Remembering 9/11: How 9/11 Changed The Life And Career Path Of A Former Sussex County Resident In DC
Saturday, September 8, 2012 • 2:25pm
WASHINGTON, DC – On September 11, 2001, Helga Luest was at her job in a public relations firm in Downtown Washington, DC.
“I was in a meeting with my boss, when we heard that the first plane hit the towers,” the former Sparta resident recalled.
They turned on the television during the meeting, as Helga’s supervisor continued to speak.
“I watched the TV, and saw the second plane hit the tower, and said, ‘we have to stop, something is going on,’” she said.
Helga said this commenced the 24-hour news cycle.
As the vice-president of the P.R. firm, she next instructed her team, “I want you to go home, be with your families, and be safe.”
Some of the news they received about Washington, DC that day was totally false.
“We heard the State Department was on fire, the Capitol Building, and one of the museums on the Mall was on fire,” said Helga.
In fact, she had heard that the cities affected were on fire, and being attacked.
A half-hour subway ride to the town where she lived ended up taking some nearly eight hours.
Helga shared a cab with eight strangers instead for her eight-hour odyssey, everyone cramming into the cab, and sitting on each other’s laps.
“The driver was shaking,” Helga said. “He kept turning off the car, and didn’t know if we’d run out of gas.”
When she finally arrived to her residence, Helga’s then-husband was at the house. He was coping with mental health issues, and was home sick that day.
“He bought a gun,” she said. “For him, it [9/11] set off every trigger.”
“’Let’s leave,’” Helga’s husband told her.
“For him, it [life] never got back into a normal rhythm,” she said.
Following 9/11, Helga’s husband insisted they move further away from the city, because he considered the risk too high.
For the remainder of that first week, Helga arranged for her team to telecommute.
“I could hear their anxiety,” she said. “We weren’t sure the Metro would run. I felt it best for everyone to be as comfortable as possible. There was so much uncertainty at that time.”
The uncertainty was reciprocal on her front as well, with Helga concerned for the well being of her family up in the New York and New Jersey areas, while her family was also worried about her.
“My family in Long Island lost some friends who were firefighters in the rescue efforts,” she said.
The reception was poor for cell phones in general that day, additionally her phone battery drained, and there was nothing Helga could do until she returned home.
She was finally able to connect with her family in Sparta, and her sister in Europe.
“No one knew the full extent of what was happening,” she said.
Helga, who was additionally involved with advocacy work, was often on Capitol Hill, and her family was unsure if she was there, or at work.
“It was not knowing, and you can see how things happen so unexpectedly, and, you want to connect with those you love,” she said.
The effect of the 24-hour news cycle made the media reach impossible for Helga’s firm, with the constant focus on 9/11 news.
Before 9/11, there were 100 employees, and around November 2001, the company had scaled back to 20 jobs, and Helga was also laid off.
However, a different career vision and opportunity came about for Helga, one that had a deeper meaning for her, and in a way that she felt she could make a difference.
Helga is a trauma survivor, who survived an attempted murder in 1993, when she and her mother were forced off the highway near Miami International Airport in their rental car, and she was nearly beaten to death by two attackers (click here to read the story in The Alternative Press).
She seriously began thinking of starting her firm, Witness Justice, a non-profit group that helps victims, shortly after September 11, 2001.
Two weeks following her layoff, Helga received a call from the VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) System, that one of her assailants had found a technicality in his case, and his sentence was vacated. Helga headed to Florida to testify, did more outreach, and learned what her rights were. Eventually, her attacker received an even harsher sentence; life in jail without parole.
From her own experiences, and by doing a gap analysis, Helga found there was not much being done, in terms of what survivors of trauma, and crime, including 9/11, needed.
"Many Americans are suffering from Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other side effects," Helga said.
In December 2001, she mapped out her plans for Witness Justice.
"We're here for service providers, we don't do one-on-one counseling," Helga explained.
On the Witness Justice website, among things, are resources and services, which can affect those impacted by violent crimes, and trauma. Click here for a list of resources.
In New Jersey, Helga recommends the Mental Health Association in New Jersey (MCANJ), and their MentalHealthCares Helpline, to help New Jersey residents who may make suicide-related calls, to reach out to the group for support. The helpline, through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, is available to help residents weekdays from 8am to 8pm. The wait time is 15 seconds or less. They can be reached at: 1-866-202-HELP (4357). To learn more about the organization, click here.
Some of her experiences have included working with 9/11 victims, including a journalist who was in Washington, DC as well that day. She interviewed him for a trauma project she has been working on with the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
Of the interview, she said, “It’s so powerful what he shared, and how it affected his relationship with his kids.”
“I think why 9/11 was different, than other stories, for me, is that, it was just a routine day," the journalist said during the interview with Helga. "I mean, it was like any other day. I got dressed, I was running late, I had a cup of coffee, kissed my wife goodbye, got in typical Washington, DC, traffic, which was horrible. And I started listening to what was happening in New York, and, I was the senior correspondent at USA Today. And I knew if I got into work, they’d dispatch me to New York, it was a huge story. And I was thinking more as a journalist than anything else. I wasn’t thinking, 'jeez, how many people were suffering in those buildings, and, and dying, as a result of these planes crashing'. So, as I was sitting there, I was getting really frustrated ‘cause I was, you know, literally five, seven minutes away from work, and yet, the traffic wasn’t moving. So I roll down the window of the car and put my hand out, was, you know, moving aside, and that’s when I heard the jet. And I looked up. And I saw it as it banked, and then it started a dive into the Pentagon. And I think, you know, it’s, it’s interesting when you think about, well, why did that story impact you in a way that another, you know, didn’t. I think it’s because it was the morning commute, it was just a typical day, and suddenly I was in a war zone."
Another initiative that touched Helga's heart, was one of the GlassBook Projects, artwork that help portray how victims of trauma may respond to what has hurt them. The GlassBook Projects are created by students of artist, and Assistant Professor, Department of Arts, Culture and Media at Rutgers University-Newark, Nick Kline (Kline is also originally from Sparta). Helga contributes to the featured topics, and advocacy, helping to implement the books. Students interview and hear the stories of victims of trauma, and create their works based on what they learn.
Helga was particularly moved by the poetry and book creation of Britt Melewski, who is a published poet. Britt's poem was typed onto two towers of glass, reminiscent of the Twin Towers.
Britt's poem starts off with,
"the fires are not on fire the fires are on smoke
and the smoke might be on fire but maybe it’s
just on smoke where is daddy where are my
parents are they still my parents it is my birth
-day is it still my birthday and are they away
where are they are they still here please lord
almighty tell me that is a chimney tell me that
it’s not smoke I see sweeping across the air on
The poem continues with the perspective of the victim, indicating "nothing has happened", and "nothing is happening", in terms of trying to be shielded from the event, and pain associated with it.
Throughout the poem, Britt names various names of victims, pleading, "Who who who who who who and who the plaintiffs need to be heard every last one of them..."
"It says a lot," said Helga of Britt's poem, and two others submitted. "Sometimes art and poetry has a way of touching people."
Editor’s Note: This is the first story in our series, “Each Person Has A Story – The Alternative Press of Sussex County Remembers September 11”.