A Decade Later – Coping and hoping.

by Jan on September 15, 2011

Now that the tsunami of 9/11 anniversary coverage has more or less subsided, I thought I’d share the very personal story of how two dear friends continue to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy in lower Manhattan ten years ago.

Marc Usem, and his mother Ruth, graciously shared their separate, but connected experiences over lunch last week.

MARC USEM… “IT WAS …..JUST A BAD DAY.”

Marc tells his part of the story in a very matter of fact, “let’s put the past behind us,” kind of way.  It was clear as he spoke that he was one of the lucky ones – his family and life intact.

September 11, 2001 started as most days did for Marc. He was on his daily run through the streets of lower Manhattan. The air was warm, with the first hint of fall; the sky was a clear blue and cloudless. It was a beautiful sunny day.

As he was heading home to his apartment – just two blocks from the World Trade Center – Marc heard (actually he “felt”) an explosion.  He could see a ball of fire on the North Tower (1 WTC). He ran faster to find his wife, Renee and his two-year-old son, Evan, believing they were in a park across the street from the Trade Center.  In fact they were not at the park, they were standing on the street in front of 1WTC (on the side opposite the impact) when the building was hit.  Marc’s wife, Renee, and son immediately scrambled away toward their apartment.

A short time later came the shock of a second explosion, this one so deafening Marc still remembers it vividly. He was sure it was a missile attack (the seismic impact of this explosion was so powerful that it was felt over 200 miles away). Still a few blocks away, he couldn’t make out what hit the South Tower (2 WTC) – where he had offices on the 18th floor – but he could see the fire.  Shards of metal, glass and other debris began to fall on him.

As Marc ran closer he could see bodies falling, but not landing.  The tall buildings were still intact blocking some of his view.  He ran even faster to get home to reconnect with his family. He was relieved to see Renee with Evan standing at the elevator doors, waiting for him, as the elevator reached his apartment’s floor.

Breathless, he asked Renee, “Do you have your wallet with you?”

“Yes.“

“We have to leave right now.”   They left with nothing but the clothes on their backs, pushing the baby carriage and leaving behind the home that would later be declared “uninhabitable” due to the accumulation of toxic dust and debris. Thus began the odyssey to find safety.

They joined thousands in a mass exodus, walking away from the catastrophe and chaos.  Marc remembers, “It was like the emptying of a huge sports stadium or rock concert, but with many more people.” Shoulder to shoulder, crowding the streets and roads, all moving, walking to safety.

They walked North past a frenetic scene at Chelsea Pier, which had become an ambulance staging area for the disaster in progress – emergency vehicles coming and going.  They stopped for a moment to look back at the Twin Towers.  Renee cautioned that the towers might likely fall. Marc, the pragmatist, couldn’t imagine such a thing possible. But fall they did.

While attempting to process the impossible but real implosion of those buildings, Marc told Renee, “I am going back to help.”  She questioned his urge to go back.  After considerable thought he did what his instincts had guided him to do from the first moment. He stayed with his family and kept moving. At this point in our conversation Marc’s mother, Ruth interjected, “I know Marc. He would most likely have made a decision to go back and try to rescue others in his building — I am so grateful that together, he and Renee made a decision of the ‘head’ as well as the ‘heart’.”

While among thousands fleeing from the scene, in many ways they were alone.  Communications were down.  They couldn’t reach family or friends to let them know they were alive. Marc’s business partner, Håkan Bergstrand, as well as Marc’s cousin attempted to find Marc in the rubble, believing he had been in the office when the South Tower was hit. Håkan recounted his story on HedgeFund.net for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

“That day you didn’t know what was going to happen next,” Marc recalled. “You assume something is next, but you don’t have any idea about what ‘it’ is.” Putting one foot in front of the other they walked for about seven hours.  Finally able to contact a friend, they were offered a place to stay.  Safe for the first time, they were able to see the whole disaster unfold again on TV.

As with most everyone present at the scene of the attack, Marc and his family’s lives were permanently changed.  Although they had previously decided to move back to Minnesota – their boxes were packed and waiting for the movers – their ties to New York, the city they loved, were severed by this event. Marc has only gone back to the site once since the disaster.

The lesson for Marc:  “Possessions don’t matter that much.  It’s all just stuff.  And that can be replaced.”  What wasn’t said, but implied, was that it’s the well-being and safety of family and friends that count most.

Living this truth is the best way to ensure that the terrorists won’t win.

Tomorrow we’ll hear the story from the perspective of Marc’s mother, Ruth.