Thursday, 11 September 2014

Surviving 9/11

Today’s anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in America gives me a reason to highlight the courage of those groups of people who often get overlooked – the survivors, the first responders, and the emergency services. 9/11 affected them profoundly. Only now are their actions being recognised officially with many of them being invited to the 9/11 Memorial Museum with families and partners of victims. Many documentaries in the past couple of years have centred on survivors’ stories.

"The Advocate"
 magazine produced a remarkable edition on 23rd October 2001. It concentrated on the events of 9/11 and featured all of the lgbt victims and testimonies of many lgbt survivors. If you can, get a copy – it’s one of history’s best contemporary accounts of 9/11.

What I intend to do today is bring forward more survivor stories whose courage in the face of terror. It is possible to recount events of that fateful day using the testimonies of some of the lgbt survivors and emergency services. I didn’t want to split the article, so today’s post is quite long.

It seemed like just another Tuesday morning. Children went to school. People went to work. Robert Ryan arrived at the Morgan Stanley office in the South Tower of the WTC. Over at the Pentagon a meeting was scheduled for 8.30 a.m. and Capt. Joan Darrah of the US Navy was preparing to attend. Everyone will remember how clear and sunny the day was, and this only helped to make the images from that day even more vivid.

At 8.40 the skies brought terror to people’s lives as American Airlines Flight 11 smashed into the North Tower of the WTC. Most people busy at work thought it was a bomb.

The public address system across in the South Tower advised that there was no need to panic or evacuate, but Robert Ryan decided to usher his staff out of the office anyway. Many other offices did the same. At this stage no-one in the South Tower had any notion of what was yet to come. In the confusion Robert got separated from his team. He hoped they would all meet up outside.

Dazed and confused city workers poured out of the North Tower and joined the evacuees from the South Tower and surrounding buildings into the central plaza and the streets. The air was filled with flying debris and paper and it soon became apparent that this was more than just a bomb. People looked up to see a gaping hole in the North Tower belching out smoke and fire with debris falling from all floors. They realised with horror that some of this debris was actually people jumping from the tower.

As Robert left the South Tower, separated from his work team, a second plane crashed into it and threw the escapees into a panic. As more debris fell people ran for cover in all directions, knocking Robert and many others to the floor. Less than 30 minutes earlier he had been sitting in an office just 4 floors below the impact.

Scambling to his feet under a wave of fleeing feet he lost his shoes. Many people did. One of the images which still stands out in his memory today is the number of shoes littering the streets as he himself fled barefoot for safety.

The scale of the emergency made emergency and rescue services call in all the available staff they could – those off-duty, on leave, on reserve, or retired. Sitting at home watching tv, retired New York firefighter Tom Ryan (President of FireFLAG-EMS, the national organisation for lgbt fire and emergency service crews) watched the second plane hit the tower. He called his old fire station to offer help. He needn’t have waited for a reply – it was obvious he was going to head in anyway.

Over at the Pentagon Capt. Joan Darrah’s meeting was nearing its end. The Pentagon was aware of the attacks in New York and went onto high alert. Joan left the meeting at 9.30 and made her way out of the building and over to the nearest bus stop. Minutes later American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the very room she had just left, killing the 7 colleagues who were still in there as well as many others.

Emergency services scrambled and Pentagon staff rushed to offer help. Six months previously Phillip MacKee was a computer and internet security specialist. He was also a part-time volunteer firefighter. He had decided to become a full-time firefighter earlier in 2001. This was his first major emergency.

Back in New York people were oblivious to this latest attack. They were rushing for cover and assistance. Ambulances sped to hospitals carrying the wounded and dying. The hospitals were beginning to fill up with those injured from the streets and space was already beginning to run out. In one of those hospitals was Mark Caruso. He was a police detective who worked the hospital morgue in processing and identifying bodies and personally informing relatives and next of kin of their loss. It was never a pleasant job at the best of times, but times were about to get worse for Mark.

As news of the Pentagon attack began to reach the horrified citizens of New York, just over an hour after the first plane attack, an ominous rumble filled the air and the ground shook as the South Tower began to collapse. It came down like a pack of cards.

Dust and debris was blown out from the base of the tower at a huge speed as screaming crowds ran desperately to escape. The dust clouds were suffocating. There was no time for the dust to settle before another ominous rubble filled the air and the North Tower collapsed.

Retired firefighter Tom Ryan arrived at Ground Zero shortly afterwards. The colleague he spoke to earlier was to perish in the debris before he got chance to speak to him again. In all Tom lost 5 active members from his former fire crew, and 20 more with whom he had worked over the years. In the months that followed he learnt that at least 25 of the 343 firefighters who died that day were closeted lgbt men and women. They had the courage to enter the terror of 9/11 but feared coming out at work.

As people tried to get away from the area they found shelter and help from volunteers and strangers as well as professional emergency personnel. Many charities and organisations saw wounded and dazed survivors wandering the streets past their offices and they opened their premises with offers of first aid, comfort and the all important access to outside communications. Local mobile signals had been transmitted from the WTC and landlines were the only way for people like Robert Ryan to contact loved ones and tell them they were okay.

In West Village, Manhattan, less than 2 miles from Ground Zero, the LGBT Community Centre threw open its doors. Staff and volunteers spent the day providing drinking water and food and a place to clean the thick dust from faces and clothes, as well as a place to just sit down and rest. Over the coming weeks many of the survivors returned to take advantage of the counselling services, thankful for the Centre’s help at their moment of need.

Nine hours after the first attack Robert Ryan was still wandering barefoot through New York, passing part of an engine from one of the planes lying in the street. He managed to find somewhere to rest. He and other survivors were still covered in such a thick layer of dust that hosepipes were sprayed on them to remove it.

Across in East Village the Hetrick-Martin Institute for LGBTQ Youth was also in a flurry of activity. Staff and students of the day school (today known as the Harvey Milk High School) were trying to find out if people they knew in the WTC had survived. The institute also provides assistance for homeless lgbt youngsters. Deanna Coce, a case manager there, didn’t notice any of them arrive that day. It makes you wonder – how many homeless gay teenagers, disowned and ignored by their families, and unaware of where to go for help provided by places like the institute, perished on 9/11 and will never have their names known or placed on any 9/11 memorial?

At the Pentagon emergency services and military personnel were working together to rescue survivors. Like many that day, at the Pentagon and in New York, Phillip McKee inhaled a lot of dust and smoke, and the health problems it caused for hundreds of people remain with them to this day. Over the next 3 days Phillip and his crew kept on working. Only a serious injury to his leg stopped him from doing more and he found himself in hospital.

Three days passed, and New York hospitals were still working at full tilt. Mark Caruso, in the Manhattan hospital morgue, later admitted to being “scared, sad and horrified” as the case load increased. Hardly anyone went home, they slept at the hospital wherever and whenever they could. The work at city morgues must never be overlooked in any account of 9/11. Just two weeks ago on UK television a documentary was broadcast about the struggle to identify the remains of many victims from 9/11 that are still stored in morgues across New York.

Ground Zero was a site of devastation for many months. Firefighter Tom Ryan was there for 8 days, catching whatever sleep he could in the fire station. During that time he attended the funeral of Father Mychal Judge, the official Victim 1 of 9/11, a chaplain in the NY Fire Department and an openly gay Christian. As the coffin was being carried into the church a pall-bearer stumbled and Tom stepped into his place.

Capt. Joan Darrah also attended funerals and memorial services for victims of the Pentagon attack. Many mourners attended with their partners. Joan couldn’t because of the “don’t’ ask, don’t tell” policy in the US forces at the time. It made her realise when, or if, her partner Lisa would have been informed if she had died.

There may still be same-sex partners of 9/11 victims who have never let themselves be known for fear of outing their late partners. The partners of the 25 closeted firefighters who died may never be known or acknowledged publicly. And there are surely many lgbt survivors who find telling their stories too stressful and will never speak of it again. Survivor guilt may also play a part in this. I dedicate today’s article to all lgbt survivors and surviving partners, known and unknown.

Since 9/11
Robert Ryan took a year’s disability leave and left Morgan Stanley. He registered his domestic partnership in 2005. He and his partner Ralph Martinelli moved to Idaho in 2007 where they fought to get domestic partner health insurance for Robert. Robert now works for Moreton and Co., and is a member of International Frontrunners. In 2011 he created the Facebook page “Honour Your Local 1st Responder on 9/11”.

Joan Darrah left the navy the following June. She campaigned for the repeal of “don’t tell, don’t ask”. This was one reason for her decision in 2006 to attend the Outgames in Canada instead of the Gay Games in the US. She married her partner Lynne Kennedy in 2010 shortly after the policy was repealed.

Tom Ryan continued as President of FireFLAG-EMS until 2003. He is now President Emeritus. Also active in the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, he speaks at events on partnership pension rights and about being a gay firefighter.

Mark Caruso retired from the NYPD in 2002. In 2011 he became a contestant on the US reality tv series “Survivor: South Pacific”.

Phillip McKee became wheelchair-bound after his leg injury. Periods of depression and post traumatic stress disorder were eased by his ability as a stained-glass artist. Sadly, his injuries sustained at 9/11 were responsible for his death last year at the age of 41. It isn’t known if his name will be placed on official 9/11 victim lists.

Personal Postscript
This has been a difficult article to write. I went through dozens of survivor accounts (straight and lgbt) and found the experience quite emotional. My own recollections of that day seem insignificant. I was working at Nottingham Castle. A colleague arrived 20 minutes late to cover for my lunch break and said everyone was watching the events on tv and had lost track of time. Later that afternoon my ex-partner arrived unexpectedly and invited me to dinner. He wanted some company that evening. He told me he had been standing at the top of the WTC just 3 weeks earlier and was feeling very vulnerable.

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