Why, why did I survive?

It's a question common to those who survive disaster, like the Hunt Valley man who escaped the World Trade Center while a classmate died in the attacks.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 19, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Two men, once classmates at a Towson high school, arrive independently at Two World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11.

Michael Fitz-Patrick, 28, a new employee still in training at the Morgan Stanley financial services firm, gets off the elevator at the 61st floor. Daniel McNeal, 29, climbs higher, to his office at an investment banking firm on the 104th.

When the fireballs hit, first the adjacent tower, then his, Fitz-Patrick, who knew McNeal at Loyola Blakefield, a Jesuit prep school, has time to scramble down the stairs to safety. McNeal, the outgoing class president whom everyone admired, does not.

Days later, Fitz-Patrick, who lives in Hunt Valley, catalogs his wild range of emotions - relief, joy, sadness - and unexpectedly detects this: "waves of guilt."

For being the one who made it out. Asked about his good fortune, the first thing Fitz-Patrick says is, "I have a classmate from Loyola who didn't make it."

And later this: "I know I have a free pass." As if, somehow, he wasn't supposed to get out, to be here.

Fitz-Patrick's emotional swings - gratitude at having survived, followed by pangs of guilt for rejoicing at such a dark moment - are doubtless being experienced by thousands of others who descended the towers' stairs.

And it's not just New York survivors struggling to square such contrasting moods. It's also survivors of the attack on the Pentagon, and even those who simply watched on television and were drawn in and began to assess their own good fortune at not being in harm's way.

Wartime phenomenon

Survivors' guilt, a new phenomenon to many younger Americans, was well known in U.S. military circles during the wartime eras of tanks and foxholes, jungles and guerrilla maneuvers. World War II veterans, for example, would return home and say things like "The heroes were the ones who died" or apologize for not being among the legions of wounded.

"People ask the question, `Why? Why did I survive?' And my response is a very simple one: We don't know the reason why," says James A. Buckner, an Army chaplain at the Pentagon, a building of more than 20,000 workers where 189 are believed to have died when a hijacked American Airlines plane slammed into it about an hour after the World Trade Center attacks.

The Pentagon was victimized by the same wave of terrorism as the suicide plane crashes at the twin towers. And in each of the onslaughts, at least some of the survivors have posed the same troubling questions about seeming randomness, about why they get to live while some of their friends do not.

"A couple of the [Pentagon] folks who are injured and in the hospital have talked about that particular feeling," Buckner says. "Just because they happened not to go to the restroom and their friends went into a restroom, they were spared. A person can get stuck in their guilt and stay there for a long time, but I've also seen lives significantly changed, almost like they have a new lease."

Psychologists say it may help survivors to allow themselves a certain helplessness, a lack of control. That doesn't mean relinquishing the comfort of one's religious faith but rather accepting that the meaning of some events can't be divined.

That is why the remaining hundreds of workers at Marsh & McLennan Companies, the New York-based insurance giant devastated in the attack, are being counseled, in effect, that "There is nothing you could have done." The message is to be repeated again and again, with hopes that it will stick.

The company is missing 313 employees from One World Trade Center - the first tower hit - where it occupied floors 93 through 100. From the upper floors of the firm's headquarters, which is a few miles away, many of the insurer's workers watched their colleagues perish in flames and smoke as the tragedy unfolded.

They were as helpless as if they had been watching it on television.

"The important thing for people to realize is nobody could have foreseen this or have done anything to prevent it," says William Pitt, a company spokesman.

In dealing with the survivors of last week's terrorism, mental health professionals say it's useful to look to the experiences of war. Much is the same. In both, snap judgments must be made about what to do - whether to run, to leap from a window, to phone a spouse, to stop and help a fallen friend.

In World War II, many surviving soldiers apparently felt, often without justification, that their combat effort was somehow wanting compared to their fallen peers.

"For no matter how many machine-gun nests you knocked out, there were always those other moments, the ones you never spoke of," said a Los Angeles Times magazine story this summer on the emotional toll suffered by World War II vets. "The time you hesitated or almost ran - the times only you know about and secretly condemn yourself for."

Harsh judgments

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