Survivors Take Stock in Terror’s Aftermath
September 9, 2002
By Vesna Jaksic
Odin Wright didn’t paint much before Sept. 11.
He was always artistic — he enjoyed sculpting and graphic design, and his mother remembers him sketching before he could even hold a bottle. But painting was never his favorite form of expression.
In the weeks following Sept. 11, however, painting just came naturally to Wright. In one of the first works he created after the terrorist attacks, he slapped paint on the canvas and even threw himself on it.
“I hated this piece, but it was just so necessary,” the Greenwich resident said. “I threw myself against the painting a few times. I almost ripped it. I didn’t have the strength to form anything.”
He screamed so loud while he worked on the piece that his parents left their backcountry home so he could be alone. They understood their son, who had lived blocks from the World Trade Center, had been carrying a lot of anger since Sept. 11.
A 25-year-old senior art director at a Manhattan advertising agency on Sept. 11, Wright did not lose anyone he knew that day and escaped without a bruise. The only visible indication that he had witnessed the tragedy was some dust on his jacket when he got off the train in Greenwich. But the events of Sept. 11 left a permanent impact on his life and the lives of many area residents.
Friends and relatives of 22 people who lived in town or had ties to Greenwich have been coping with the loss of their loved ones for a year. But the scope of the tragedy went further, leaving many lives changed in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
Some area residents have felt affected by the attacks because relatives, friends and colleagues confided in them about their own losses. Other people’s lives took a drastic turn when they lost their jobs or were forced to relocate.
For many commuters to New York City, recovery meant trying to live a normal life and conduct business in a setting suddenly changed. And whether they found new faith or took up a new hobby, many people were prompted by the attacks to make changes in their everyday lives.
Lucy Karnani took the train from Greenwich to New York’s Grand Central Terminal on Sept. 11, like she did every other weekday morning. But instead of going to her office across from the terminal, she went to 2 World Trade Center, where she was to meet a client from Morgan Stanley at 9 a.m.
Karnani, a consultant for Rogen International, a business communications consulting company, and a colleague arrived at the trade center early — Karnani remembered it had taken more than a half hour to get through security lines when she had been there about two years earlier. But on this day, the security check took only 15 minutes, so the two spent some time in the waiting area on the 64th floor of the south tower.
Shortly after, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the north tower. Karnani, in an area with no windows, did not know how many people had just lost their lives a short walk away.
“It was at about 8:45 that somebody came screaming and said, ‘Get out! Get out!'” she remembered.
Wright heard loud noises on the morning of Sept. 11, but figured it was just another day in downtown Manhattan. He had been living at 88 Greenwich St. for about a year and a half and learned to tolerate New York City’s bustling streets. He hopped in the shower to get ready for work.
When he got out of the shower, Wright heard on the radio that the north tower had been hit by a plane. He looked outside the bedroom window of his eighth-floor apartment and saw the thick, black smoke that engulfed the towers. He threw on some clothes, grabbed his camera and started taking pictures.
Not realizing the magnitude of what had happened, Wright left to catch the subway to his job at 42nd Street. But outside, the intense debris from the twin towers forced him into the first apartment he saw. A stranger let him in, and they watched the events unfold on television.
Wright took more pictures of the chaos around him, first from inside the stranger’s apartment and then outside.
“I stopped taking them once I saw people falling,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine taking a picture of a person dying.”
Not much farther away, a Stamford resident also witnessed the horrifying scene of people falling or leaping to their deaths.
Antonio Allam stepped off the subway near the World Trade Center moments after the first plane hit the north tower at 8:46 a.m.
“The thing that affects me the most is the image of people jumping out of the windows because that’s what I saw. I saw suits and ties flying,” said Allam, 41, an immigration attorney for Solomon Smith Barney, which had offices at 7 World Trade Center.
Allam watched the tragedy evolve before running with thousands of others lucky enough to escape the disaster scene. He never made it to the office. His 47-story building collapsed that afternoon after catching fire and suffering damage during the fall of the twin towers.
Karnani followed others, walking down the stairs from the 64th floor. Her escape became more challenging when her colleague collapsed, exhausted, around the 33th floor. Karnani and a man they had never met carried her the rest of the way down.
The 41-year-old Greenwich resident, who has three children, said she did not get really scared until she reached the 22nd floor and felt the building shake. It was 9:03 a.m.
She did not know it at the time, but a second hijacked jetliner had just ripped through the building she was standing in.
“I said, ‘This is not happening to me, I’m not going to die, my children are not going to lose their mother,’ ” she said. “The building physically shook. We lost our footing. . . . I thought the building was going to collapse.”
Sixty-two minutes after it was struck, the south tower became the first building to crumble following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Karnani was already riding the subway by then.
It was not until about a week after Sept. 11 that Wright was allowed to return to his apartment.
“I was surprised I forgot to close the window,” he said.
Nothing was destroyed, but about an inch of dust covered everything. Later on, he would, for no reason he could recall, scrape some of it off a table and put it in a small plastic bag.
Another week went by and Wright still did not feel like himself. He couldn’t sleep and he had trouble focusing. Many of his colleagues had been laid off before Sept. 11, so he had more work to do at a time when it was harder and harder for him to accomplish even the simplest tasks. He was laid off within a couple of weeks because he could not keep up with the workload, he said.
He slept at his parents’ house in Greenwich the night of Sept. 11, but stayed at friends’ apartments in Manhattan for the next couple of months. He did not want to leave the city.
“I was just stuck,” he said.
In one place, he found some blank pieces of paper in a closet. He started sketching what he had seen a few weeks earlier — skyscrapers drowning in smoke, confused faces, people running, papers flying everywhere. On dozens of sheets, he also drew short, black lines.
“They said that 5,000 people died,” he said. “So I did one mark for each person. I kept going, going, going.”
In the same apartment, Wright found a goldfish left in one of the closets by its owners. He named it Hiroshima. The fish died a few months later, but then turned up in several of Wright’s paintings with a “blank stare,” the kind Wright saw on people on Sept. 11.
“He couldn’t believe what he saw,” he said of the goldfish. “That’s how I felt and how a lot of people felt as well.”
In the weeks following Sept. 11, Karnani was less productive at work and more emotional. She gained weight. But it was not until a couple of months later, she said, that she started to have “rage responses,” getting very mad over the smallest things.
Around December, she was opening RSVP envelopes for her son’s bar mitzvah. When her son opened one of them without a letter opener, Karnani became enraged.
“I got really angry with him for opening it so sloppily,” she said. “And it was only an envelope, we weren’t going to keep the envelopes. That’s how ridiculous my rage was.”
When she went to her doctor for an annual checkup, Karnani mentioned she had been in one of the twin towers on Sept. 11. Her doctor suggested she see a psychologist. She said her anger went away after the second visit, when she was hypnotized by the psychologist.
Months later, she said she was fortunate to be among those who made it.
“I have a philosophy, which is when your number is up, your number is up,” she said. “I just know, as I constantly reflected, I’m meant to be here. There are many things left for me to achieve in my life. I have my children. My number was not up.”
About a month after Sept. 11, Allam and his partner decided to join a church.
“We both felt the need to,” Allam said. “We felt the spiritual component was missing. We felt that before this happened, but this incident pushed us to do something about it.”
The two have remained active church members since.
“You just seem to acquire a newfound appreciation for life,” Allam said of the impact of Sept. 11. “That’s basically what it boils down to. If God or some spiritual sense is important to you, then you appreciate that more. You need to do more things you’ve been putting off because everything can be wiped out in a second.”
Nearly a year after the terrorist attacks, Allam said it is still strange to think about that day.
“Just the fact that your office has collapsed is a very strange, surreal feeling,” he said. “Not that it can’t be replaced, but it’s just strange to think that all my diplomas from law school are in that rubble.”
The events of that day motivated him to stop putting off things such as trips to Rhode Island to visit his relatives.
“I see my family much more often than I used to,” he said.
Wright tried to get his life back on track, but had a tough time. About two and a half months after the terrorist attack, he moved back to his parents’ house. He had no job or money or the energy to start coping, so he spent most of his time playing a video game.
“I was just playing it 10 hours a day because I couldn’t cope,” he said. “I didn’t know what the hell to do. I didn’t have a grasp on anything. I was, like, in a fantasy world. I couldn’t do anything.”
He didn’t want to be around people, so the video game seemed like a good escape.
“I dreamt about the game,” he said. “I didn’t want to dream about anything else. It brought you to another place for a while.”
He tried not to think about Sept. 11, but even the sound of a paintbrush moving down the canvas reminded him of it.
“Now, if I’m going to draw a downward stroke, I will hear a loud boom in my head, as if a person was popping up on the ground or the top piece (of the towers) was cracking,” he said in December. “I’m still very curious what it was like for those people who fell, to have that view.”
Months later, the images were still fresh in his mind. Snowflakes and pine needles reminded him of the dust that blanketed his neighborhood on Sept. 11. An April thunderstorm sounded like the cracking of the twin towers.
He picked up a pencil and a sheet of paper, sketched the two skyscrapers and a bunch of dots representing the people who jumped or fell out of them.
“People would hang and they would slip, they would hit the building. Pow! Pow! Pow!” Wright said, pronouncing each word louder and pounding the pencil harder and harder against the paper until it dropped from his hand.
He took a few seconds to remember his thoughts.
“I thought civilization as we know it was going to end,” he said. “That’s what I was thinking.”
Allam was relocated to another office after Sept. 11, but his partner, Norris Wakefield, lost his job a couple of months after the attacks because of the weakening economy. After he was laid off from his position as a senior manager for Cosi Sandwich Bar’s corporate offices, Wakefield spent time thinking about his future. He realized he wanted to leave the information technology field and get involved with design and architecture, so he took some summer classes.
“I had been sort of in that place before Sept. 11, about re-evaluating my life, and there is more to life than money,” said the 37-year-old Stamford resident. “But it really sunk in after Sept. 11 that I really would rather be doing something that I enjoyed doing.”
Although both he and his partner have had difficult times in the last year, Wakefield said Sept. 11 has only made their relationship stronger.
“It makes you realize, to have a better appreciation for what you have in life,” he said. “And going to church has brought us closer together. We’re doing things together that we wouldn’t have done together before.”
Wright was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder shortly after Sept. 11. His mother said she also developed symptoms of the disorder in sympathy with her son.
“To see the suffering of others on the face of your child is horrible,” said Karen Shields-Wright, a Greenwich chiropractor. “It wasn’t just his suffering you could see. I’ve cried for a lot of people I don’t even know about, just because of what he’s lived through and what he’s painting.”
Wright said he saw someone for his disorder a few times, then gradually improved as time went on. But one afternoon in July, he was back on the couch playing the video game. The night before, he said, he had dreamt about two buildings falling.
“We are in a bus, or something, and pieces hit us, hit my family, too,” he said. “I have lots of dreams of just Manhattan in general, buildings falling apart.”
Almost a year later, he still can’t bear to go to Manhattan.
“Every time I go back in, I have a bad experience,” he said. “Last time, I had a panic attack and then before that, my friend yelled at me for something stupid. I lose friends every time I go there.”
Now 26, Wright said he doesn’t take anything for granted and spends more time doing the things he enjoys most. He has worked with his father to brush up on his painting techniques and spent time at home with his mother. He worked on a computer graphics project, designed martial arts equipment and trophies and spent a big chunk of his summer painting for a religious order in Rome.
“I’m realizing more what I want to do,” he said. “It took me a while to figure it out. . . . I must do as much as I can to love my friends, learn about God as much as possible, create as many beautiful things as possible, learn to pray.”
He has also learned that he needs to deal with fear.
“(Sept. 11) is what it was and if I’m going to move ahead, I’m going to move ahead in the right direction,” Wright said. “I still feel responsible, like I have a lot to do. I can’t just slack off with my life. I still take that attitude because I appreciate now that life is pretty precious.”