When terrorists struck the World Trade Center, Jemma Elliot ’07 was living nearby, planning her wedding, which would be three days later.
A view of ground zero from Jemma Elliot's ’07 Manhattan apartment following 9/11. (Photo courtesy of Jemma Elliot)
Without a radio or TV on in her apartment, Jemma Elliot ’07 didn’t know what to make of the first explosion that echoed through her Manhattan neighborhood on the morning of September 11, 2001. Nor did most of the nation.
A few minutes later, she went to the window of her 28th story apartment to look out and saw her world changing. She could not really make sense of what she was witnessing. As she looked toward the World Trade Center, where smoke was rising, a shockwave hit and convulsed her building.
“I didn’t know what it was. It felt like an earthquake. I was looking outside and had to hold on to the windowsill to keep my balance,” says Elliot, who was at home that morning with her fiancé, Jack.
First responders arrive on the scene outside of Elliot's apartment building. (Photo courtesy of Jemma Elliot) A second commercial airliner had flown into the World Trade Center, where Elliot often walked to catch the subway or grab a bite to eat. She felt at a loss to process what she was seeing. Then the screaming brought her out of her daze “There were screams throughout our building and in the streets. Screaming everywhere. Our dog was barking uncontrollably and vomited,” she says. “I saw particles of glass seeming to rain down all over the streets. Men and women in business suits were running.”
A friend called to tell them: get out. Her fiancé was adamant: they must leave. Their neighbors were rushing to the elevators. They grabbed their wallets and their dog, and headed out. To where, they didn’t know. And so began her terrifying escape from the attack site and an even longer journey to shake free of the trauma that followed her for several years.
Indeed, confusion and fear so cloud her memories that to this day that when Elliot hears or reads about a timeline of events on 9/11, she has to pause. It doesn’t seem possible that someone could neatly untangle and reorder the chaos of the day. That’s not, at all, how she experienced it. Or later re-experienced it.
Residents of the apartment building gather together following the attack. (Photo courtesy of Jemma Elliot) “It was mass insanity,” she recalls. “People running. Someone was having a heart attack. Sirens going off. First responders arriving. We were bewildered. Were we going to be attacked again?” Swept up in the panicked crowds trying to escape the area, seeing people jumping from the towers, then witnessing the high-rises pancaking down, just barely skirting the billowing dust clouds and fearing another lethal attack, she seriously considered jumping in the Hudson River and swimming to New Jersey. Everything got jumbled, and she lost all sense of time.
“It seemed like we were going to die. We didn’t know where to go or what to do.” They finally reached Jack’s mother on a pay phone and she told them to head to Jack’s grandmother’s home on the Upper East Side. It turned out to be a harrowing 4-hour walk.
They arrived with their dog in tow and eventually calmed their nerves. But Elliot was a long time recovering from what was later deemed to be post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Wedding in the Wake of Tragedy
Elliot and Jack walk down the aisle on their wedding day. (Photo courtesy of Jemma Elliot) Elliot realized that, in many ways, she was fortunate. She and her fiancé were shaken, but uninjured, while nearly 3,000 people died that day and thousands more were treated for injuries or became ill after inhaling particles from the explosion. Even more grieved the loss of loved ones whose bodies were never recovered.
Still, it was traumatic to be forced out of their neighborhood for a couple of weeks, as investigators blocked entry while they assessed damage and looked for any clues that may have been blown into the streets or apartments. Here they were just three days from the wedding and their rings were out of reach, back at the apartment. Fortunately, the bride’s dress was at her mother-in-law’s on Long Island. However, many of their guests were coming from her home state of Illinois as well as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida, and all U.S. commercial flights were grounded.
Wedding guests and relatives, however, kept saying, “Don’t cancel.” They decided to drive in. “They were so glad they did,” Elliot says. “It allowed everyone to come together and feel connected and safe.” They improvised, but the wedding was a success. Still, that didn’t stop the bad feelings from coming back. “I didn’t know it,” Elliot says, “but I was having pure, classic, textbook symptoms of PTSD—anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, constant reliving, not wanting to leave the house, survivor’s guilt.”
Jack stands in front of military vehicles lining a NYC sidewalk after 9/11. (Photo courtesy of Jemma Elliot) When they were allowed back in the apartment a couple weeks later, they had to sign waivers in case they were injured inside the damaged building with no power. Military personnel walked them up and down the 28 floors. They each were allowed one trip to fill one bag of belongings. The newlyweds found their wedding rings. Unlike many other apartments in the building, their windows were still intact, though dust from the explosion had seeped in. But something was different.
Debris covers the street outside of Elliot's burned apartment building. (Photo courtesy of Jemma Elliot) “New York had changed for us,” Elliot says. She had gone there from Taylorville, Illinois, to pursue a music career and was earning a living as a singer. Her husband, a composer, was making strides professionally. However, Elliot started losing interest in her career. Moreover, the neighborhood they had loved now seemed nothing more than a place to view the still-smoking remains of the World Trade Center. “You’re looking all the time into the pit of death.”
Looking for a New Life in Florida
Although the timeline of that day may be hard for her to recall, she can clearly mark the moment when her fog began to lift. It was when she and her husband moved to Florida, and she enrolled in the Hamilton Holt School in 2005.
“We felt traumatized in New York, but we had both loved Florida. It was a positive place for us.” It sounded like a good place to relax and reassess. Her husband’s business allowed him to work from nearly any location. Elliot found a job in human resources at Darden.
She was looking for a new path, but was not certain what direction that might take. “I was still kind of shell-shocked. But after so many people had helped us, I realized I wanted to go into a helping profession.”
Needing to finish her undergraduate degree, but being a few years older than the average college student, she hesitated, fearing that she would feel out of place and would not be able to balance studies with a job. Then she heard about the evening and weekend programs at Holt, and a door opened.
She ventured into some psychology courses, and that was it. “It just seemed like that was meant to be. And I realized it was what I was meant to do.”
One of the first psychology professors she met was David CS Richard, now dean of Holt. In fact, Richard was the first to suggest that her description of her trauma seemed very much like PTSD. That made sense. “I went to counseling after 9/11, but no one had mentioned PTSD,” she says.
While in Florida, her husband had found a way to move on through his work. Elliot found new meaning in her life by gradually allowing the events of 9/11 to inform, rather than overwhelm, her outlook. “It had changed who I was. But it gave me more empathy. I have more compassion. I realize now that everybody has something in their life they are dealing with.”
After graduating from Holt, the couple headed to Southern California, where Jack now produces music for TV programs, and Elliot completed a master’s degree in psychology. She is a licensed therapist, as well as teacher and researcher at Pacifica Graduate Institute.
Observing the Anniversary
Elliot, Jack, and their two-year-old daughter today. (Photo courtesy of Jemma Elliot) Elliot and her husband have a two-year-old daughter and happy, busy lives, but each September, she works hard to manage her feelings.
“It’s always a difficult time,” she says. “I still get sad.”
Much of the annual news coverage, she says, makes her feel as if she were reliving the shock and confusion of the day. “We used to watch the ceremonies, but that was too much, so we try to spend the day together and shut out the rest of the world.”
They commemorate it quietly. “We just try to connect to each other and recount our blessings.”