The fallout from Sept. 11 is an epidemic of stress-related problems assaulting survivors, Vicki Mabrey reports.
As the shock of trauma wears off, doctors are predicting, more than 100,000 people in the New York area alone will suffer an epidemic of stress-related problems, ranging from flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks, to rage and depression.
Like tens of thousands of New Yorkers who escaped from lower Manhattan that day, Falcone felt the steel sear into concrete, witnessed the sight of people leaping to their death, and choked on the taste of pulverized glass and stone.
Back at work, Falcone braces herself for the commute under Ground Zero to her temporary office. She says she can't manage it without something to read, something to distract her from the memories of that day.
"I was on the phone with my sister, " she says tearfully. " The building shook. It felt like an earthquake. And then stuff just came flying out of the sky."
Falcone ran down 55 flights in the south tower, just before the second plane hit the building.
"I thought maybe I'm gonna be killed from the stampede, " she says. "People didn't know what to do. They didn't know where to run. The thing was, that nobody felt safe."
She says she still doesn't feel safe, nor do many of her co-workers. In the makeshift office of their brokerage firm, the blinds are always open, and many of them say they keep one eye on the news as they work.
Loud, unexpected noises provoke panic. Once, a generator backfired and the whole office evacuated.
"I just completely lost it and cried," Falcone says. "That feeling that I hoped I would never feel again came back: That I don't know what's happening, that it's something greater than me and I don't have control of the situation. I have to get out of the building. I have to make it home OK. I have to, you know, see tomorrow."
Dr. Robert Grossman, a psychiarist and researcher at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has been treating World Trade Center survivors. He says there's a biologicial explanation for the panic and anxiety. The part of their brain that warns them of danger is being triggered constantly, even though there is no real danger.
Many of his patients are part of a pilot study at Mount Sinai, to look at the effects of trauma on the Sept. 11 victims.
Grossman says it's important to study these individuals because "we don't know everything about trauma. In fact, we know in reality very little."
Throughout New York, hospitals are gearing up to study a condition more typically associated with war veterans, whose traumatic reaction to combat is well documented. But unlike soldiers, these were brokers and lawyers, secretaries and clerks, who went to work that day with no idea they would find themselves in the middle of such unthinkable carnage.
"You don't watch 3,000 people get murdered and walk away from it being OK," says Owen May.
May heads a small investment banking firm on the 87th floor of the North Tower. A few minutes late for work that day, he watched from the front entrance, making frantic calls to more than a dozen of his staff trapped inside. Dazed and battered, all but one made it out.
"You start feeling like, 'OK, I'm OK,' then all of a sudden, it's that two o'clock in the morning wake-up call, you know. And you're breathing hard ."
In the search for new quarters, May says, some workers beg him to find offices on a low floor. "Just today, an employee said, you know, 'I'm still having nightmares. They're not coming as frequently, but I'm still having nightmares.' There's a lot of different emotions that go on. With everybody, there's something different."
Not everybody will suffer from the fallout, but health professionals know from other disasters, like the Oklahoma City bombing, that the numbers will be high. Up to a third of the World Trade survivors will suffer post traumatic symptoms.
"I'm still angry; I'm still apprehensive, I'm still jittery. I can't be by a window, "says Sharon Falcone of Brooklyn. "I constantly think planes are flying so low.
Brian Smith, an emergency medical technician with the New York City Fire Department, is known for keeping his head in the worst of situations.
"It was just overwhelming that day, like everything bad that I've ever seen, I can imagine seeing, times like 100. So many people dying, to the right and left, and just everybody was dying," he says.
Smith set up a triage center across from the towers and saved lives that day, but barely survived himself when the second tower collapsed.
"It threw me like 30 feet through the air, " Smith says, "I'd hit the ground face first, and basically then I just felt, things flying past me. I felt the weight of all the dirt, and all the debris. I mean, I thought I was being buried alive."
Like many of New York's police, fire and rescue workers, he's toughing it out. He's returned to work fulltime and he keeps busy at home with his wife Karin and their new baby, Kevin. During the day, he pushes away the haunting images, but Karin has watched them take over in his dreams.
" I heard him one night talk about the planes," she says. "He was waving his arms. 'The planes are coming to get me.' And he has to sleep with the light on. He's not himself, definitely."
His dreams aren't just about what he went through that day. It wasn't until that night that Smith learned his father, firefighter Kevin Smith, had been on the 11th floor of the North Tower, 500 feet from where Brian was working. His father was killed when the tower fell. Now, one dream visits him over and over.
"I dreamt the other night that I was on the phone with my dad. I called him on his cell phone and said, 'Dad, listen, don't go into this thing.'"
Like so many others whose loved ones died that day, Smith - even in his waking hours - obsessively replays his father's last moments.
"Was he one of these guys that was chopped up? Or was he one of these guys that was pushed in a corner? Was he one of these guys that got crushed or, I hope that and pray that it was quick," he says.
Smith does not want to go to get treatment. He thinks he can handle this himself.
"Some people can handle it themselves," says Dr. Grossman. "And it's an issue of how are you doing over time? Staying the same or getting worse, in general, may be an indication that you need some kind of help with this."
Smith was recently diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer. Within the city's polie and fire departments, the top brass are seeing enough of these kinds of stress-related problems that they've set up counseling sites throughout the city. In November, the police department ordered all 55,000 in its ranks into counseling.
Owen May says he's had grief counselors and people come to the office. "One of the guys jokingly said, 'Hey, it's not us who have the problems. It's the people who are still sitting at home.'"
May estimates 10 or 15 workers remain at home. He says he calls to inquire and most make up excuses. The ones who are honest tell him they couldn't get on the subway; they couldn't make it through the tunnel.
Chris Weiner, a bond broker at another company, understands that feeling well. He escaped from the World Trade Center unharmed, but the aftermath has virtually crippled him. Unable to return to his job, he spends most of his day close to home in Long Island. The nightmares and panic attacks continue and, worst of all, he hallucinates in vivid flashbacks that keep him trapped in that day.
"I still have the visions, planes are crashing into buildings," he says. He tells Mabry he can be driving around his Long Island neighborhood "and the house at the end of the block,you know, I'll see a plane or I'll think I see a plane crashing into it."
He says he steers clear of office buildings and crowded public places and he can't go back to Manhattan. Avoidance is all part of the reaction to trauma, avoiding anything that could trigger the terror.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm a captive of my imagination," Wiener says, "because these things aren't really happening now."
And there's something else that he lives with, something that hit home the day he watched the national memorial service.
"I made it out, and I made it out unscathed, you know, " he says. "And people died."
Survivor guilt has been a common reaction among those who lived through the attacks.
Some New York companies are firing people who haven't come back to work but Owen May says he won't so that because he knows firsdthand what workers are going through.
"This is not something that had singled May Davis out," says Owen May.
"This was so deep and it went so deep in the core, that it has affected a lot of people. And it has affected everybody - one, two, three degrees of separation."
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