Caring Attachments: A 9/11 Encounter among Strangers

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Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my soul and my God and turned my dreams to dust.—Elie Wiesel

This is a true story of caring attachments among complete strangers as recounted by the principals involved and the first responders onsite.

On 9/11/2001, New York Fire Department Ladder 6 was dispatched to the World Trade Center. Its firefighters were assigned to search the North Tower. Each carried 60 pounds of equipment. All began to climb the Tower emergency stairway. Tenth floor…twenty-fifth floor…forty seventh floor…. When they reached the sixtieth floor, there was a sudden, terrible, and frightening crash. Running to the nearby windows, they realized that the South Tower had collapsed. They also realized that the North Tower could be next and quickly began to descend the stairs.

Unbeknownst to them, a middle-aged woman was also fleeing from the forty-fifth floor. She ran down the stairwell to the thirty-second floor before an injury, unrelated to the events of that day, slowed her down to a walk. She managed to hobble to the thirtieth floor before she had to limp along. The firefighters came upon her. She begged them to go on alone without her or their lives would be lost. They wouldn’t hear of it and began to assist her down the remaining floors. Eventually, they had to carry her. Time was of the essence. When they reached the second floor, they heard a series of repeated crashes as the floors above began to cave in one-by-one-by-one. Crash….Crash….Crash…. Each crash shook them to the ground. They prepared to die, hoping that the end would come quickly. Then came one final earth-shaking crash as the entire remaining North Tower fell to the ground.

Silence. Dust. Darkness. Several moments passed. Then one of the firefighters realized that he was not dead. He called out. His fellow firefighters did likewise. Even the woman that they had been carrying responded. They all had somehow survived. They were in Stairwell B. When the building collapsed, it had collapsed around that stairwell rather than onto it. It took other first responders onsite three hours to find and extricate the trapped victims. The freed firefighters sent the rescued woman on to Medical and then returned to searching for the missing in this holocaust that now engulfed them all.

A month later, back at their firehouse, the woman that they had saved brought the firefighters homemade cookies and thanked them for saving her life She did this each month for the next nine years and eleven months. In the twelfth month the woman’s sister brought the cookies. The firefighters learned that the woman they’d saved had died. A few days later in their bright red fire truck with an American flag flying in the wind, the firefighters went to the woman’s funeral and carried her one last time from the hearse to her graveside. She had thanked them for saving her life, but as the fire captain of Ladder 6 observed she had actually saved their lives as well. Had they not been slowed by carrying her, they would likely have been outside on the grounds when the North Tower collapsed.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my soul and my God and turned my dreams to dust.


Dr. Raymond B. Flannery Jr., Ph.D. FACLP, is an internationally recognized scholar and lecturer on the topics of violence, victimization, and stress management. Dr. Flannery is available for lectures and workshops for all types of groups and may be reached at The American Mental Health Foundation: 212.737.9027 elomke[at]

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