Fassuliotis: The events of September 11 have led me on a journey of public service

Submitted by Karen Fassuliotis

As September 11, 2021 comes and goes there will be many observances to mark one of the worse days in American history. I am one of the thousands who, twenty years ago, observed that day firsthand. I have written about what I saw many times over the years. It is something that stays with you, even when you want to push it out of your head. I witnessed the worst of humanity and I witnessed the best of humanity that day and the days that followed. It is important that generations never forget that day, just as my parents’ generation insist that we never forget Pearl Harbor so many years ago.

I find it ironic that I was born on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th , fifteen years after it occurred, and I was later there to see what happened at the World Trade Center some forty-five years later. If Pearl Harbor was my alpha, I vowed that the World Trade Tower attacks would not be my omega.

But it was not an easy road for me. I defy anyone to say that they did not suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome after witnessing what we did. But, thanks to ordinary people, most of us who survived made it through the other side. And while I did not work directly in the World Trade towers, I worked in an office building not that far way.

My story is the story of ordinary Americans who go to work to support themselves and their families. That September day, some twenty years ago, started as a typical day. A rush to the train to take the trip to Grand Central Station, and then the subway ride on the number 4 or 5 train to Wall Street. It started out as a beautiful fall day when I left home. The sky was blue and the air was fresh.

I was scheming as to who I was going to leave work a little early so I could get to the beach for a walk before the sun set. I had just started work at a law firm on the 57th floor of the Chase Building as a lowly associate, having just gotten my law degree a year before. I was late to the law profession, but finally landed a job in the city. Leaving work early was not going to be easy.

I managed to get a seat on the subway at Grand Central and began the trek downtown. The subway was a little slower than usual, so I didn’t get to Wall Street until 8:46 AM. It arrived one minute after the first plane hit the North Tower. Still oblivious as to what was going on, I exited the subway station to find black smoke powering down onto the street. Thinking that the building over the subway station was on fire I rushed across the street. Papers were streaming down out of the sky. I thought it odd that all these memos and other files were falling around me. I looked down and saw a plane ticket, which puzzled me.

I asked someone what was going on, while looking up to where everyone was looking. I could see an angry black hole in the North Tower. The streets were filled with people. As I crossed to Liberty Place a fireman held back the crowd to allow a fire truck pass through. I still remember the faces of the men hanging off the truck, as they raced toward the building. Their truck was later found in the debris. My mind has blocked out the other things I saw, although some times the images push through.

All of us thought the plane strike was an accident. I managed to help a woman who had been in Deutsche Bank and wanted to get through to her husband to tell her she was OK. My cell phone worked – one of the few that did. But I told her to come with me to my office so she could call from there. We arrived in my office at 9:00 AM. We could see the towers from my office and we watched as she called her husband. A few minutes later, at 9:02 AM I saw a large, grey plane flying down the river, bank left, and aim directly for the South Tower. It leveled off, and I could hear it throttle down before it slammed into the South Tower, its nose going through the other side. I could see the silhouettes of the people sitting in their seats on the plane before the impact. My brain still cannot comprehend what I witnessed that day. I think I started yelling at my colleagues that we needed to get out of the building. In either case I grabbed my briefcase and left. I could have taken the elevator but decided not to, in case another plane was heading for our building.

I walked the 57 stories down to street level (no easy task). It was pandemonium. No one knew what was going on. I called my parents. My mom was giving me real time data from the television. I decided that I should not hang around that area and started the long walk to Grand Central Station. It was a decision that probably saved me life, as when I got to the City Hall area the South Tower fell. I ran as fast as I could ahead of the plume of dust and debris that was billowing through the area. I did not look back as I continued uptown.

Silence followed me as I walked and walked toward Grand Central Station. Once there I discovered that the station was closed due to fears of bombs in the station. I continued walking, until I flagged down an express bus to the Bronx. I called my parents to tell them I was OK and I would be in the Bronx. I made it home later that day unscathed, but mentally bruised.

I can say now that in the days and months and even years to follow I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. I did not speak of that day and cried myself to sleep every night for months. It didn’t help that I had to go back to work a mere three days later. The sights, sounds and smell still remain with me twenty years later. To say that going to work in a war zone is unnerving is an understatement. Instead of my usual Wall Street subway stop I now took the subway to Fulton Street and walked the rest of the way on a route where I would not see the pile. It did not shelter me from the soldiers with semi-automatic weapons and the smoldering rubble that remained for weeks. For the remainder of my time at the law firm, my office shades remained closed as I could not look out the window to where the World Trade towers once stood.

I was lucky to have a family who was patient and I was able to emerge from the darkness, vowing to make a difference in my town. I left the law firm in New York and ventured out on my own. The events of September 11th have led me on a journey of public service – first as an elected volunteer on the Representative Town Meeting and now as an elected volunteer on the Board of Estimate and Taxation. I have performed countless hours of pro bono legal services for those who are mentally ill and find themselves in the court system, as have counseled those who find themselves unable to help themselves and face conservatorships.

And every year on September 11th I watch the ceremony at the former World Trade site and listen to the names of each person who perished that day. I have done that for 19 years and this year will not be any different. I witnessed their murders and feel it is my duty to make sure that they are remembered by me for as long as I am blessed to be on this earth. I have not yet been able to go to any public ceremonies yet. The memory is still too raw for me, even after twenty years, for me to be in public. But I carry the weight of that day and the weight of what I saw every day since. I did not know the people who perished that day but, even so, they are a part of me and shall be so forever. I will never forget them. We all should never forget them.