Child Survivor of 9/11 Makes a Career out of Hope
All it takes is a scary story to stir up wild fears in children, causing them to expect the bogey man in every dark corner. After 9/11, even adults living in the shadow of the World Trade Center had nightmares and lived in perpetual fear of another attack. They couldn’t assure their children that everything was going to be all right.
Some of those children had watched people jump out of the towers and land in front of them. They had waited for the air to clear as black smoke and debris engulfed them. Their homes—normally places of safety, security, and stability—became Ground Zero.
They looked at every stranger as a potential terrorist, every backpack or car as a potential bomb threat. Nothing was safe.
Helaina Hovitz was 12 years old when she fled Intermediate School (I.S.) 89, near the World Trade Center (WTC). “I’m a nervous wreck,” she wrote in her journal a month later.
“We’re on full alert, so security is higher. I live by the bridge. What if a plane … flies into it and it’s too late? Chemical threats are scary.”
Now 26 years old, Hovitz has emerged from more than a decade of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to become a journalist who focuses on good news.
“My experience as a journalist who lived through trauma and was re-traumatized by the headlines in the news led me … to pursue inspiring but meaningful journalism,” she said in an email to the Epoch Times. She co-founded her own news organization, Headlines for the Hopeful, in April.
She has also written a book, “After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning,“ to be released later this year, which the Epoch Times has previewed. In writing the book, she followed up with her classmates, finding many of them had followed the same downward spiral in the years after 9/11.
“There’s a reason therapists always ask about our childhood,” Hovitz said. “Our early experience of the world really does determine how we continue to move through it.”
In the foreword of Hovitz’s book, psychotherapist Jasmin Lee Cori wrote: “I would argue that Helaina and her classmates, who were just heading into adolescence, were less resilient than adults who had more stability and coping under their belts, and more vulnerable than children too young to fully cognize what had happened.”
Cori explained that as Hovitz and her classmates were just starting to understand the world around them, that world was deeply shattered.
People who are able to have a more active response to trauma usually cope better, Cori said. The children at I.S. 89, however, were not able to do much but passively watch as their world crumbled around them.
Sept. 11, 2001
Hovitz had written her notebook assignment the night before, dating it 9/11/01. She wrote about the MTV awards, ice cream, and getting her braces off in a few months.
She gathered with other students in the cafeteria for an emergency assembly. “They’ve bombed the World Trade Center,” her teacher said. “Nobody leave the building under any circumstances, and stay away from the windows.”
Her mother worked as a travel agent at Rockefeller Center, and her father was a special education teacher on Staten Island. Other parents arrived at the school to pick up their children, but she knew her parents were too far away to come for her. “Take me with you, please,” Hovitz said to her neighbor, Ann, who had arrived to get her son.
When the three of them pushed open the double doors of the school building, the debris in the air stung and burned her nostrils. Screams faded in and out. Cars were stopped bumper-to-bumper; ambulances received people bleeding on stretchers; smoke and paper spewed from the towers; and Hovitz could feel the heat on her face.
Before she reached her home, near the Brooklyn Bridge, she saw scenes of death, destruction, and anguish. For many of her classmates who lived closer to the school, going home was not an option. No one knew what to expect next or what precisely had happened.
Her classmate Thomas and his father rushed to their home near the WTC to rescue their miniature poodle, Eddie. Thomas watched people jump from the towers and land on the pavement in front of him as police corralled him and others in front of Gateway Plaza.
“This wouldn’t happen in Florida,” Thomas kept saying. “I want to move to Florida.”
A Clear Distinction
The students from I.S. 89 could not return to their school building in the months following 9/11. Their classes resumed at the O’Henry Learning Center, a school further uptown.
On their second day of class, reporters showed up asking questions like, “Did you see people jumping?” The children didn’t want to answer those questions.
It became clear that the I.S. 89 students were different than the other students at the center.
For example, one day a truck tire popped loudly during recess. The I.S. 89 students dropped to the ground, ran to teachers, sobbed, and hyperventilated. “The other kids just stared at us like we were crazy,” Hovitz wrote in her book.
That night, Hovitz dreamed she was forced to watch news footage of people dying at the World Trade Center.
Not Just Adolescent Angst
PTSD is often accompanied by depression, addiction, and anxiety. Cori wrote: “Many trauma survivors feel confusion, self-doubt, and shame about the inability to pick up and carry on.”
In daily life, “[they] react in a ‘bigger’ way than the situation calls for, whether it is with more fear, more insecurity, more anger, more mistrust, more of any emotion,” she said.
Adolescence is already a time of turbulent emotion, but PTSD caused Hovitz and some other I.S. 89 students to plunge into addiction, have paranoid delusions, and react with violent outbursts to seemingly minor issues, especially when feeling closed in or physically constricted.
Thomas told Hovitz recently, “I’m not good in crowds. … I still struggle with anxiety. I’m always on edge. I walk into my office and think, ‘How would I get out if something happened?'”
Another classmate told her that, as a teenager, he had thoughts of being a school shooter or committing suicide in a public setting, taking others with him.
Hovitz saw several therapists and psychologists over the years. Many didn’t help her; one even fell asleep during a session. But during her freshman year at college, she realized she was finally on the cusp of a breakthrough.
She had just started with a new therapist, who told her: “You’ve been pushed in so many directions by doctors telling you ways they were going to help you, to fix you, and they were wrong. That can be traumatic, too.
“But you’re still actively asking for help because something in you is not willing to give up, and by now, I bet many people probably would have. It’s not going to be easy, but if you want to do the work, I think we can make things better.”
As a pre-teen, Hovitz wasn’t interested much in the news. But after 9/11, she and her classmates became fixated. The replays of the disaster added to her stress, as did the alerts to other potential threats. But she also became aware of bad news in general.
She read about murders within her own country, child abuse, all the horrible things people do to each other that have nothing to do with terrorism.
“In an ideal world, the media would only deliver bad news when we absolutely need to be on the lookout for something that could endanger us immediately, or when they can offer solutions to the problems or ‘bad’ news as it happens, highlighting what is being done to help … and letting people know how they can help too,” Hovitz said.
She recognizes, however, that some people consider bad news helpful, “and, hey, sometimes learning about certain instances of ‘bad news’ is what inspires people to help and get involved.”
But as a journalist who has lived the worst news the United States has had in recent history, Hovitz is now dedicated to spreading good news. She has worked hard to frame her own story in a positive and inspiring way. With a team of like-minded journalists and a strong start, Hovitz is helping build a positive world view for others through Headlines for the Hopeful.
“There are so many people and organizations working to help, to find solutions, to deeply impact those who are suffering in a positive way. How we experience the world around us is really all about perspective,” Hovitz said.