On the Opening of "World Trade Center:" One Resident's Story

Jenna Orkin http://www.mikeruppert.blogspot.com/

The brouhaha surrounding the opening today of Oliver Stone's movie, World Trade Center, might seem like much ado about little but for one thing: A press conference this morning by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the Sierra Club, Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes and the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association drawing attention to the heinous disregard and stonewalling of sick and dying Ground Zero workers.

Congresswoman Maloney pointed out that doctors have protocols for bird flu and SARS, but have no idea what to look for in the case of WTC-related illness. (In part, this is because the more than 2000 contaminants that were released by the collapse of the towers as well as the fires that burned for over three months present the broadest possible spectrum of symptoms.)

Congressman Jerrold Nadler said in a written statement that this is a case in which life isn't copying art, for $60 million was spent to make the movie while the government has spent nothing on health care for the heroes they relied on five years ago who now need help.

Since the movie highlights the experience of two cops trapped in the towers, today's blog will focus instead on a resident whose experience on that historic day also merits a hearing.

The following interview took place about two years ago during research for Ground Zero Wars, a memoir of the environmental disaster of 9/11.

Diane Lapson

A small woman with busily curly hair, Diane Lapson is Vice President of Independence Plaza, five blocks north of the WTC.

D.L: That morning I was in the street. It was election day. I was with Kathryn Freed at P.S. 234. She was running for office. The first plane came over our heads on Greenwich Street. Instantly I knew that something really terrible was about to happen. I believed the plane was in trouble and was trying to make an emergency landing in the Hudson. IPN [Independence Plaza North] is a tall building and I thought it was in the way. I thought the plane was going to hit 310 Greenwich.

Everything became like a cartoon. My brain reduced it down.

Alan Gerson was running for City Council and Kathryn was running for Public Advocate. [She had been City Councilwoman til term limits forced her out.]

Gloria from IPN ran up and said we have to evacuate P.S. 234. The Principal said, ‘We’re O.K. We’re O.K. The parents are coming to pick up their kids.’
I remember looking at Kathryn. She said, ‘We’re under attack.’ I didn’t believe her.

We thought we’d better start pushing people uptown. Then the second plane hit.

Kathryn said, ‘Now do you believe me?’

She said we should go to the precinct to try to get help. Things were going on in the street. There was a Jamaican woman whose legs were buckling. She said, ‘My daughter’s in one building; my son is in the other.’ They were on the top floors. My hope is that her daughter who was in the second building got out.. I asked her if she lived here. She said No. I called out, ‘Does anyone know this woman?’ A woman answered, ‘I’ll stay with her.’

Then I heard the Pentagon was hit. In my head I was saying, ‘This is the end of the world.’ I called my daughter. I said, ‘Something happened. Close all the windows and turn all the air conditioning off.’ We were lucky. She did.

There were no police at the precinct except one officer. He seemed shaken. Kathryn had a badge so they let us through. Kathyrn said, ‘I was hoping to get a car. I’m afraid the buildings will fall.’

My father was the electrical engineer on the WTC and I thought it was the rock of Gibraltar.

The policeman said, ‘There’s nothing we can do for you. Do what you have to do.’

We went back to Greenwich Street and yelled at people to move uptown. Some people listened to us. One man ran toward the Trade Center shouting, ‘No!’ It was scary when he did that. Then the first building came down. Everyone started running.

I couldn’t find my daughter. I didn’t know where she was. Someone said they saw her with her dog.

Then the second building came down.

J.O: Did you feel the vibrations?

D.L: I don’t remember. It was rumbling. It wasn’t the noise I thought the Trade Center would make. It was too silent for what it was. It melted down like the wicked witch of the east in the Wizard of Oz. A year later I was walking in Florida and I remembered what I had seen earlier which was people jumping out the windows. I had heard about it and I knew it from the news but I didn’t remember seeing it until I went to Florida.

We found my daughter. She couldn’t wake her friend who lives a block and a half from the Trade Center. They went to the roof of his building. To this day I can’t get straight what they did but it’s a good thing I didn’t know it then; I would’ve had a heart attack.

We thought IPN would be evacuated. I told tenants to pack a bag. I thought more buildings would be attacked: the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty. And our building is tall. A lot of people left and weren’t allowed back in. I thought they might be killed.

One woman wandered around for hours covered in debris. Her windows had blown out. She was looking for her husband and he was looking for her.

I was in Kathryn’s apartment. We were trying to figure out where we could stay. We all had cats and animals so there were a lot of people with a lot of cases. I couldn’t reach John Scott who’s the Vice President of another building. I didn’t realize they’d lost power.

In the lobby were a bunch of seniors clutching together. They had no place to go. I said to Kathryn, ‘We’re not going anywhere.’ She said, ‘I know.’

We put everything back. I said, ‘I’m Vice-President of this building. I don’t know anything about emergencies but I’m in charge. We’re going to use the intercoms. We sent everyone upstairs. The smoke was terrible.

WTC 7 fell at five and we lost our phone system.

We have floor captains and they understood they were part of this.

We didn’t have hot water. Home care attendants hadn’t been allowed to come. It was before nine when the first plane hit and they hadn’t gotten to work yet. So we had disabled people with no attendants.

J.O: I heard that people ran out of medicine. What happened?

D.L: Food came first. The Red Cross had set up tables for volunteers at Harrison Street. We asked if we could get thirty meals for the people who were the most in need. They said No. Understandably, they were focussing on rescuing people at the Trade Center.

But we noticed that in the evening they threw stuff out. No one was dealing with our building.

One of our tenants is a therapist and she asked if she could open a trauma center. So management gave her an empty apartment and other therapists joined her. One woman said, ‘I don’t know what to tell my children. My son said, ‘I saw people jump out the window.’ Should I tell him they had parachutes?’

The Red Cross approached us. We asked them to check on tenants. They checked on seniors and disabled people.

We weren’t sleeping much and we were breathing that stuff.

J.O: Did you get the thirty meals?

D.L: You know what happened? A man appeared with sixty meals saying, ‘I don’t want to discuss this.’ I don’t even know his name. I asked him but he just kept walking.

Someone else said, ‘I just took my last heart pill.’ Forty people were waiting for medicine in the mail but there was no mail.

Alan Gerson showed up with a car from the Borough President’s office to get Kathryn to the Mayor. Once she was there I was able to get through on my cell. She tried to get a doctor from Chinatown to take empty pillboxes from tenants and fill them. The doctor never made it.

X smuggled in a guy who owned a drugstore. I said, ‘Do you need people to run the drugstore?’ He said, Yes.

I said to the tenants, ‘I have good news and bad news. The bad news is the doctor hasn’t arrived. The good news is Steve is in the drugstore.

We’d been told if we left the neighborhood we couldn’t come back.

J.O: What about if people worked uptown?

D.L: They couldn’t come back. From Tuesday til that weekend. The Red Cross had evacuated 310 Greenwich because it had lost all power and phones. They were afraid if people got sick from the smoke they wouldn’t be able to get them down in the elevator.

There was a shelter at Irving Plaza. Other people had nieces or nephews pick them up. But some people refused to leave. John Scott communicated by email.
The building manager was very helpful. We’d never had a great relationship but we became like a team.

After the weekend they allowed homecare attendants to come in and they opened Canal Street. Just when we’d told people to go to the hospital.

So many things were donated that there was enough for everybody. A minister from a shelter showed up with a truck with food. The sort of stuff you’d get at a shelter: tremendous containers of powdered milk...

People were cooking for their entire floors. There were people who went into cardiac arrest. The Red Cross took one person to the hospital.

On the third day I took a break. Maureen [Silverman of the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning] said she wanted to have an environmental meeting. I felt guilty. I’d almost stopped smoking but when the buildings came down I started again. I thought, ‘I’m going to be on an environmental committee and I’m smoking.’ But we got Foster Maer [a legal aide attorney] and a bunch of people and that’s how the World Trade Center Environmental Coalition started. [Ed: This is not the same entity as the WTC Environmental Organization.]

The Department of Health told us to just take wet towels to clean our apartments. It was hot on September 11 and some people’s windows had been left wide open. They just swept with brooms.

A lot of people at IPN have had asthma, skin conditions, nose bleeds. Some of them still do. I had five eye infections I couldn’t get rid of.

But we didn’t know if it was worse to tell people how bad we thought it was; they were so traumatized.

At one point our building manager asked me to keep people in because trucks with body parts were coming down the street. I completely forgot about that til three months ago.

One woman was pregnant. She kept asking if she should stay. I told her, ‘Look, if I was in your position I’d leave.’ She did.

Leaving made people more traumatized.

I didn’t open my windows for a year and a half. I didn’t turn on the airconditioning til I bought special filters for allergies. I used the AC during the winter. FEMA told us the AC probably had organic parts, body parts which would disintegrate the coils so we should replace the unit.

Recently I met the Governor of Oklahoma. He said, ‘It’s been eight years and we’re not over it yet.’

Diane told her story in a sing-song as people do when they need to distance themselves from an event. So it seemed inevitable to set her narrative in verse:

Diane’s Song
(In the triple meter of 'T was the Night Before Christmas)

When the plane passed right over our heads I thought it was
in trouble and trying to land in the water.
It hit the first building. Then Kathryn said,
“We’re under attack.” I thought, “Where is my daughter?”

I thought that an awful mistake had been made.
In the street all the people were running uptown
Except for one man who, holding his head,
Shouted, “No!” while running not up, but down.

And people were jumping from windows, a sight
I forgot for a year - Did my eyes deceive me?
The second plane hit. Then Kathryn turned
and said, “All right, now do you believe me?”

In the street a Jamaican woman stopped
as her legs buckled under her. That mother
clasped her hands together and cried,
“My son in one building; my daughter in the other.”

A woman stayed with her as Kathryn and I
ran home and told our neighbors to leave.
We gathered our work, our clothes but that’s
not all for it seemed everyone had cats.

We met downstairs, the neighbors with all
of their carrying cases, when there before us
stood forty-two seniors with no place to go.
“We can’t leave,” I said. Kathryn said, “I know.”

So we put back our stuff and we stayed as the cloud
engulfed our homes and insidiously
set up house in our lungs; as hour passed hour
we lost water, phones, then the rest of our power

Someone said that he’d seen my missing kid
She’d gone to a friend’s house a block from the Center.
Thank God that I didn’t know then where she was.
To this day I can’t get straight just what she did.

For the next several days we drank powdered milk
courtesy of a curate who came in a truck
Things seemed to be going O.K. until
someone said, “I just took my last heart pill.”

We found medication; we manned the drugstore
A mysterious stranger brought by sixty meals
Over time we got back some power, the water
and phones. The toxics came too, more and more.

The government told us the air was O.K.
So we didn’t think twice; we started to clean
While a mile up Broadway some scientists found
the most toxic small particles they’d ever seen.

Now the neighbors have come down with asthma and rashes,
With Trade Center cough and severe sinusitis.
I’ve had five infections; the cat has had three
and Kathryn and her cat have chronic bronchitis.

The rest of the world has moved on. People think
in the war against terror the U.S. is winning
But we of downtown wonder if for us
September 11th was just the beginning.