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Finding Resilience, 25 Years After 1993 World Trade Center Bombing

For five and a half hours on Feb. 26, 1993, Carl Selinger was trapped alone in an elevator at the World Trade Center, wondering if the smoke seeping in from the elevator shaft would kill him. Unaware it was a terror attack that had left him stranded, he spent the first hour writing a goodbye letter to his family on a piece of loose-leaf paper. Then the lights went out. He paced, and sang, and waited.

His focus, he said, turned to an item he was carrying — “half a salad.” He had eaten the first half when the elevator stopped, but decided to ration the rest, not knowing how long he would be there.

“I was listening to the building go very silent after a while, and wondering,” Mr. Selinger said last week at an event at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan.

The event, one of several this month dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the bombing, focused on the long-term effects of trauma, and featured psychiatrists and survivors of the 1993 attack.

In the middle of trauma, quotidian things can take on outsize importance. For Mr. Selinger, then 46 years old and a manager at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, it was the salad. He had just picked it up for lunch at the cafeteria on the 43rd floor, and was heading back to his office in the World Trade Center to eat it when terrorists exploded a 1,200-pound bomb in the basement parking garage at 12:18 p.m., killing six people in an attack that would foreshadow Sept. 11, 2001.

As Mr. Selinger waited, holding a handkerchief over his face, his rescuer, Sgt. Timothy Farrell of the New York Police Department, was rappelling off a helicopter to the roof of the North Tower to spearhead rescue operations for some of the thousands of people who were trying to evacuate. Over the following hours, emergency workers, in conjunction with civilian elevator mechanics, would bring dozens of stuck elevators to platforms on floors.

When Sergeant Farrell pried open Mr. Selinger’s elevator , he found him in the doorway, holding his salad. To this day, Sergeant Farrell said he remembers him as “the one with the salad.”

“I may have freed 25 or 35 people from the elevators that day, but how I remembered Carl was the fact that he wasn’t really physically upset, or emotional,” Sergeant Farrell, now retired, said at the lecture, which brought the two men together publicly for the first time. “He was calm, he was jocular. And he talked about how he wasn’t sure what happened — and how he had first started to eat the salad for lunch.

“So of course it stuck with me.”
Rachel Yehuda, the director of the traumatic stress studies department at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, speaking at a second panel, said each person handles trauma differently.

Mr. Selinger penned a note to his family as smoke poured into the elevator where he was trapped for more than five hours after the Feb. 26, 1993, bombing at the World Trade Center. It is on display as part of the 25th anniversary commemoration of the terror attack.

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
“On the one hand, you have people who will be quite resilient, and who will reflect on what could have happened but didn’t, and try to get a life lesson or object lesson going, and try to use the event somehow in a positive way,” Dr. Yehuda said. “At the other extreme are people who remain very frightened, very overwhelmed.” And of course, there is a range of reactions in the middle, she said.

For Mr. Selinger, humor has helped. “He was after my salad! That’s the bottom line here,” he said of the moment he was rescued 25 years ago, drawing laughs from an audience that included more than a dozen survivors of the 1993 and 2001 attacks.

Mr. Selinger, an engineer who lives in Bloomfield, N.J., retired from the Port Authority in 1999 but continued to work as a consultant helping aviation and transportation companies.

His worn goodbye letter to his wife and three children, which is on display in the museum as part of the 25th-anniversary commemoration, tells a more somber story of that day: one of a man taking stock of his life and focusing only on what’s most important. “I love you very much,” he wrote to them. “Be good. Do wonderful things in your life.”

For Lolita Jackson , a survivor of both the 1993 and 2001 terror attacks, the combined traumas led to a career change. She left the world of finance and volunteered for two years as a docent at the 9/11 tribute museum to share her experiences. She now works on issues of climate change for the City of New York.
“I realized,” she said, “that if you can get killed going to work, you’d better really love your job.”
Perhaps the most important part of recovering from a trauma is finding meaning in it, Dr. Yehuda said.

“The people who I have seen who truly come out the other side,” she said, speaking of surviving trauma in general, “are the people who decide in some way to help other people get through similar events, or to make it count, or to make sure it isn’t in vain. Making meaning of what happened, making the world a better place to counteract the bad: That is resilience.”

As part of the events dedicated to the quarter-century anniversary, Mary Jo White, the former United States attorney in Manhattan, will be talking on Thursday about her role in prosecuting the terrorists in the 1993 attack. (Six are serving life sentences in federal prison, and one, Abdul Rahman Yasin, remains at large.) Next Monday, on the anniversary of the bombing, family members of the six victims will be reciting their names on the memorial plaza.

For Michael Macko , a son of William Macko , a mechanical supervisor for the World Trade Center who died that day, listening last week to survivors’ stories felt cathartic.

“For a long time after the 1993 bombing, I didn’t want come down to Lower Manhattan, I didn’t want to look at the World Trade Center,” he said. “But it’s time. You move on, and you work through it, and hearing these things can help you process it. And you do have to live your life. Your life moves on.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times »

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