Making Peace with a Violent Memory; 9/11 Still Hurts
From a surreal vantage point, Elmhurst resident Jenn Wylie unwittingly made a movie in her head that plays over and over like 'Groundhog Day.'
Editor's Note: This article originally was published on Sept. 11, 2011.
Jenn Wylie can't go to parades. She can't stand the sound of a firetruck siren at close range.
"It's mostly when they're really close. I start hyperventilating," the Elmhurst resident said.
The smell of burning plastic makes her shake. If a television program is interrupted with a news alert, her heart stops.
And then, there are the nightmares.
It's the same dream over and over. They've gotten fewer and farther between; 10 years has a way of making the memories less acidic. But 9/11 still hurts—especially as the old news clips are shown around the clock to mark the anniversary.
Wylie has never really spoken about her experiences on Sept. 11, 2001. It's only now that she feels ready to talk about it.
The World Changed in an Instant
It was the most beautiful day—gorgeous, sunny, the temperature was perfect. Wylie had recently quit a six-figure corporate job to pursue her dream of becoming a professional chef. She had arrived in New York seven days earlier, on Sept. 4, 2001, and was headed to her second day of culinary school.
"I was so excited, so happy I made this choice," she said. "It was exactly where I wanted to be, perfect in that moment."
She was headed to the French Culinary Institute, walking south on Broadway from her apartment building at Houston and Elizabeth street in the Nolita area of Manhattan. It was about 8:50 a.m.
"I stepped up on the curb and a woman asked me if I was voting, because there was a mayoral election that day. I said no, I don't live here," she said.
Some firetrucks passed by, which was not unusual, but as Wylie thinks back on that moment, they were probably headed to the World Trade Center. The first plane already had hit, but no one on the street near her was aware yet. The World Trade Center was about a half-mile south of the school, the streets were noisy, busy.
She made eye contact with the firefighters as they passed, because "honestly, I was kind of checking them out," she said.
She arrived at school, but shortly after she had changed into her chef's uniform and was seated in class, someone came into the room and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
Class continued, but about three minutes later, the same person came in and interrupted the class again.
"Before I knew it, we were turning off all the gas (to the stoves)," she said.
It was a pre-war building, with a bomb shelter in the basement. They were herded downstairs, and that's where the enormity of the situation began to be known.
"They took a quick roll call then told us to get the heck out of there. They wanted us to head north," she said.
They moved south.
"Curiosity. We were just a bunch of kids in our 20s. We wanted to see, so we moved south."
The streets were dead silent.
"Manhattan is never quiet. It was the eeriest thing I'd ever seen," she said. "Everyone was staring up at the World Trade Center. No cars were moving. It was like time stood still. People were in their parked cars listening to the news. You could hear a pin drop."
No one was afraid, except when a cluster of fighter jets came in over the city.
"They flew right in between the buildings, right next to the towers. It felt like they were coming down the street. We didn't know if they were ours or if we were being attacked," she said. "Nobody moved, nobody ducked. It was deafening."
Wylie and her classmates, who she had only known for one day, soon realized they were American planes.
'Then the Really Bad Stuff Started Happening'
The better option for scores of people trapped by the infernos overtaking the towers, was to jump. Wylie witnessed—one after another—those desperate souls' 10-second suicides.
"I think it probably seemed more real to people watching it on TV. Being that close to it, it was like my mind shut down. I couldn't process it," she said.
And as the first tower fell, the ground shook. It was like an earthquake, she said.
"The cloud of dust overcame us. We were coated; we were white. I remember the smell. It was choking, and it was thick. We started to see this slow movement of people marching up Broadway. They were all white. They looked like ghosts."
There was one man Wylie will never forget.
"He'd been cut in the head, and there was bright red blood trickling down his face. Everything was white except for the blood on his face. I saw hundreds and hundreds of people that day, but that guy—his face is cemented in my mind."
She doesn't remember how long she stood there, but at some point, she began heading north. She made it back to her apartment, and from the roof, she saw the second tower fall. She took just one photo.
Eventually, she was able to reach her family and let them know she was OK.
People either lived or they died that day; only a handful survived with injuries. People were waiting at the hospitals, but there was no need for triage. No one showed up. There was no need for blood, even though people were lined up to give it.
Wylie was confined to her block for the next five days because she wasn't officially a resident of New York and couldn't get past the checkpoints. She and her roommates sealed their home with duct tape to keep the bad air out.
When she finally was allowed to roam freely, she wasn't sure what to do. She headed to the culinary school, where students were feeding the first responders.
"In the first couple of days, they tried to stick to the curriculum, which is French. They were cooking paté and things, and that wasn't going over well. By the time I got there, they had switched to fried chicken, meatloaf, hamburgers."
School was back in session the following Monday. She was surprised that no one quit and headed back home.
But there was the constant smell.
"Acrid, noxious, melted. It was a crematory at that point," she said.
Even months later in March, when her boyfriend came to see her graduate and they visited Ground Zero, it was still smoldering.
Wylie's trauma didn't set in until she got back to Chicago. She referred to herself as "twitchy" during that time. That's when the nightmares started. They were always the same. She steps onto the curb and the woman asks her, "Are you voting today?"
"And I think, oh no. It's another 9/11 dream," she said.
But in the dream, she knows what's about to happen.
"I feel responsible. How do I save these people. I know what's going to happen. Can I pull a fire alarm? Can I sneak into the building, get past security and get everybody out of there?"
Her boyfriend became her husband in 2003. The dreams subsided over the years, but with the 10th anniversary of 9/11, she's had a few more.
"I've kind of desensitized myself to the picture of the burning buildings," she said. "But when they show the pictures of the people jumping … I don't want people to forget about it, but there's a line."
She's planning to go back to New York for another visit; she was there in 2004.
"I had always wanted to live in New York. That was like the center of the universe for me," she said. "I got cheated out of my New York experience. I am more attached to the city, and I have a true connection (because of what happened), but I feel like I missed out."
Remnants of post-traumatic stress still hang on.
"I almost feel guilty," she said. "I feel guilty because there were so many people who lost loved ones that day. It's almost like I don't have a right."
But in recent years, she's been able to look at old photos from that time period.
"I can actually look at it without crying. I can look with interest instead of horror," she said.
When her kids, now 5 and 3, are old enough, she plans to take them to the site.
"I'd like it to be a peaceful place. And it hasn't been for a very long time," she said.