September 11 Survivors Remember

When Ronnie Clifford first went to the psychologist in October 2001, he presented his case as an enormous engineering project. Here are the problems, he said, here are the elements and fractures and stresspoints: now put me back together again. Clifford used the metaphor deliberately, for he was trained as an architect and well-versed in the principles of structural engineering and computerized design. For decades, he had made his living understanding why buildings stand.

The therapist, a specialist in post-traumatic stress syndrome, accepted the engineering project, and the two men went to work, six hours a week. "I was in pieces, just falling apart" Ronnie says in the lilt of his native Ireland. "I was having intense dreams. I couldn't get out of the building. I was there every night, trying to get out of the place. I would jerk myself awake, exhausted, in shock. Weird things were happening. I was seeing the number eleven popping up everywhere - like the towers themselves, the way they rose in the sky like an eleven. Whenever I got in the shower, I would constantly scrub my feet, just scrub and scrub, like there was something dirty down there and I had to get it off."

Ronnie drives his dark-green Jaguar around the historic, gas-lit town of Glen Ridge, the New Jersey neighborhood where he lives and works. It's a rooted place of rambling mansions and shops set in a quilt of woody suburbs seventeen crow-miles from Manhattan. He lives with his wife Bridget, and their daughter, Monica, in a charmingly fusty shingle-style house with hardwood floors, windows warped by time, and a garage that was once a livery stable. The vintage gas lights that grace the streets never turn off.

Ronnie is a solid, fair-skinned man with thinning red hair, thick fingers, and freckled arms. His eyes are blue and warm, and squinch into crowsfeet whenever he laughs or smiles, which is surprisingly often. Because he didn't leave his family farm in Cork and head for America until he was twenty-seven, his accent is strong. He is forty-seven but sounds like a boy when he talks, his voice high-pitched and keen with wonder at life's trick connections. He is attentive to the strange atmospherics that have welled up around 9/11, all the coincidences, real or imagined, and the odd numerology of the day. "Something higher was at work," he suggests. "When I look at all the things that happened to me and my family that day, I realize that you couldn't design an algorithm to put all these events together."

Ronnie, who is a tremendously vivid and empathetic storyteller, wasn't shy about accepting invitations from the media, and he became something of a celebrity in the days after September 11. Eventually, though, the media circuit became too overwhelming for him. He couldn't talk about it anymore. He had to shut off the television and retreat from the world. Everywhere he turned, there it was, an image, a reference, a reminder. Even his friends started to annoy him. The consoling phone calls, the well-meaning e-mails, the sympathy cards—he wanted it all to stop.

Over a salmon pasta at his favorite Italian restaurant in town, where the waiters all know him, he asks me, thoughtfully, almost in a whisper, "Have you ever had anyone close to you die?"

My father, I say. He had a heart attack in his car and smashed into a telephone pole.

"Well," he says. "It would be like if someone said to you, ‘Hey, guess what, your dad died. Your dad died. Your dad died.' Every day, every hour, somebody opens it up in your face. Somewhere along the way, I realized, my God, it's never fricking ending, is it?"

***

That morning, before dawn, Ronnie woke up almost giddy with excitement. There had been a thunderstorm the night before, with major power outages across northern New Jersey, but the storms had swept to the east, leaving everything tingly and cool. Ronnie put on a blue business suit and a yellow silk tie. He'd bought them special for this day. He wanted to look sharp for a business meeting at the World Trade Center Marriott with a Chicago software executive. The stakes were high: If all went well, the meeting would profoundly change Ronnie's business life, creating a brand-new company that would design Web applications for large corporations. Ronnie's little sister, Ruth, whom he always called on for fashion advice, had helped him pick out the suit, and had been especially fond of the yellow tie. "You always want to stand out," she'd told him.

Ronnie kissed Bridgid goodbye, took the commuter train to Hoboken, then, because he realized he had time to spare, and then boarded the ferry. The Hudson air was bracing, and the water caught crescents of the morning light as the sun climbed behind the vivid ramparts of Manhattan. "The city was breathtaking," Clifford says. "Before a meeting, it's always important to feel good, and I felt great."

At around 8:45 Ronnie walked into the lobby of the Marriott, which was connected to the north tower by a revolving door. As he was checking his yellow silk tie in a mirror, he he felt a massive explosion, followed several seconds later by a reverberation, a warping effect that he describes as the "harmonic tolerances of a building that's shaking like a tuning fork."

He peered through the revolving door into the lobby of the north tower. It was filling with haze. People were scurrying to escape what had become an "incredible hurricane of flying debris."

Yet Ronnie remained untouched. It was as though the revolving door were a glass portal to another realm, a world of chaos and soot just inches away. The Marriott lobby was calm, the marble surfaces polished and antiseptic. For a few seconds, the two adjacent worlds did not meet.

Then the revolving door turned with a suctioning sound followed by a sudden burst of hot wind, and in came a mannequin of the future. A woman, naked, dazed, her arms outstretched. She was so badly burned that Ronnie had no idea what race she was or how old she might be. She clawed the air with fingernails turned porcelain white. Her skin was black and glistening red. The zipper of what had once been a sweater had melted into her chest, as if it were the zipper to her own body. Her hair had been singed to a crisp steel wool. With her, in the warm gust of the revolving door, came a pungent odor, the smell of kerosene or paraffin, Ronnie thought.

Then the mannequin became a person, crying for help. Ronnie had little idea what had happened to her, or where exactly she had come from, but he knew that whoever she was, she was his responsibility now.