On the brilliant, sunny morning of September 11, 2001, Port Authority executive Kayla Bergeron was sitting at her desk in her office on the 68th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower in Manhattan, when she felt the building heave forward. She looked out her window, to a postcard view of New York City, and saw debris raining down from above, like confetti. “I called the governor’s office,” Bergeron told marie claire. “I said, ‘I’m not sure, but I think a small plane must have veered into the building.’ I just thought there’d been a terrible accident.”
It wasn’t until Bergeron was on her way down the emergency stairwell that she learnt her country was under attack and her life was in peril: the twin towers of the World Trade Center had been hit by passenger jets, and the South Tower – the second building to be struck – was no longer there. In its place, half a million tonnes of rubble, melted steel and the remains of hundreds of human lives.
It is 20 years since 9/11, a catastrophic assault on the US that claimed the lives of an estimated 2996 people, including 10 Australians, and ushered in a new and more brazen age of terrorism. Playing out on live broadcasts across the world, in what was the most watched disaster in history, terrorists of the militant jihadist group Al Qaeda, led by its wealthy Saudi founder, Osama bin Laden, hijacked four domestic flights. Two were flown into the Twin Towers, both of which collapsed, one into the Pentagon, and a fourth was on its way to Washington’s Capitol Building before an intrepid band of passengers overran the cockpit and the United Airlines jet crashed into a field.
The meticulously organised attacks, which drastically transformed air travel security, sparked US President George W. Bush’s declaration of a “war on terror,” culminating in long-term invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Here, three women who were directly affected that day – Emily Tompsett, who lost her Australian father, Helaina Hovitz and Bergeron – share with marie claire how 9/11 changed their lives forever.
Kayla Bergeron, 58
Survivor from North Tower
About 15 minutes after Bergeron, then 38, sat down at her desk in the North Tower, five terrorists seized control of American Airlines Flight 11, out of Boston’s Logan Airport, and changed the plane’s course from Los Angeles to Manhattan.
In 2001, I was working for the Port Authority (PA) of New York and New Jersey as the Director of Public Affairs. The PA manages the states’ trade and transportation network. I had a corner office on the 68th floor with a view of the Statue of Liberty.
On September 11, the colour of the sky was a beautiful blue. I got my Starbucks and made my way to my office. I was just sitting at my desk, preparing for a meeting with my boss, when I felt the building lurch – it came forward about 10 feet [three metres], and then it came back. I looked out the window and paper and other debris was raining down from above. Then a security employee came in and said, “You need to evacuate. Your life is in danger.” As a result of the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 [a terrorist attack that killed six people, including four PA employees, one of whom was pregnant], they had glow-in-the-dark strips in the emergency stairwell, so all we had to do was stay on the strips as we went down. It was very quiet, very orderly. No-one knew what was going on. As we’re going down, the cops and firefighters were going up.
I had a BlackBerry, and when I was on the 50th floor a friend sent me a news story that said terrorists had flown planes into the Twin Towers. I showed a colleague and we looked at each other and said, “Let’s get this line moving!” We heard and felt the South Tower come down. The sheer force of it twisted our building. And when we made it to the sixth floor, the stairwell was blocked. That’s when I thought, “This is my moment.” I didn’t think we were going to get out.
A PA police officer arrived and guided them to another exit as water from burst pipes flooded the stairwell. We eventually got to the ground, and I was just taking a breath when a police officer yelled, “Run!” I turned to see the North Tower imploding, collapsing. I ran 16 blocks to the Holland Tunnel. And when the debris came, I just dove under a car. I’ve never seen such black, thick debris. The smell of death.
Despite what she endured, Bergeron and her surviving colleagues returned to work to keep the PA functioning, at first using offices at the PA Police headquarters. Seventy-four of her colleagues, including her boss, executive director Neil Levin, died in the attack.
I remained with the PA until 2006 – I got a new job in Florida. Then the PTSD symptoms came. I had a tremendous amount of anxiety. I started drinking more and in 2013 I got my first DUI.
I moved to Georgia and in 2017 had my second DUI, and the court ordered me into a program. I had medication, a psychiatrist, I went to group meetings. That’s when I was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. The program saved my life.
Sometimes at night I have flashbacks. To this day, if I’m on the street and a big truck comes by and the ground shakes, I still have a reaction. I’m getting better, but I’m still angry – angry at the terrorists, angry at our government. More should have been done to help people. A lot of survivors are saddled with drug and alcohol problems.
What 9/11 did show me was that I’m resilient and I’m coming out of this OK. I’m now the program director at The Connection Forsyth, a support centre in Georgia that helps those in alcohol and drug recovery. I try to help people with options and to grow a support network. Because when you try to do it by yourself, it doesn’t work.
Helaina Hovitz, 32
Author of After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning
Helaina Hovitz was in her seventh- grade classroom, three blocks from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Her father, a teacher, was working in the New York borough of Staten Island, and her mother was a travel agent at the Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan.
Ten minutes into the first period, science class, we heard this gigantic boom. The impact was so strong that some kids fell off their stools. We didn’t know what had happened; we couldn’t see anything out the windows. But we heard sirens, fire engines. A teacher knocked on the door and our teacher went out and he spoke to her. He came back looking pale and said, “They bombed the World Trade Center.”
We went for an emergency assembly in the school cafeteria and kids were saying they had heard that planes had crashed into the buildings. Then the principal announced the school was to be evacuated. I went with my friend Charles and his mom, Ann.
We saw the two buildings on fire, felt the heat coming off. Ann kept saying, “Don’t look.” And that’s when I saw what I thought were pieces of debris falling. I remember these sickening thuds hitting cars. I now know that it was people falling. Then we heard this crackling. It was the steel of the South Tower twisting and falling, like cat claws on the sky. Suddenly all we saw was smoke, and people were running and screaming. A group of maintenance men pulled us inside a building.
After a short while, they returned to the panicked street, trying to get home within a grim cityscape that included police roadblocks. During this time, the North Tower collapsed. We saw bleeding bodies, heard blood-curdling cries. There was ash everywhere, and what was left of the towers was still on fire. Once we made it back to our apartment block, our neighbourhood looked like a war zone. And it was like that for weeks.
In the following months, I had nightmares, flashbacks, I got hysterical if I had to be separated from my parents. I was ducking when a plane went overhead. My depression got to the point where I could barely get out of bed to go to school; I was constantly in crisis. When I went to college, I would get so drunk I needed to be hospitalised. I thought about taking my own life a lot.
I spent several years going to therapists and psychiatrists who all gave me different diagnoses, including bipolar disorder. Then I saw a new therapist who diagnosed me with PTSD. In 2016, I wrote a book, After 9/11, about my experience and struggle. I still get emails from people who say, “I think I have PTSD, too.” And I can tell them where to get help.
Today I’m doing really well. I’m nearly 10 years sober. I live in Manhattan with my husband, Lee, and our rescue dog, Wiley. We don’t need an anniversary to remember 9/11 because we think about it all the time. The anniversary is an opportunity to reach out to people who were here, and say, “If you’re struggling, here’s what worked for me.” And it’s an opportunity to educate the new generation of children about what happened here.
Emily Tompsett, 29
Daughter of victim
Emily, an only child, was nine years old when her Australian father, maths whiz and technology executive Stephen Tompsett, 39, died in the World Trade Center. Emily is now a high school teacher in New Jersey.
Dad grew up in western Sydney, and studied at the University of Sydney. He was a computer programmer and the senior vice-president of technology at Instinet, an internet trading company. My mom, Dorey, worked for the same company. Dad was supposed to come to the US for three months, but he met Mom and never left.
He was smart in many ways, but math and computer science were his thing. I have a memory as a six-year-old, sitting in the back seat of the car and Dad writing and handing me math questions as he drove. He made math seem fun.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was sitting at the kitchen table having breakfast. Dad came and kissed me on the head, then ran out the door. He was going to a conference in the Windows on the World restaurant, which was on the top floors of the North Tower of the
World Trade Center.
I went to school and some kids started getting picked up by their parents early. And the teachers were starting to whisper, but no-one told us what was going on.
When I went home on the bus, my grandfather met me at the bus stop, and then Mom was there. They said, “Daddy’s been in an accident.” And I said, “He’s going to be OK, right?” And then Mom started crying. Clearly that was a no, but at the time I was like, “He’s gonna be fine.” Because I had no idea what had happened.
My dad sent some emails to Mom from the tower – not saying much other than, “I love you.” But my mom had been watching the news. She knew where he was.
The next day, I went back to school. My traumatised nine-year-old brain was like, “If I just keep going about my life, everything will be fine.” I asked other kids if their parents had been in the World Trade Center. They all answered no.
I remember Mom sort of being like a zombie for a long time. We went separately to therapy for a while.
Years later, I remember coming to terms with the fact that my father’s death was intentional, and trying to reconcile that in my own heart. Of course I wish it hadn’t happened, but I’m not angry. I felt sorry for the people who had committed it, because clearly there was some fundamental misunderstanding of people that led them to those actions.
When Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, I was in college and one of my friends came into my dorm room saying, “We got him!” I couldn’t have cared less. I was glad that he’s not going to hurt anybody else but great, we just killed more people.
Sometimes my father’s death creeps up on me. In 2018, Mom and I visited my dad’s school, St Margaret Mary’s in Merrylands. We donated some money in Dad’s name. As a thank you, the eighth grade did a project on our family, and Mom said
to me, “Could you say thank you?”
I started to talk and broke down in tears. It was just so overwhelming.
For a time, I thought I needed to be a legacy for him – I would just rack up the pressure on myself to always be ahead of everyone in math. Eventually I learnt that trying to live the best life I can, to be happy, and to have some impact on the people around me, is a better way to honour my father.
This story originally appeared in the September issue of marie claire Australia, out now.