20 years later, 9/11 still impacts my family

Annenberg Media’s Gabrielle Chenault reflects on the lasting impact Sept. 11 has had on her life.

A water flows into a pool with buildings and a crowd of people behind it in New York City.

TW: This article contains imagery that may be triggering and disturbing for some readers.

I was two years, seven months and 11 days old when the attack on the World Trade Center happened. I was at my babysitter’s apartment with my five-month-old brother on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and while I was too young to remember the events of that day, I learned years later the devastating impact it had on my mother.

This was her first week back at work due to being out on maternity leave after giving birth to my younger brother in late April. As the Director of Research for the Taxi Limousine Commission (TLC), she worked in an office building at the corner of Rector and Washington streets which was exactly four blocks from the twin towers.

She was a frequent visitor of the World Trade Center. On numerous occasions, she would stop there to meet friends for lunch, visit the popular Windows on the World restaurant or pick up necessities from the Duane Reade convenience store. “I had many memories of being at the World Trade Center,” she said. “I celebrated my 2nd anniversary at Windows on the World with my husband. I frequently went into the World Trade Center to shop at the various stores. I would bring you there frequently because they had lunchtime music concerts.”

My mother had even visited the towers at 7 a.m. on Sept. 11 to buy a pair of stockings from a popular convenience store. She was supposed to return two days later for an 11 a.m. meeting.

Due to her proximity to the twin towers, she witnessed the gruesome terrorist attack firsthand. This event for her — like so many others— had a devastating impact. She shielded her eyes as she ran to the subway due to the wreckage of rubble and the bodies of those who leapt from the buildings to the crowded streets. One of the most circulated pictures of that day depicted the devastating scene of people leaping from the buildings. Some leapt to escape the smoke, fire, or— in some cases— they were sucked out due to the intense wind.

I learned that the images of the gruesome day flashed constantly in her mind. For several days after the attack, my mother couldn’t sleep and developed PTSD as a result. Even though we still lived in Manhattan at the time, she began to commute daily from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Woodside, Queens due to her job being relocated.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned that this traumatic event was not my mother’s first time witnessing terrorism. Eight years prior, she was on the subway in Lower Manhattan when the Feb. 26, 1993 attack happened. A van loaded with approximately 1,200 pounds of explosives was driven into the public parking garage and detonated which resulted in the death of five Port Authority employees and a businessman. Due to her being underground, the subway system shut down and she and several other passengers had to walk through the dark NYC subway tunnels until they could get to the next station and get above ground. “First time I had met terrorism in NYC and I didn’t know what happened until I got out the train. I was on the E train and it had just left the Canal street station. It started to shake violently. No one had any idea what happened and after two minutes the train started moving again,” she said.

When I was 9, the after-effects of 9/11 became very real in my life. Due to working in close proximity to the towers and breathing in dangerous toxins, my mother developed M.S. or Multiple Sclerosis and several of her coworkers were diagnosed with various types of cancers. “It wasn’t just me,” she said. “It was a cluster of us who worked together in the same area who all developed illnesses that the WTC [World Trade Center] Registry wouldn’t cover.”

Although many bystanders, survivors and residents near the twin towers developed environmental-related illnesses, the World Trade Center Registry only covers issues pertaining to certain cancers and respiratory issues. The Registry tracks people who have developed health issues as a result of the attack, with the goal of showing how certain illnesses were manifested in people who were in the surrounding area. I remember my mother having frequent hospital stays and when I got older, I became the one to help administer her medicine which came in the form of bi-weekly shots. The results of the terrorist attack are a burden my family, my mother and thousands of New Yorkers have to carry every day.

During the summer of 2017, I decided to learn more about the event that had forever changed my mother’s life. I took a summer job at The National 9/11 Memorial & Museum and, for two months, I learned stories of loss, strength and resilience. I heard countless stories of those who sacrificed themselves to save friends, co-workers and even complete strangers. Artifacts that survived the wreckage like large pieces of iron and a fire trunk are on display.

The most impactful piece that I learned about was a wall titled “The Remembrance Wall,” which depicts the clear blue sky of that day with the quote, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Behind the multi-blue-hued wall houses the unidentified remains of 1,106 people at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York (OCME) Repository. Twenty years later, people are still being identified, with the most recent case happening Sept. 8. The museum has also faced controversy for this feature. Many including the victims’ families and friends believe the museum is profiting off their loss by having the unidentified remains in a museum.

Although I do not remember the events of that day, I cannot escape the aftermath that the attack has created in my life. Twenty years later, as a city, community and nation we are still healing from the loss of loved ones, co-workers, and friends. We crave the “normalcy” we experienced before the attack. Certain aspects we now think of as normal such as how Transportation Security Administration (TSA) operates simply did not exist before 9/11.

As we observe this day, it’s equally important that while we remember those who died in the attacks, along with the thousands who died of environmental effects. Two decades later, these four slogans that The National 9/11 Memorial & Museum uses have never been truer: Hope, Resilience, Unity and—most importantly— Never Forget.