World Trade Center: an interview with survivor Lila Nordstrom

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

Undicisettembre is offering today its readers the personal account of survivor Lila Nordstrom who was a senior in high school three blocks away from the World Trade Center when the attacks happened.

We would like to thank Lila Nordstrom for her kindness and availability.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on 9/11?

Lila Nordstrom: I was a senior in high school on 9/11, my high school was about three blocks from the World Trade Center and we were in class when the first tower was hit. We stayed in class until just before the North Tower fell. When the first tower was hit we were not sure what was going on, then the second tower was hit and we were watching all of that from a panorama view out of our classroom. When the South Tower fell they told everyone to go to the homerooms and wait for further instruction, I think the administration was getting contradictory advice from different officials about whether they should evacuate or was safer to stay inside; since we were so close it would have been possible we were going to be caught in the dust cloud if we evacuated.

After the first tower fell the police or somebody else told them we should evacuate so they suddenly evacuated us in this very chaotic evacuation where they just opened the doors to the north of the school and told everyone to run. There were about three thousand students at our school, so it was a lot of people to get out of the building. I was one of the first students out, because instead of going to my homeroom I went to the nurse’s office, which was kind of near to the exit. I’m asthmatic, so when the first tower collapsed and the dust cloud rushed towards our building I realized I needed to get to the other side of the building and away from the windows. The moment that I stepped outside, literally the moment I put foot to pavement, the second tower started to fall and all the evacuees that I was with started running. We ran for a quarter of a mile and then ran out of breath. When I stopped I found one of my teachers and we started walking uptown together, acquiring other students as we went. I think I walked ten miles – all the way to Queens. I lived in Manhattan but I walked passed my own house because I lived under the Empire State Building and I had heard on the radio before I left that there was a chance a plane was going to hit it too, so we kept walking and I decided not to go home. Since I was with a friend who lived in Queens, I walked with her. We walked across 59th Street Bridge with thousands of other people and then we made it to her house. I spent the night there and came back to the city the next day.

Undicisettembre: What happened to you on the next day?

Lila Nordstrom: The next day was scary. I immediately wanted to leave the city and go to upstate New York, where my grandparents lived. My friends took the subway with me till 60th street, my parents met me up there and we walked to Downtown. It was alarming, we walked through these different stages of New York City disaster zones where up in the sixties it seemed kind of normal but in Time Square is was quieter than usual, in Herald Square it was kind of eery. We walked to 14th street and there was a cut off. I lived in the twenties so we walked a bit further just to see what was going on: it was smokey, eerie. There was a line at an armory near our house, people looking for missing people. There were missing posters already up.

We went back to our house and we just sat and I insisted that we leave the city right away, and my parents said “No, we are going to do it in two days” and I replied “We have to leave right now. We can’t stay here. Anything can happen.” There also were these fighter jets flying overhead and the sound of the airplanes was making me jump, it was a common thing for people who were at school with me. So I just sat for two days in my apartment and we finally left the city and we went upstate New York.

Undicisettembre: How long did you stay there?

Lila Nordstrom: We stayed there for like a week. I just needed to leave the city at that moment, it was just too alarming and noisy. I grew up in an industrial block so there were always a lot of loud crashes and bangs, but I was finding the noise in the city and sound of airplanes a little bit too much. I think it was a common thing, many people from my school said they felt that after the attack, and to some extent I still feel that now.

We didn’t really understand what happened. We didn’t know why terrorists attacked us, we didn’t know if there was more coming, I though we should just get out of there.

Undicisettembre: You were very young in 2001, do you consider yourself part of the 9/11 generation? I mean, did it affect your life and the lives of people your age?

Lila Nordstrom: Yes, I think so. I was 17, about to turn 18, so that was the moment that separated my childhood from my adulthood. It was a very impactful time because next year I was going off to college: all the things that happen when you are 18 were right around the corner for me and then this huge thing happened, meaning the adult world I was entering into changed fully. We are the oldest of this “9/11 generation”. We remember what things were like before 9/11. For me the adult world I was entering into became much scarier, darker and more violent than I expected, because immediately after that they tried to send us to war and were using our experience as an example of why we should fight. The argument didn’t really make sense because they got very obsessed with Iraq and starting building the case against Iraq pretty soon after 9/11 and it was clear to anyone who was listening that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. We became the excuse for this horrible mission the US embarked on.

I think it was a rude awakening to adulthood and we were able to understand all of these mechanics, whereas as a I kid I don’t think I would have understood exactly what was going on.

We felt like we were the symbol they were using to justify all of this violence while we were just sitting there saying “Wait a minute, don’t use us, this is not true.”

One interesting thing I noticed when I moved to California after college is that everyone in the US thinks they’ve experienced 9/11 personally, and because of that they have a hard time distinguishing between actually experiencing it in a tangible sense and experiencing it theoretically. That’s behind a lot of my frustration with the era right after 9/11 where we were used as symbols that the rest of America was heating up with “You are either with us or against us” and all this crazy rhetoric.

At the same time they were sending us to school in a dangerous neighborhood where the air wasn’t safe while they were justifying all this terrible stuff on our backs.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your everyday life even today?

Lila Nordstrom: For one thing I founded a group called StuyHelth that does work around this issue, and the reason I do this is there were tremendous health impacts in my community from our exposures. Actually one thing I think is not well understood outside of New York City is that the day of 9/11 itself isn’t really the reason why we have these health impacts. I mean people have PTSD and people who were in the dust cloud on 9/11 have health impacts from that experience, but most of us got sick because we were sent back. The clean up went on for months and we were going to school right in the middle of the clean up, so they were dumping debris from the site right next to our school.

We were going through multiple police checkpoints to go into our school. At the time we were dimly aware that part of the reason we were sent back was symbolism - to make it look like things went back to normal. I see a real parallel with the kind of rhetoric that is being used to justify opening the schools here during COVID and, like what happened to us, it’s clear that a lot of the argument has to do with the economy and has nothing to do with the safety of kids. We haven’t really done the work to make the schools safe here, we are just sending kids back. That’s basically what happened to us as well, so our health impacts are largely related to what happened in the months after 9/11: we returned to our school three blocks away from the World Trade Center on October 9th, our school wasn’t fully cleaned until the following summer, so we attended school in a contaminated building for a full school year. That’s how we ended up being impacted, it would have been nothing more than a traumatic memory if it wouldn’t been for the fact that it became a part of our everyday life for months.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories according to which 9/11 was an inside job?

Lila Nordstrom: Well, I don’t believe them. I am aware of why those theories were compelling to people. This era is the first parallel on the scale of 9/11 that I’ve experienced in my life. After 9/11 there was already a sense of distrust in the Bush administration; Bush was not a popular president, so people were willing to believe that somehow the administration had had knowledge of it because of the incompetence we had been living with for a really long time. And it was also such a bizarre shock to everyone because something like that never happened here. We like to go to war elsewhere, World War 2 was fought entirely elsewhere. We were not used to being the target of something like that and there was a sense that no one could fully explain what happened. So I understand why those theories were compelling.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack we saw an administration floundering to explain what had gone on, searching for ways to make it fit into an agenda that they already had and that had nothing to do with anything. Especially the fact that they used this to justify a war that had nothing to do with it made people feel the official story was not something they could trust.

I remember Loose Change, the movie that was an early viral sensation: that was all fake science information, but no one had any background in those topics, so if someone tells you steel can’t collapse like that, you really don’t know, you don’t have the information to say “I know better than them” so people believed that video. The same way, I don’t know better than doctors how COVID spreads, but for some reasons people seem to believe that they do know better than doctors.

So, there was information vacuum, they were scary times. People wanted answers and official channels were not providing them. And people do crazy stuff when they are scared. I saw that on 9/11 and I’m seeing that now too.

Undicisettembre: How would you compare the crisis after 9/11 to the COVID crisis the country is living now?

Lila Nordstrom: I’m seeing a lot of the same themes emerge. First of all, not taking appropriate public health preventive measures and then endangering people’s lives in order to reopen the economy. 9/11 had an environmental crisis which was very different from 9/11 as a terrorist attack; as someone who experienced it as an environmental crisis I see a lot of parallels that have to do with the broken ways our public health infrastructure functions and the priority that it has. The reason to live in a society at all is that when something this big happens you can take care of each other; this mandate of rugged individualism that we were so proud of does not serve us well in a crisis like this and we are seeing the results of that with COVID.

The thing I think is unique about how a crisis like that affect people here in the USA is that we don’t have a guaranteed health care of any sort; a crisis like this has really long lasting consequences for people in a way that it doesn’t if you have universal healthcare. If you ask students to return to school or people to return to work here and you are not positive that it’s safe you might not just be sentencing them to a future of health issues but also to a future of massive medical debts or bankruptcy because of their medical bills where they are unable to see a doctor because of the costs.

We fought for twenty years to have a healthcare program that maybe takes care of 30% of our needs related to 9/11. The fact that I had to fight for twenty years in a country that supposedly has the best healthcare system in the world is astonishing. And I think the same is going to happen after COVID because we don’t have a system that allows us to address ongoing aspects of a health crisis like this. We are going to constantly find it as a drain on our economy, our society, our healthcare system in ways that it just doesn’t have to be. We are seeing the same ignorance about the problem and the refusal to address the obvious solution that we saw after 9/11. And 9/11 as an environmental crisis happened on a much smaller scale, it happened to three hundred or four hundred thousand people in Lower Manhattan, not to millions of people all over the nation. But little 9/11’s happen constantly here. Flint, Michigan is a little 9/11, they are having an environmental crisis that is going to have long lasting consequences and we have done nothing to take care of the problem. The gun violence is another example of this, we ask people to pay their medical bills after they are shot in acts of mass violence in this country. The number of medical claims on GoFundMe counts for a third of their business.

We sort of allowed these crisis to go on for much longer than it’s necessary because we refuse to take care of the consequences of them. I can see that emerging right now with COVID, we are doing the exact same thing. We’ve never done it on a scale this big, we’re about to refuse to take care of the long term consequences of something that touched the lives of every single person in America, not something that’s just in Lower Manhattan or Flint, Michigan, or whatever. We have not taken any steps to address those mistakes; so I feel like for me watching the COVID crisis emerge has been like a slow motion car wreck where I see all these mistakes and how they all impact us in the long term and how these gaps in our disaster response are going not just to impact us right now. It’s pretty inconvenient right now that no one can work and we are still stuck at home seven months after we first went inside; but I also see how twenty years down the line this is going to impact us and continue to, and I see no one making any steps to address that, which is frustrating.

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