downtownexpress.com

Volume 19 • Issue 17 | September 8 - 14, 2006

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Richard Zimbler and Lori Mogol in their Independence Plaza apartment

Horror remains real for 2 Tribeca survivors

By Ronda Kaysen

Lori Mogol and Richard Zimbler plan to observe this 9/11 anniversary the same way they usually do. They will walk five blocks from their Tribeca apartment to the World Trade Center site for the ceremony honoring those who died. Later that evening, they will stand on their 35th floor balcony with the wife of a friend who died in the towers and say a toast for him.

But the couple worries that the fifth anniversary might commemorate more than just the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They worry it will also commemorate the end of a collective mourning period.

“There’s almost an undercurrent message telling us, ‘it’s been five years and now we can really move on,’” said Zimbler, sitting on his Independence Plaza North balcony, which overlooks the Trade Center site, one recent August evening. “People are having a lot of trouble with that.”

In the years since 9/11, Mogol and Zimbler have become advocates for survivors. They sit on the steering committee of the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network, a group founded in 2002. They also regularly give Trade Center tours for the WTC Tribute Center, which offers daily tours of the site.

Survivors’ Network membership has jumped in recent months — the group now has close to 1,000 members — and Mogol and Zimbler attribute it, in part, to the fifth anniversary. The passage of time has not healed all the wounds, and survivors find themselves searching for people with a shared experience.

“We don’t know anybody who got out of those buildings alive who is not tortured or haunted by what they saw,” said Mogol, sitting on a folding chair on her balcony with her husband, a cigarette in hand. “It shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. You don’t forget witnessing horror and murder.”

Lately, survivors have been getting some newfound attention. On Wednesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new program offering medical assistance to residents and rescue workers. A Mount Sinai study released this week found alarming health problems among rescue workers. And Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” about two Port Authority police officers rescued from the rubble brought national attention to the story of those who survived.

Gerry Bogacz, who was evacuated from the Trade Center during the 1993 W.T.C. bombing and the 2001 attacks, founded the Survivors’ Network with Tania Head, whose husband died in the attacks. Mogol discovered the group at a community forum in 2003 and through it discovered a community of people who understood what she had experienced.

“What survivors need — it’s not so much warm and fuzzy — it’s a respect for their experience,” said Mogol, a slender woman with a mane of black curly hair that frames her face.

The network advocates for health and job services for survivors as funding for programs dry up now that five years have passed. Recently, the group became vocal supporters of the Vesey St. staircase, a staircase that remains on the W.T.C. site that many survivors used to escape the doomed towers. The staircase’s future is in doubt as developers prepare to rebuild the site. The group also reaches out to survivors of other events — Hurricane Katrina, the Tsunami in South East Asia — and offers support.

Survivors are a disparate group that includes tourists, business travelers, local residents, office workers and people passing through that day. As a group, they lack cohesion—many live in other cities and countries, residents moved out of the neighborhood, Trade Center workers found jobs in other cities or neighborhoods. But survivors share an experience of escaping the towers or the neighborhood that day, and many of them suffer from lingering feelings of anxiety, depression and a changed perspective of the world. Many survivors grew apart from old friends “because there’s been a divergent path,” said Mogol.

“We live in parallel worlds,” said Zimbler.

On a cool August night, Mogol and Zimbler shared their story of that day in September.

Mogol worked in 4 W.T.C. for three years. “It was a happy time,” she recalled. “I liked being there.” Zimbler went to computer school at 22 Cortlandt St., across the street from the Trade Center.

On 9/11, Mogol was home sick. Lying in bed that morning, she heard a “terrible vibration” and looked out her bedroom window to see the North Tower explode in a ball of flames. She knew immediately that it was not a small plane, as early reports said, but a massive explosion. From her balcony, she watched the second plane fly over the Hudson River and into the South Tower.

Zimbler was at school when the first plane struck. He walked down to the lobby of 22 Cortlandt St. — which also houses the discount department store Century 21 — and waited with several other people, unsure of what to do next, until the second plane hit.

The five-block walk home “was in itself an odyssey,” said Zimbler, describing streets filled with debris from the buildings and the planes, and people, many injured, fleeing en masse from the burning towers. “There was absolute pandemonium in the streets,” he recalled.

Zimbler found Mogol as she left the apartment for cigarettes. “I’d stopped smoking and I figured it was a good day to start,” Mogol said, smoking a cigarette.

They returned to their apartment and from their balcony, where they’d lived since 1990, they watched the towers fall. “It’s funny what you remember. Lori remembers the sound, I remember what it looked like,” said Zimbler, a slight man with startled hazel eyes who smokes a pipe and speaks with the cadence of a college professor. “It was like a freight train bearing down on you. It was a real seismic event.”

What followed was silence. Complete silence. Followed chirping — the sound of hundreds of tracking devices clipped to the firefighters’ uniforms that go off when a firefighter stops moving. “Oh that sound! That whistling, chirping sound!” said Mogol.

“That’s one of the bad memories,” said Zimbler.

And then came the dust cloud, a huge, gray mass hurtling toward them. It reached nearly 50 stories, said Zimbler, who could not see the top of it from his 35th floor apartment. “I did what anyone would do in a situation like that,” he said. “I went inside and locked the [balcony] door.”

When the couple left their apartment to get bottled water, a police officer told them they could not return. It was unclear if the building was structurally sound. It would be two weeks before they could come home for good. They spent those weeks at a friends’ apartment in Chelsea, walking home periodically to retrieve clothes and other belongings, climbing the 35 stories in darkness.

“It was really scary to walk up those dark flights,” Mogol recalled.

The neighborhood they returned to was radically changed. “It was very, very dusty and the smell was unbearable,” said Mogol. The sound of the cleanup dominated everything and lasted for months.

Zimbler grew up in I.P.N. He moved to the building as a teenager with his father when it opened in 1975. At the time, the I.P.N. complex was the only residential tower in the neighborhood. Looking out at all the residential development below, Zimbler shook his head. “To say that it was a different world would be an understatement,” he said. The sea of luxury towers was once a mass of vacant lots, he said. And Battery Park City, now almost fully developed, was a sandy beach. He and friends played ball on the old elevated West Side Highway.

The new towers, many funded with Liberty Bonds disbursed after 9/11, cater to a luxury market. Zimbler worries that longtime middle class residents—and business owners that serve them—are being forced out. “The neighborhood is being rebuilt, but to what benefit of the people who already lived here?”

Mogol and Zimbler, married for 18 years, often finish one another’s sentences. They both work in the I.T. industry and lived in Stuyvesant Square before their name made it to the top of the I.P.N. waiting list. “After 9/11 people asked us, ‘why don’t you move out?’” said Zimbler. “But this is our home.”

But staying comes with the responsibility of honoring what happened here, said Zimbler. “By choosing to stay, I’ve chosen to be a steward of the history here,” he said. “We saw the last moments of nearly 3,000 people’s lives and there’s a responsibility in that. Just think about what that means. To try to forget it — I would be afraid to shirk that responsibility.”

While many residents call for a speedy rebuilding and lament the attention paid to the memorial at the expense of culture and shopping, Zimbler and Mogol support a more measured rebuilding. For a time, they thought the entire site should remain an open park — a 16-acre memorial to those who died. But they’ve come to see the master plan, with six acres reserved for a memorial, as a fitting compromise. They describe the perspective of many of their neighbors as “misguided.”

“After 9/11 everybody was the same, people helped each other,” said Mogol. “But the rebuilding, it doesn’t have that same spirit at all. It’s been lost.”

Ronda@DowntownExpress.com



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