For two HK survivors of 9/11, a long journey from guilt to solace
John Carney and Maggie Tam
Monica hopes that after today she will have achieved something she has searched for over the past 10 years - closure.
After escaping death during the World Trade Centre terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Hong Kong woman left New York and did not return. Monica - who did not want to use her real name as she is still haunted by her ordeal - quit her job in investment banking as soon as her serious injuries had healed and returned to Hong Kong. Today though, she is in New York for the first time since 9/11.
It is a journey back into her own personal hell, but one she is determined to take. The isolation she felt in the years since in Hong Kong has spurred her on to finally confront her demons. 'When I recovered from my injuries, I wanted to get back to as normal a life as soon as I could here, but it was virtually impossible,' Monica said. 'I went through a few years of depression and survivor guilt. I couldn't understand why I was allowed to live when so many other innocent people died. I'm much happier and at ease with myself now, but I still feel I need closure.'
Over the past decade she has not even watched any of the many 9/11 documentaries that have been televised. But in a bid to fortify herself for the pain that is sure to await her on the anniversary today, she watched last Monday's showing on TVB Pearl of Giuliani's 9/11, National Geographic's documentary on how New York's mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, handled the crisis.
'It was the first time I had watched something like this. I had a minor breakdown, nothing dramatic though,' she said. 'I just didn't know how bad it was, because I had blocked it all out. It was like a knife piercing through my heart when I saw people jumping off the towers and some waving to try to get rescued when they never would be.'
Monica, 39, was hurrying to her office at 7 World Trade Centre when terrorists smashed the second passenger jet into the nearby South Tower. She tried to flee with the panic-stricken crowd but was knocked unconscious by a falling window frame. She was rescued by emergency services workers she knows only as Dave and Roy.
'They said they rescued me first because they knew I was dying. They said I was lying silently beside the window frame while the many other injured victims were screaming and wailing,' Monica said.
In the years since, she has fallen out of contact with both Dave and Roy but hopes to track them down when she gets to New York.
Monica suffered a broken spine, a fractured pelvis and sternum, a broken cheekbone, and cracked ribs. It took a 13-hour operation to rejoin her severed spine using two titanium rods.
Her wounds were closed with 61 medical staples, not stitches. The physical wounds have healed, and for the most part so have the mental ones, but incidents like last year's Manila bus siege had a profound effect on her.
'Because of what I'd been through I knew those who survived that tragedy would be feeling guilt for a long time after it,' Monica said. 'I just wanted to tell them it's natural to feel like this, to help ease their pain.'
Today will be a huge test of character for Monica but a close friend will be at her side. 'She will understand what I'm going through,' Monica said. 'This is something I just have to do.'
Feelings of guilt have also followed Anshuman Das over the past 10 years, but of a different kind. The 25-year-old Indian IT analyst had just arrived in New York a month before the carnage. Working in an office building one block away from the World Trade Centre, he heard and saw 'everything'- from the first plane crash to people jumping to their death as the second tower collapsed. Overcome with shock he ran from his building through streets filled with dirt and smoke, away from the injured. 'Many stayed back to help, but I chose to walk away,' Das said. 'I felt very guilty afterwards. I could not forgive myself.' Depression kept him from sleeping and eating for days until he was assigned by his company to Hong Kong - where he did charity work to 'give back'.
'I did as much as possible to help the needy,' he said. 'Ten years ago, I was just a young man who knew only about working hard and doing my job well. That was it. Now I use my free time to help those who need it.'
He said he had forgiven himself for not lending a hand on that fateful day.
'9/11 came from the idea of revenge. But the most important thing we have to learn is to forgive,' he said.
There will be a 9/11 memorial service at St John's Cathedral at 6pm today - 'Remembering with Hope', an evening event with prayers and hymns. US consul general Stephen Young will speak at a private gathering today organised by The American Club in Tai Tam.