake. This fear prompted us to start moving A LOT faster. I remember thinking to myself that I didn’t want to die, and I really thought I was going to die. I remember thinking about my grandfather, who I consider my guardian angel, and asking him to help me, praying that I would get out of the building alive and in one piece. By the time we got to the 10th floor it was incredibly smoky and we began to see firefighters go by heading up the stairs to rescue people in the floors above.

The smell was awful, it was a putrid combination of burning metal and jet fuel, an overpowering smell of jet fuel. It was very hard to breathe. I had on a cowl neck top so I used the extra fabric to cover my mouth and nose like a mask. When I finally got down to the ground floor it was dark, only emergency lights on, and all the glass of the doors and windows had shattered. I don’t know how familiar you were with the World Trade Center, but the ground level was a mall. I distinctly remember walking by the Coach store and thinking I wanted to come back and buy this cute messenger bag that was on display. I realize that seems weird, but we still didn’t know what was going on, and now that I was on the ground level, my sense of panic had subsided.

We were directed by police and security to an escalator, we were directed to climb the escalator and the exit was at the top. At the door was a police officer who stopped every person before we were allowed out. He would stop you at the door and count, look up, and then scream ‘GO!’ and we were told to run as fast as we could across the street, we were also told not to look up until we were across the street.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the officer was basically helping us avoid the falling bodies and debris. I have NEVER seen that many police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, and emergency personnel in my life! It seemed as though every single emergency vehicle in NYC was in front of the towers. There were even U.S. Army vehicles.

Once we got across the street I kind of stopped and looked for some people I might know. I looked up and saw the buildings with huge flaming holes, and I swear to you I looked at my friend and said, ‘Do you think we’ll have class tomorrow?’ I called my dad, who at the time was a police officer in Worcester, MA, and he wasn’t aware of what was going on because he didn’t have a television running. I managed to tell him that something had happened at the World Trade Center and that I was ok and then my phone cut out. I noticed human bodies falling from the towers, images that I would really prefer to forget. A couple of FBI agents walked by and told my friend and me that we needed to get away from the building and told us to walk uptown, so we just started walking. We passed FBI agents, DEA agents, police officers, National Guard, and many of these law enforcement officials were carrying very large automatic weapons. I felt like I was in a war zone.

I had on some pretty substantial heels, we were at about Houston Street when I just couldn’t walk anymore. My friend Seth and I found a cab hidden in an alley and we begged the cabbie to drive us back to our hotel in Midtown. I mean begged, he did not want to take us at all, but once we explained that we had been in the building he took pity on us. About 30 seconds after we got in the cab the first tower collapsed. I absolutely lost it. I started sobbing and I remember putting my head in Seth’s chest and just saying repeatedly that I wanted to go home, that I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to go home. When we got back to the hotel we were required to sign in to ensure that a head count could be organized. I don’t think I really said much for the rest of the day.

I have a cousin that lived in Times Square and I walked up to her apartment where all my relatives that worked in NYC had gathered. They kind of wrapped me up in a blanket and let me lay on the couch. I was pretty much catatonic. I was shaking and rocking and not talking. I stayed there until very late in the afternoon, then my cousin sort of carried me to her car and drove me back to my hotel for an emergency meeting. We were told that our training would not continue, that we could stay at the hotel as long as we needed to, we had been given a $500 COLA (Cost of Living Allowance) that morning, and we were told we could keep it, that all meals at the hotel would be free, and we could expense any additional costs to get home. A lot of people were stuck there for a long time because you couldn’t get in or out of the city and all flights had been grounded indefinitely. Fortunately, my uncle lives on Long Island and the next day my cousin drove me to his house where I stayed until I could make arrangements with my parents to get home. For a few days after 9/11 you could smell the jet fuel strongly even on Long Island. After a few days with my aunt and uncle who treated me like I was their own child, they really took care of me despite my recurring flashbacks, nightmares, etc…I was a walking zombie.

I finally coordinated with my cousin’s husband to get a ride to Hartford, CT were my parents met me and drove me back home to Worcester, MA where I’m originally from. For weeks after that I had nightmares. My boyfriend at the time used to tell me that I would shake while I was sleeping and scream in the middle of the night. I was lucky, he made a point to spend most nights with me to help me through the flashbacks so I could sleep better.

You know, life went on after that. I continued my career, got married, lived my life. Then, another terrorist attack jolted my world. On April 15, 2013, I was just blocks from the finish line of the Boston Marathon when two homemade pressure cooker bombs exploded, killing three people and injuring hundreds. Similar to the fog of 9/11, the days following the bombing were a haze of trauma and grief in Boston, exacerbated by the manhunt to track the bombers. My family was intimately involved. My sister is a 911 dispatcher, so she told informed me about the shelter-in-place order before most had heard it, and my brother-in-law is the head of SWAT for the Worcester Police Department, so he provided backup for the Boston police and FBI as they tracked the bombers. It was a shared trauma that united the city of Boston. My instinct was to help the people around me prepare and deal with the emotional toll of the experience. In a weird way, I was proud to be in Boston through all that.

Being so intimately impacted by two of the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history could easily have destroyed me, but in fact I believe these experiences have made me stronger and more resilient. I believe God put me through these experiences for a reason, I may know exactly why, but I tell my story every year to make sure we never forget the heroes, like Rick Rescorla and the many police officers and firefighters that sacrificed their lives to save people that day. Those innocent people who didn’t know that fateful day would be their last when they woke up that morning. On 9/11/2001, I added survivor to the list of words that describes me, it changed my life forever. I will never forget.”

Courtesy of Shana Sissel

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Shana Sissel. Follow her on Instagram here. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more powerful stories remembering Sept. 11:

‘I’m on an airplane that’s been hijacked. I’m putting a plan together. Tell the kids I’ll talk to them later.’: 9/11 hero’s final words to his wife, his heroic actions played out minute-by-minute

‘I mustered up courage to ask where he was on 9/11. ‘The 47th floor of the North Tower’, the museum worker said.’: Young woman’s chance encounter with September 11 survivor makes her ‘proud to be an American’

‘I saw a tower had been hit. I opened the curtain and saw the smoke over lower Manhattan.’: Man credits random encounter with ‘lifelong best friend’ for saving his life on September 11

‘My daughter arrived on 9/11. I woke up to see the first tower falling. I thought my family was watching an action movie.’: Mother gives birth on September 11th, ‘I was not emotionally OK’

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