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17 years from September 11. The “voices” of the survivors and of those who didn’t make it

The research project “Voices of 9/11” is a collection of the stories of the 2,977 people killed in the Twin Tower terror attacks. It includes personal video testimonies of victims’ families, survivors, and responders, preserved in a digital archive. “Voices of 9/11” is not only dedicated to the preservation of memory, although its archives include 85 thousand pictures of the victims, it is also an NGO with a 17-year long commitment in healing the wounds caused by the terror attacks on the WTC and the impact of acts of heinous violence against communities

(New York) That day, like every other day, the alarm clock went off at 05:00, followed by breakfast and bus ride into Manhattan, directed at One World Trade Center. That September 11 was like every working day for  Eddy and Grace Rivera. That morning Eddy gave up drinking his coffee-before-work and Grace decided to postpone shopping. They scanned their ID cards and entered the lift, when suddenly the building started shaking, followed by a hissing sound of the lifts. Eddy didn’t have the time to push Grace towards the exit. The doors of the lift opened carrying dust and a powerful gush of wind.

Eddy e Grace Rivera

The explosion threw them 20 feet away and the glass splinters entered the flesh of Eddy and Grace. The final explosion was a ball of fire that burned their whole body. Eddy looked up and saw the building on fire and people leaping off windows. They rushed to the hospital in excruciating pain, soothed only by morphine injections: 36% of their bodies had second or three –degree burns. After one month of intensive care and the first surgical operation, skin grafting began. “We had to wear a pressure garment for 23 hours a day for two years – Eddy said -. These garments prevent and control the formation of hypertrophic scars.” They underwent surgery to remove the scars for the following six years, coupled by a form of chronic asthma caused by the toxic fumes triggered by the explosion. Also Grace suffers from nightmares, the flashbacks of that day, and from asthma attacks. Eddy recently discovered oil-painting: “It helps me free my mind from those horrible memories and focus on positive experiences.”

“I will recover”  Michelle continues to say, remembering that day. As every morning she pushed the button of the 95th floor at 2 World Trade Center. She had been working at the Fiduciary Trust for the past two years. At 08.43 she was on the phone with a friend, talking about the project she had been working on until late hours the previous evening. She then heard the roar of an airplane and an explosion like that of a bomb going off, while a colleague was screaming that Tower 1 had been hit. Michelle took her bag and ran to the lifts, but not all colleagues went with her. “Why did they stay?” is her hammering, unanswered question. The lifts were packed with people going down and when she reached the hall she saw slips of paper and debris falling from the adjacent Tower, covering the entrance and the street. She went out despite a voice coming from the loudspeaker suggested to go back to work since Tower 2 was safe. In that moment, at 09.03, another airplane crushed into the skyscraper right above her. Michelle was being trampled over by the crowd until a colleague lifted her by force urging her to run, but she could not take her eyes off the people jumping out of windows to unavoidable death. At 3:10 she reached her neighbourhood after having walked for hours and without a mobile phone to call home. She is alive and sooner or later she will recover from this devastating tragedy.

The story of Eddy and Grace, the story of Michelle, are just some of the thousands of personal testimonies collected by “Voices of 9/11” research project, along with the stories of the 2,977 people killed in the Twin Tower terror attacks and personal video testimonies of victims’ families, survivors, and responders preserved in a digital archive. “Voices of 9/11” is not only for the preservation of memory, although 85 thousand pictures of the victims are kept in its digital archives. It is also an NGO committed in healing the wounds caused by the terror attacks on the Twin Towers for the past 17 years and by episodes of heinous violence against communities.

They offer dedicated counselling, psychological support, formation and prevention activity. In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, families were seeking the most disparate information, from the obtainment of a death certificate, to procedures for recognizing a corpse, to information on obtaining assistance from social services agencies, charities and other organizations. Mary Fetchet and Beverly Eckert founded a grass-root organization to provide a clearinghouse of information and support for all those impacted by the tragedy: it was necessary to promote resiliency, namely, the ability to reframe adverse experiences in a positive vein.

In 2002 “Voices” opens its first office in New Canaan, Connecticut, and hires social workers to provide clinical support to survivors. That year the organization hosted its first Commemorative Luncheon with victims’ families and the first annual Information Forum. But the two founders soon realized that on top of the physical injuries there also were long-term mental health disorders that needed to be treated. This required customized treatment programs that included information forums, meetings with international speakers and experts, teleconference meetings, commemorative events, interfaith services, support groups for the victims and for those living with survivors. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Secretaries of State, government officers, renowned artists, have been among the keynote speakers at VOICES annual remembrance ceremonies.

“Today we have expanded our work to heal families and communities after other tragedies –the project’s organizers pointed out – all the work done and the lessons learned from September 11 are included in a kit called ‘preparing for after’ dedicated to lifelong healing processes for survivors.” In fact the members of “Voices” have travelled across the United States to provide assistance to the survivors of floods or mass-shootings. “We are aware that we face a future full of economic, natural and man-made disasters. Our ability to recover and be stronger in adversity always depends on the strength of our communities and of civil society”, said Stephen Flynn, Founder of Resiliency Study Centre at Northeastern University, partner of “Voices”. This year, that serried social body, still suffering from its open wounds, will commemorate the victims of 9/11 at the memorial in New York with the reading of names by relatives and friends amidst the beams of light that stream up from ground zero. The World Trade Centre subway station, buried under the debris,  will be reopened after 17 years. Its walls are decorated with a white marble mosaic bearing the carved inscription of the United States Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. President Trump has announced he will attend the Pennsylvania memorial where the hijacked plane directed at Washington Congress crashed on September 11.

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