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Attacks Have  Psychological Impact - 2001-09-25


The terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Center led to a surge of patriotic feeling in the city, but it also produced a psychological trauma that may last a long time. The effects are especially evident in people who were in or near the twin towers when the attack happened.

The devastation had obvious effects on those who were injured and the family members of the victims. But the psychological scars on those who survived physically untouched are likely to remain for a lifetime.

A man who asks only to be called Lou says that he was working across from the World Trade Center for a financial firm that day two weeks ago and still carries with him the horrible images of what he saw. "I had a horrible vantage point," he says, "seeing what we thought was debris falling and then we realized it was people jumping and exploding on the sidewalk like water balloons that you might have thrown when you were a kid. It was a very gruesome scene."

Lou, who lives just north of New York City, in Westchester County, has had a difficult time coping with the needs of his company during this time of crisis and his own personal need for healing. "Westchester County has a health facility, a crisis center, but, unfortunately, work has been very busy and I have not had a chance to follow up with them," Lou says. "I have had a lot of trouble sleeping without medicine. I take a sleeping pill and then I wake up groggy because it is not like really sleeping, you know. Without that, though, I [would be] having a lot of trouble sleeping."

Robert Falk, an investment broker, was also nearby when the planes struck the twin towers. He is also troubled by what he witnessed, but trying to carry on with his life. "If you live your life thinking about it, you might as well find a bubble and just lie in it," Mr. Falk says. "You may never leave. There are plenty of times now that I think about never leaving [home], but I am going to go back because it is what I do. It is what I know best and I am just going to do my job."

Mental Health experts say as many as 40,000 New Yorkers who were at or near the World Trade Center that day suffered psychological trauma. As many as a third of them may develop what is called post-traumatic stress disorder, a long term condition in which the terrible event is relived over and over again.

Some people have suggested that the best way for everyone to fight back against the terrorists and help trauma victims mend is to rebuild the Trade Center towers. In a public opinion poll conducted several days ago, 46 percent of New Yorkers said they favored that idea. But a similar number of people are against that plan. Robert Falk is among them.

"I would not build those buildings again if my life depended on it," he says. "They absolutely would be a target. I do not know anybody who would go up on a high floor again. Most of the [people] I know will not go above 20 floors right now. I would not build those buildings again, no way, no how."

A building construction supervisor who worked at the World Trade Center for 25 years, Steve Ruotolo, favors a compromise. He says something needs to be built on the site, but that people's fears need to be taken into account. I would like to see the towers rebuilt, bigger and better than they were before," he says. "However, I can see a real reluctance by any major corporation, or even a small corporation, to go into those towers because of what has happened. So I would think of building something like the [Seattle] Space Needle, with a mega-complex and office and mall applications in the lower levels and, obviously incorporate a memorial to the people who died there. But I think something should be built on a grand scale because there is no way we are going to allow these people to get us down. This is America."

It will take time for city leaders and the corporate community to come up with a plan for the disaster site. Tons of wreckage and debris await removal and a giant wall designed to keep sea water from entering the foundation of the buildings has been damaged and is leaking. So there will be plenty of time for the people of this traumatized city to consider what would be most appropriate for the site in the future.

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