Tuesday, September 6, 2011
A story of survival on 9/11 is told by a woman who now lives here in San Diego. She'll tell how the experience has shaped her life.
Most of us remember exactly where we were and how we found out about the attacks on September 11, 2001. San Diego resident Shelley Ram-Saban has found it hard to forget. She was in the North tower of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit the building. Her story of survival is compelling, but so is her story of the emotional after-effects of being a witness to such a historic tragedy.
Shelly Ram-Saban, is a 9/11 survivor who now lives in San Diego with her family.
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Most of us remember exactly where we were and how we found out about the attacks on September 11th, 2001. My next guest has found it hard to forget. She was in the world trade center when the first plane hit. Her story was survival is compelling but so is her story of the emotional after effects of being a witness to such an historic tragedy. I'd like to welcome Shelly Saban, who now lives in San Diego with her family. Shelly, welcome to Midday Edition.
RAM-SABAN: Hi, thank you Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: How did you happen to be in the world trade center on September 11th?
RAM-SABAN: I had just actually finished my MBA in New York City. And it was after the Internet bubble. So finding a job was kind of difficult. My husband and I planned to travel. And so I decided to get a temporary job before we left for -- to go abroad. And I found the position at the world trade center and I started working on September 1st.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. So what tower were you in?
RAM-SABAN: I was in tower two. I was looking for Westfield Shopping Town, which had owned the whole downstairs level of the world trade center. And we were on the seventeenth floor in the administrative offices.
CAVANAUGH: Did you like working there?
RAM-SABAN: Yeah, it was very nice. The people there were very nice. And I was only there for about ten days. And you -- but it felt like a good environment.
CAVANAUGH: When on that day did you first realize something had happened?
RAM-SABAN: I sat down, I came in early, it was a beautiful, beautiful day in New York. And came into work and sat down, had my breakfast. And then I heard a kind of -- the boom. But I didn't really think too much of it 'cause in New York there's so many noises. And you relatively feel secure in the world trade center. They had a lot of security in the bottom so I didn't think too much of it. But then I walked over and I heard a commotion with my boss at the time, Bruce Eagleson, and he was talking with one of the gentleman from the port authority, and they were looking out the wind. And Bruce turned to me and said let's get your stuff and get out of the building. So that was kind of the impetus to get me out. I don't think I would have had that notion that -- to actually leave the building.
CAVANAUGH: Did you see anything before you left?
RAM-SABAN: You know, I saw papers flying in the air out the window. But it doesn't register what's happening. You kind of think maybe it's a car bomb, but why is it coming from above of the? And there's no comprehension of what's happening.
CAVANAUGH: So when Bruce told you get out of the building, what were you planning do? Just basically finish your breakfast?
RAM-SABAN: Well, I was going to go on and look at CNN and see what happened, you know? And I don't know. I don't even know why I wouldn't think to get out but I just didn't. And when he told me get out, I said okay, so I ran right counts, and I heard the phone ring, and I think that was my husband trying to Dahl me at the time. And then just talked down the stairwell the 17 flights, and I was fairly calm going down. Nobody really knew what was happening.
CAVANAUGH: What was that evacuation like? It was calm, but what were people talking about?
RAM-SABAN: They were joking, you know, about the trades that they were losing money on. They were joking, oh, my mother, she's going to think I'm dead after this. And you know just people really just having no idea of the magnitude. And then until you get to the atrium level, and you see just everything, all the paper it is flying. You knew it was something big. You just didn't know what it was. And you heard plane, but you thought like a small commuter jet.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. So people were saying something about a plane by that time.
RAM-SABAN: By that time, yeah. Then when we came outside, things were flying from the sky. So I didn't know if we were getting bombed or what. I ran back into the building with a couple other people, and the police directed us out again, which was scary 'cause you didn't know if you were going to get hit from outside from debris.
CAVANAUGH: Did anybody -- they told you not to go back to the building but did anybody tell you where to go?
RAM-SABAN: No. There was no direction on where to go. I headed two blocks east when the second plane hit the building, and that's when it hit my building that I was in. And glass was flying everywhere. So we just kind of pressed up against the building. And we didn't really know what was happening at the time. It just seemed like one girl just started crying, and another guy was like don't worry, it's just a fire blowing out the heat, it's exploding the windows. So that's kind of what -- I accepted that excuse, that reasoning. And I kind of knew from that point on, like, let's get out of here.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And you say glass showered down?
CAVANAUGH: When the second plane hit?
CAVANAUGH: So you decided that this was time to leave that area entirely. What did you do?
RAM-SABAN: I took the girl next to me, who I don't know her name, I don't know who she is. But she was crying, and she was a mess. So I took her by the hand and was like we have to get out of here. And we walked north. And that's when you kind of, once you walked a little bit north, then you had a view of the buildings so I looked back and I saw the building, up, the big hole, the gaping hole on the side. You saw people, like just a crowd standing and watching. And people were jumping and people -- you just didn't know what was happening. At that point, they told us a plane had hit. It just all was so sureal and didn't register. But as soon as we were there looking around for a few minutes I said we have to get out of here. My family is from Israel and I know if something happens you always leave. You have to go away, as far away as possible from what happened, from the attack. So I went up north and jumped on the subway, which was in retrospect not the best thing to do. But I really didn't know, you know, I had to get to my friend's house as quickly as possible in union square. And when I got there, they had no idea what was happening. They were just getting ready for work. And we turned on the TV, and it was Armageddon.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with shelly saban. She lives here in San Diego with her family now. But on September 11th, 2001, she was working in the world trade center on the seventeenth floor. She's telling the story of how she got out. And I'm just wondering, shelly, when you were making your way to the subway station, what was it like on the streets of New York? Was there panic? Were people just staring dum struck.
RAM-SABAN: They were all listening to the radios and kind of just talking in groups. So I would go over from group to group trying to gather information and someone said no, it was the united air lines flight. I said what are you talking about? Not really understanding what was happening.
CAVANAUGH: Now, did people -- when you got home and you basically woke up the people you were living with and said turn on the TV and, you know, there's something going on at the world trade center, where were you when you knew that the towers had actually fallen then.
RAM-SABAN: Well, I wasn't living with my friend. It was my friend's house. I lived in Hoboken know with my husband at the time. So when it collapsed, I was at their house. And we saw it on TV collapse. We went up to the roof, first to see the buildings then when we came down, we were watching it on TV, and at that point, I was already able to instant message my husband on the on the computer to let him know I was okay 'cause there were no phone lines. And then we saw it collapse on TV.
CAVANAUGH: What were you able to find out about what happened to your coworkers on that day?
RAM-SABAN: I didn't know anything. But when I got home later that evening, I was talking to my husband, and I said I really need to go and call Bruce and thank him for getting me out of the building. That was -- I don't know fivalid done that without him. And so the next morning, they had a Connecticut office as well. So I called the Connecticut office and I asked for Bruce. Will and at that time, he was pretty suspicious, and they said who is this, and Iofed myself and they told me that Bruce went missing so from my understanding, he went to the basement level and was evacuating people. And he didn't make it out on time.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, shelly, what was it like afterwards? You got out of the twin towers on September 11th. What was it like initially being a survivor?
RAM-SABAN: You know, it was a lot of guilt, a lot of being stuck to the TV crying and feeling so bad for other people. And you know, you're really in a bubble you're also -- I think as a defense mechanism, your brain shuts down. And for a long time, I wasn't able to process information. I wasn't able to, you know, understand -- like just everything had to be written down, and I had to like -- I just couldn't take anything in, and I couldn't handle too much. So it took a little while to get over that initial shock.
CAVANAUGH: How long did it take?
RAM-SABAN: Well, we hopped on a plane on November north and we went to tie land. So it couldn't take that long. But I was still -- we had planned this trip all along. And my perspective was I was doing the most innocent thing possible. I was at my working at a desk at work. How innocent could it be? So I felt like at that point I couldn't stay holdup in a corner. So I felt that that was what I needed to do.
CAVANAUGH: Sure. I know I've spoken to a number of people who had nothing to do with New York or the twin towers during 911 and yet they've told me that they woke up each morning after those attacks and that was the first thought they had in their mind for weeks, weeks after seeing these events unfold in -- on television. I'm wondering how often did you think about the terror attacks afterwards?
RAM-SABAN: You know, I think aboutem this. I try not to -- I stay away from the TV when it's on. I don't really watch it anymore. I kind of block it out as a defense mechanism at this point. I think about it, and at first it really defined me. It was a big part of who I was and that big event they went through. And so I felt really connected to it. And as I move on and on, I've kind of disconnected myself just because I think it is so hard to deal with it on at a daily basis.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I know you're telling your story to us today and you've told it before. But how difficult has it been to share your experience with others? You know, people who don't know what that you were in the towers on 911 and perhaps have just met you? How often do you share that experience?
RAM-SABAN: I don't do it a lot. Right after when it happened, people were asking accident oh, you goois came from New York. So it happened a little bit more frequently. Now it doesn't come up in conversation too much. I just actually had documented it for myself just because I wanted to not forget the details of September 11th. And I also didn't want people -- I also wanted to keep Bruce's name Alive. And people -- not to forget these heroes who were there on that day, and that's really important for me as ten years pass. And that's why I'm kind of talking about it now because I don't know how to pay tribute to them. And that's I didn't want to talk about it now. And I wanted to do a kind of in a coordinated effort so I don't have to tell the story so much.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Why did you decide it move to San Diego?
RAM-SABAN: It was really between New York and San Diego at one point. I just always loved it here, the lifestyle and everything. So it was -- it's for kids and families. This was the life that we wanted.
CAVANAUGH: Speaking of kids, you have two young children. Do they know about September 11th?
RAM-SABAN: No. My son and my oldest is seven. And so not at this point.
CAVANAUGH: What do you want them to know about your experience? Your particular experience?
RAM-SABAN: You know, I just want them to know -- to look at the big picture with everything. And there's so much more to this life than you will these little details that we got caught up in day to day. I think that's the biggest takeaway that I have for it. You have to take everything in perspective and know what's important.
CAVANAUGH: But it must be going through your head when you're going to tell them that you were in those towers that they're going to see in video that collapsed.
CAVANAUGH: Have you come to any decision?
RAM-SABAN: No. I haven't. I haven't thought that far ahead yet.
CAVANAUGH: Are you going to do anything special on Sunday?
RAM-SABAN: You know, every year I light a candle, I like two candles, one for all the survivors and one for Bruce. So it's a memorial candle that I light.
CAVANAUGH: What kind of reactions do you get from people when you tell them this story?
RAM-SABAN: A lot of disbelief. People say, yeah, you were in the building. But they didn't realize they was there on that day in 2001. Then they're really interested. They just want to hear the story. They want to know what happened and the details, the especially in San Diego a lot of people don't know somebody firsthand who was there.
Q. So you're the connection whether you want to be or not?
CAVANAUGH: There were, as all of these 911 retrospectives are on the TV and here on the radio all through the week, and we talk about the heroes, it sounds to meas if knowing someone personally who behaved exemplary on that day, in an exemplary manner really runs deep in you.
RAM-SABAN: Uh-huh. I think that, you know, everybody on site, and New York at that time, people just came together. And the good came out of people. Everybody wanted to help. And the donations, they were just lining up to give, what can we give? How can we help? The first responders on site, and the frights. Everybody really banned together when something of this magnitude happen it is.
CAVANAUGH: And is that a good takeaway from this experience?
RAM-SABAN: If there is a good takeaway from the experience.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is there anything that you'd like to add, shelly?
RAM-SABAN: I just want everybody -- just not to forget and be complacent as time wears on.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for sharing your story approximate with us.
RAM-SABAN: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking shelly sa-Pap, a 911 survivor, she lives here in San Diego with her family.