BY: TARIK SHIHADEH
“The trepidation, the awe of witnessing a man plummet off a skyscraper… I recall exactly what was running through my mind at this moment. But I’ll never know what was in their minds as they descended to their demise. Did they recall their sins? Any regrets? … I remember distinctly the sounds of their bodies smashing into the earth. This just isn’t something you can forget, or like make up.”
Today, Jay is a man of higher faith, but if I were to conduct this interview ten years ago, he wouldn’t be apt to talk about what he witnessed. He’d still be coping with his PTSD. He was only 21 years old when he experienced the events of 9/11 on the streets of New York City. For years after, he was tortured by the persistent and tantalizing imagery of the collapse of twin towers, as well as the suicide jumpers taking their own lives. In 2006, he moved to California to not only pursue career opportunities, but to escape from his past. He had to completely evacuate his hometown just to fix himself. There, he found solace in Christianity, where he became a devout Christian, which would aid him in his endeavors to jump the hurdle that was his PTSD. Fortunately for him, his faith seemingly cured the black shroud that would follow him around.
Jay, 35, is a successful banker. I was able to establish ties with him via my uncle, who is his lawyer. Jay has been my uncle’s client ever since he moved to California back in 2006. I conducted this interview over the telephone, as Jay is a very busy man. He chose not to reveal too much personal info about himself. I was only able to gather that Jay has a family of three. He also preferred that I would not incriminate his real name. He told me to use the alias Jay. When I politely questioned his decision, he said, “I want there to be this sense of mystique to loom over the interview. I like the audience to conjure up images of how they think I look. I want this interview to read like a book, where you don’t know how the characters look, but you keep the image in your head about how they look.” Furthermore, I inquired whether or not I should describe his voice, because like a character in a book you don’t know how he or she sounds. He requested that I not describe his voice because leaving his voice ambiguous adds to the mystique of his presence.
I commenced the interview by asking Jay what his immediate reaction was to the event. “I was scared shitless. Excuse my profanity. I remember being on the street and noticing how it suddenly became shady. And then – BOOM! I also recall seeing the first airplane mere seconds before it collided and disintegrated. I was with my girlfriend at the time, and neither of us could muster up the words to describe what we just saw. We cowered behind a car for fear of more attacks. And as you know, there were definitely more.”
To piggyback off his response, I asked him what were the most vivid memories that he could recall. “I saw the whole thing, you know. So I still remember most things pretty vividly. Like I’m never gonna forget the planes’ collisions into the towers. And the actual collapse of the towers, which was thunderous and deafening, is not a seamless sight to forget. But the absolute most afflicting and traumatizing event that I witnessed in the whole shtick was the suicides off the towers.”
I gently prodded him to elaborate on the jumpers. Luckily, Jay was more than happy to. “The trepidation, the awe of witnessing a man plummet off a skyscraper, is sickening to say the least. I remember it invoking feelings of nausea and insurmountable grief. I recall exactly what was running through my mind at this moment. But I’ll never know what was in their minds as they descended to their demise. Did they recall their sins? Any regrets? I don’t even know who these people were. But I was over encumbered with feelings of sadness for my fellow humans. I remember distinctly the sound of their bodies smashing into the earth. This just isn’t something you can forget, or, like, make up.”
What I found most interesting in his last response was that Jay questioned the jumpers about their sins. Upon first talking with Jay, he didn’t strike me as the type to be religious. So I asked him to talk about the tidbit about the sins. “Well, I’m a deeply religious man. I haven’t always been, but for the past nine years I have been a devout Catholic. I want to believe that each of those jumpers are up there with God right now, but it also begs the question as to whether or not these jumpers confessed their sins.” I pushed further by inquiring about his faith. Specifically, how he found his faith. He obliged. “For years after 9/11, I was struggling with major PTSD. My life was falling apart, as I turned to my personal demons to cope with the PTSD. After college, in 2006 I moved here to pursue not only work, but also a new beginning. One of my colleagues at the first bank I worked at introduced me to his church and I fell in love with it. My faith has really helped me overcome the PTSD induced from that horrific event.”
I find it fascinating and ironic how Jay found faith and guidance in the most liberal area of the United States. Here in California, most liberals associate Christianity with violence and corruption as history has proven. But in the standout case of Jay, one man found peace with his inner self from a religion with a bloody timeline. Even if you self-identify as an atheist, you have to respect him.
Moving on from the last series of questions, I questioned where Jay saw himself in the future at the time of 9/11. “Certainly not in California talking with a high school student over the phone about my experiences at 10:30 p.m. Like I said before, I turned to many of my personal demons to try to alleviate the PTSD. I was smoking, drinking, and bingeing on foods. I wasn’t worried about my future, and any motivations for success were killed off. But going along the road that I was taking, I’m not sure if I’d even be alive to tell you this.”
We both got a good chuckle out of his first sentence. I continued the interview by asking him if 9/11 changed the way he viewed members or organizations involved in the event. “I mean, at the time I think everybody was xenophobic to Arabs. I hate to admit it, but I was too. But in my defense, we were scared of the unknown. We had never been attacked on American soil up until that point. We had no idea if there would be a full-fledged invasion by the terrorists. Obviously now, I’m a changed man. My faith eliminated that fear factor and animosity towards Arab entities. And I think most people have moved on from that
Islam phobia. We as a society have embraced cultural sensitivity. It isn’t politically correct to have fear towards a Muslim.”
My penultimate and perhaps most challenging question entailed asking him if he thinks that witnessing this travesty has benefitted him. Jay went a little silent at first, perhaps contemplating his response. He responded with, “I think that’s a difficult question to answer. The events of 9/11 lead to the darkest and most recessive point in my life. And I will never forget that imagery of people falling out of buildings and buildings collapsing. So to say that I benefitted from that event, I’d have to say no. But I think for what it’s worth, I’ve benefitted with how I eventually coped after the event. Finding Christianity has led to the most expansionary period of my life. I’ve abandoned my personal demons, I met my wife at my church, and my son will be graduating kindergarten in May next year. I’m doing well for myself right now, and luckily I don’t think about 9/11 and obsess over it.”
I solicited my final question to Jay, which involved asking him if there is anything that he wishes he could tell his past self to mitigate the shock value of witnessing the events of 9/11. He simply replied with, “Just find God’s light.” I politely asked him to elaborate, but he wouldn’t budge. “I think it speaks for itself. If I found Christ earlier in my life, I wouldn’t have had to been setback by the PTSD. Simple as that.”
I thanked Jay for his time and apologized for taking so much time out of his night. It was 10:30 p.m. when I conducted the interview. It took an hour and a half to finish up. Thankfully, Jay thought nothing of it and claimed that he had enjoyed the talk.
It is absolutely crucial for every single American to never forget the events of September 11th. It can’t be forgotten because something of that ilk can easily happen again. And we must recognize the witnesses of this event, and not dismiss their stories because what they have to say is just as important as what those who died on 9/11 couldn’t say. This meant a lot to Jay because he was directly afflicted with the aftermath as he had sunk to new lows. But thankfully for him he found Jehovah in the darkest places of his life, and he bounced into a boom period. For those that read this interview, they could enrich their understanding of witness literature, and maybe even gain inspiration from Jay’s story. Truth is utterly subjective. Jay’s story reveals that everyone experiences things differently. Jay mentioned that he witnessed the event with his girlfriend at the time. He never exactly told me what his girlfriend’s emotions and reactions were to what was going on. And in light of Jay’s situation, it is important that we approach witnesses of horrific events with the utmost sensitivity. Because as we know, there was a massive PTSD factor in Jay’s story. There is quantifiable value in this testimony, as any one of us can one day become a witness. And any one of us can find God’s light if need be. Jay’s testimony grants every witness an option to overcome his or her obstacles.