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Community News
APA Staff Describe Their Hours of Fear on Sept. 11
Psychiatric News
Volume 36 Number 20 page 15-27

Hundreds of millions of Americans whose lives were not directly affected by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., that day have been unable to escape the emotional and psychological fallout. APA staff are having to deal with the added fact that they work just four blocks from the White House, as talk of future attacks on the symbols of American freedom continues unabated.

Once word of the unthinkable—airliners crashing into the World Trade Center—began to spread on the morning of September 11, dozens of staffers gravitated to the few television sets in the headquarters building. Some were watching aghast as the second plane hit the south tower and exploded in a fireball. Still more had gathered in an often-futile attempt to make sense of what they were witnessing by the time newscasters announced that yet another passenger-filled plane had attacked the Pentagon, just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington.

Many staff have relatives, neighbors, and friends who work at the Pentagon or regularly conduct business there. For still others it is a routine sight or a subway stop on their daily commutes to and from work.

While APA staff were trying to find a way to process this unprecedented horror, rumor-fueled news reports were appearing on television of a car bomb exploding at the State Department, about one mile from APA headquarters; about a plane crashing into the Capitol building; about smoke pouring from museums on the National Mall, about six blocks away; and about an unaccounted-for airliner that was on a collision course with the nearby White House or Capitol.

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The decision that all of the employees were faced with making in the face of uncertainty and confusion was whether to remain in the building—not knowing when the attacks would end—or try somehow to get to their homes or some other location away from downtown Washington. Staff with children were faced with an additional worry—would the local school districts close early and send children home before parents could get there?

APA Medical Director Steven Mirin, M.D., sent all staff an e-mail telling them that they were free to leave if that was their choice, but until more about the situation was known, it was probably better to remain in the building.

The maelstrom of emotions gathered strength as the announcement was made that Metro, Washington’s subway system, was closed, preventing the majority of employees from reaching their homes in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. Some reported that they felt trapped in the city, with no way out.

After a short time Metro did reopen. The stations close to the Pentagon remained closed, however, although trains were permitted to travel through them.

Ray Riley, a coordinator at the APA Answer Center, was one of those who elected to avoid the subway, but soon found that riding the bus didn’t provide much comfort either. "While on the bus, we heard an explosion of some sort. The effect upon passengers was electric," he said, "as panic-laced screams ensued, followed by shouts to the driver to ‘Speed up’ and ‘Don’t stop’! Through a window I watched construction workers drop their tools and race away from their work site, as pedestrians walked, jogged, and trotted in every direction, while others, apparently numbed, simply stood and stared. It was as if some horrible, surrealistic montage was being played out before my eyes."

Laura Carter, administrative secretary in the Office of Healthcare Systems and Financing, found something positive in the subway shutdown. "Since Metro wasn’t running for a while, I stayed here with my office mates until around noon. I bonded with them in a way that still feels strong and touching." It also awakened a troubling memory for her, however. "I kept remembering back to 1968, when my mother had been trapped in the city for hours, way into the dark of night, on the day that rioting broke out in Washington after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I had thought maybe she was dead. It made me want to get out of the city, and I felt terrified for the little baby I’m carrying. I felt more vulnerable than I ever remember feeling."

"I am now more aware of my vulnerability working in D.C. and my dependence on public transportation," said Marilyn King of the Office of Minority/National Affairs. "I know it will take time to feel comfortable about coming to work every day and flying, but I will overcome."

Other staff members relied on their feet to get them home. "I walked home noticing all the people out walking and driving through the city. It was as if they were all on a pilgrimage of some sort, e.g., to a new land or world," according to Stephen Ward, a coordinator in the Answer Center.

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Several APA staff acknowledged that a wide range of unwelcome emotions continue to affect them. "I continue to have almost daily headaches, nightmares, and ongoing sleeplessness," said Karen Sanders, manager of the APA Managed Care Hotline. One employee who asked not to be identified commented that the medication she has been taking for anxiety and depression has not been controlling her symptoms as well as before September 11.

"I was better off the first few days, when I was numb," she said. "After about a week, it really hit me hard. I wrote a list of my top-10 fears and sent it to my friends."

Another staffer who also requested anonymity and whose husband has a security-related job at the Pentagon that has kept him away from home much of the last few weeks, said, "I feel numb and in too much shock to even cry. Although everyone in our immediate family is safe, a childhood friend of my husband is a firefighter in New York and is missing. I don’t even know how to grieve. . . . Although as an active-duty military spouse I am used to going to funerals, I say a silent prayer that friends [who have been activated for military duty] will be safe. It is too much to bear."

"The worst part was being isolated from my loved ones," said Tara McLoughlin, director of the Office of Career Development and Women’s Programs. "Neither cell nor regular phones were working. My dad was in Berlin, where he heard that all of D.C. was under siege. My mother, in Atlanta, was frantic. I had answered her e-mail assuring her that I was O.K., but because of the jammed phone lines, it never got through. I finally called my father’s Atlanta office, and his secretary set my mom and me up on a conference call. We had only wordless sobs of relief to offer each other for at least two minutes before we could speak."

McLoughlin said she was also worried about an aunt who worked in the World Trade Center. She later learned that her aunt fled the burning building against the advice of her boss. She was the only one from her office who survived.

For a few, anger was the prevailing emotion. "I’m still angry," emphasized Gwynne Jackson, senior meeting planner in the Office of Annual Meetings. "This country’s fundamental tenets are built on personal freedom. To allow a small faction of people to take away that personal freedom is like telling all the men and women who fought and died for these rights that their efforts were for nothing. . . .Our response should have been immediate and huge!"

And then there is the fear. "Fear has been my primary reaction," said Jennifer Wood, a book editor at American Psychiatric Publishing Inc. "My stress, anxiety, and fear have manifested themselves in physiological ways. I developed sciatic pain and numbness in my legs beginning on September 11 and recurring frequently since. I am constantly tense and carry a great deal of tension in my back and shoulders. . . . As a means of moving ahead, I’ve started blocking out the new reports of recovered bodies, the number of missing or dead, and the impending military action. . . . I think it will be some time before I can truly move beyond all this."

She described the "awe and happiness" she felt every day as she drove to work past the monuments and beauty of Washington. The beauty remains, she noted, "but it is marred by the idea that this city is a target, and that I am just another innocent bystander in a battle I neither started nor participated in—a battle I do not even entirely understand."

"As I walked home on an absolutely gorgeous fall day in D.C.," said Michael Roy, an assistant editor at the American Journal of Psychiatry, "I was struck more than once by the cruel dichotomy: It was a beautiful day, yet it was the darkest day I’ve ever known." ▪

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