WASHINGTON—Tony Sanseviro stared in shock as his buddy and fellow firefighter, Danny Suhr, was struck and killed by a body falling from the World Trade Center's burning north tower on Sept. 11. Now Sanseviro struggles with "survivor's guilt."
Sharon Ambrose lost one of her two sons in 1999. Then the other, Paul, was aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when hijackers slammed the airliner into the Pentagon. When she visits her sons' graves, she said, "I have the overwhelming urge to lay down between them."
Wendy Cosgrove lives with the haunting memories of her husband Kevin's plaintive cries for help over a cell phone from the hot and smoky 105th floor of the north tower, moments before it collapsed. She said her son has since run afoul of the law and her teenage daughter has mutilated herself.
Testimony from Sanseviro, Ambrose, Cosgrove and more than 40 other surviving friends and family members at last spring's trial of confessed al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui offered an extraordinary glimpse of the long-term, life-altering effects of the terror attacks that killed 2,972 people. While some survivors said they've found ways to move on, others remain emotionally paralyzed.
Thomas Demaria, a clinical psychologist who set up the World Trade Center Family Center on Long Island, N.Y., said that many Sept. 11 families have been unable to experience the normal two- to three-year cycles of grief: shock and anger, then confusion and depression and, finally, resolution.
He pointed to the recurring images of the attacks on television and now, in movies.
"We found that people were almost suspended in the initial, most painful part of grief, the coming-to-grips with this tremendous tragedy," he said. "It was prolonged because of the nature of the exposure people had. They really couldn't get away from it."
Demaria said the center has provided therapy and grief counseling to about 2,000 family members of those killed on Sept. 11. Its staff also has counseled some 3,500 emergency responders and their families who are dealing with both grief and a new fear: that another wave of deaths will strike fire and rescue crews who breathed asbestos and other toxins while searching the smoldering wreckage.
About 600 to 700 family members still visit the center every month—a figure that has risen recently because the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 has rekindled emotions, Demaria said. He said some loved ones are seeking treatment for the first time.
Research has indicated that grief can lead to illness, even death, and that loss of a parent at an early age can profoundly affect child development.
Mike Low, 62, of Batesville, Ark., recalled that since the death of his 28-year-old daughter, Sarah, an American Airlines flight attendant, his wife, Bobbie, has been in "total withdrawal," refusing to have any contact with family or friends.
Sanseviro said his close friend Suhr lived for his wife, Nancy, and their 4-year-old daughter, Briana. But on the morning of Sept. 11, Suhr, 37, didn't hesitate to drive a contingent from their Engine Company 216 to the Trade Center.
When they arrived and headed for the tower, Sanseviro said, bodies were plunging to the street from the upper floors. Suddenly, one "came in like a missile" and killed him.
Sanseviro, who declined to be interviewed for this story, testified that he's struggled since then. He said he and six other firefighters who wound up attending to Suhr, instead of helping in the tower, "are alive because of Danny." Last year, at age 37, he retired from the fire department after being diagnosed with chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"You're alive and everybody else is dead," he said. "You kind of lose your will to live."
Ambrose's son Paul was a senior clinical adviser to then-U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher and was focused on delivering health care and immunizations to the poor when he died at age 32.
"It just makes you question everything," said his mother, of Huntington, W.Va. She said she's been unable to reconcile that Paul devoted his life to caring for others, but died at the hands of men "brought up wanting to hate and kill."
Cosgrove said she met her husband when she was a waitress in 1980. "I said, `What would you like, sir?' He said, `You.'" They were married a few months later. Kevin Cosgrove worked for Aon Corp., a reinsurance company, on the 99th floor of the north tower.
A tape recording of his last, desperate phone call for help, shortly before the tower collapsed, was played at the trial. He left behind his wife, 12-year-old son, Brian, and daughters Claire, 9, and Elizabeth, 4.
"I don't think I'll ever learn how to deal with or get over the fact that I'm a widow," said Cosgrove, of West Islip, N.Y. "The slightest thing can set me off, like seeing an older couple walking hand in hand."
She said that since losing his father, Brian has been "extremely angry" and "engages in many self-destructive behaviors," getting in trouble at school and even with the law. Elizabeth clings to her as if "she's afraid I'm not gonna come back," she said, and Claire has been "self-mutilating because she can't really express her pain in any other way."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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