Monday, May 02, 2011

Sept. 11 and Deborah Tourloukis -- then and now

This is a three-part post. The first part is a new piece that I'm posting online now and will be in the paper Tuesday morning. The two parts that follow are my original stories on Deborah Tourloukis from 2001 and '02.

Deborah Tourloukis was about to go to bed when the news came on TV. Osama bin Laden had been killed. She couldn’t watch. And she didn’t sleep.

She couldn’t watch because she knew they’d show footage of the World Trade Center collapsing on Sept. 11. And she didn’t sleep because she was in the north tower when the first plane hit.

“Last night I just sat there and cried,” she said Monday. “It was tears of joy. It was tears of sorrow. It was a real mixed bag.”

In 2001, Deborah was working in accounting for First Union Bank in Charlotte. She was in New York to train other bank employees. She was on the 47th floor of the north tower when she felt the impact and the building swayed. She called her daughter and said I love you over and over into the phone. She thought it would be her last chance.

Deborah and a co-worker went down all those stairs together, passing firemen going up. They had just made it out of the building when the south tower crumbled. They huddled as huge chunks of debris barely missed them. They staggered to their feet and kept walking. They were two blocks away when the north tower fell.

(That co-worker’s name is Dzavid Kahari. He’s Muslim.)

I wrote about Deborah back then, and again a year later. I checked in with her Monday to see what she thought about bin Laden’s death, and to see how she’s doing now.

The great thing, after all these years, is to hear her laughter. She didn’t laugh about bin Laden, although she’s entitled. She laughs because so many things in her life are going well.

Long divorced, she’s engaged again at age 51 – she and her fiancĂ©, Gene Rash, plan to get married in 2012. Or maybe 2013. There’s no hurry. It’ll be her second marriage and his third. He calls her Trip. She calls him Sequel.

Her daughter, Demetria, had Deborah’s first grandchild – a girl named Persephonie – on April 21. Her son, Brian, took a job in her honor. He’s been working for the New York City Fire Department since 2005.

She still lives in Mount Holly. She still works for the bank, although First Union morphed over the years into Wells Fargo. She’s in the auditing department. Her co-workers know about her and Sept. 11. They came to her desk Monday morning to check on her. She was fine.


Two things still give her problems. One is fire alarms. When Wells Fargo runs a fire drill, she has a buddy to help her get up and out.

The other thing is sudden storms. She was in St. Louis on Good Friday when weather sirens went off all over town. Deborah had what she called “a post-traumatic stress moment.” She called her hotel’s front desk in a panic.

“Are we being attacked?”

“What?” the clerk said. “No, it’s a tornado.”

Deborah might have been the only person in St. Louis relieved that it was just a tornado.

Back in 2002, she was scratching herself raw in her sleep. She doesn’t do that now. Back then she thought or dreamed about Sept. 11 every day. Now it just crosses her mind once in a while. She goes to New York three or four times a year to see friends – she grew up in Brooklyn – but she hasn’t visited Ground Zero in five or six years.

Every Sept. 11, she goes to a memorial service early in the morning, by herself. A few years ago she decided to buy herself a little something on that day, to mark another year of survival. Most years it’s something cheap. But last year she needed a car, so she bought a Honda CR-V.

She did spend a little time in her sleepless Sunday night finding out how bin Laden died. She noticed that U.S. officials carried out his funeral according to Islamic traditions.

“The U.S. still respected the Muslim beliefs and customs that he claimed to live by,” she said. “And yet he showed no compassion for others’ lives or beliefs.”

She used to speak to churches and social groups. Getting up in front of those people and telling her story helped her heal. Talking to a therapist helped her heal in different ways. She doesn’t feel the need to talk about Sept. 11 all the time anymore. But she doesn’t mind when people ask her about it.

“It will always be a part of my life,” she said. “I respect that. I don’t want anyone to forget.”

Story #1 from the archives:

Published 9/21/01

Deborah Tourloukis is afraid of the dark.

Ten days ago she kneeled on the floor under a co-worker's coat as the World Trade Center crumbled around her, turning the whole world into a blackness she can't describe.

Now she's back home in Charlotte, uninjured, alive. But four of her co-workers at First Union are missing. Two of them were just ahead of her. Another was right behind.

She sleeps with the light on.

And when she is awake, every so often something trembles at her core.

"It's almost like my brain is defrosting, " she says, "like it's remembering the things I can't remember yet. My hands start to shake. I cry and can't stop.

"I've only had one bad episode today. I allow myself one a day."

Deborah does accounting for First Union - she checks stock and bond accounts to make sure what customers spend matches what they trade for.

She went to First Union's New York office last week to train employees. She flew up Sunday, a day early, to see family - she grew up in Brooklyn, and her son lives in New York.

Anyone visiting the World Trade Center on business had to have a temporary ID card made. Deborah still has hers from Sept. 11. In a way, her story is frozen on that card:

Her picture.

The designation 1WTC, for Building 1, the north tower.

The number 47, for the 47th floor.

That's where she was at 8:48 a.m., when the first jet hit the other side of her building. The impact made the tower sway. She looked up, out the window, and saw the strangest things in the air above her. Blankets. Briefcases. A notebook, fluttering.

She thought it was an earthquake.

She called her boss in Charlotte. He told her a plane had hit the tower. She called her daughter, Demetria, a student at Belmont Abbey.

Deborah could think of only one thing to say. I love you. I love you. I love you.

One stairway was already jammed with people. Somebody found another. The stairs were only wide enough for two people at a time.

Soon they had to go single-file - the firemen were coming up.

Deborah and the others moved aside as the firemen brought down the injured, the burned, a blind man.

Somewhere around the 17th floor, one of Deborah's co-workers stopped. She said she needed a fireman. Deborah doesn't know what was wrong. That was the last they saw of her.

Finally they came through a doorway where a fireman stood. "Make sure you have a buddy!" he shouted. Deborah grabbed onto a co-worker: Dzavid, pronounced like David.

She remembers going through a turnstile and a revolving door, then turning left and walking down a shopping corridor between the two towers.

That's when the south tower collapsed.

"We looked back, and there's no other way I can say this - the debris chased us, " she says. "The smoke came in and rolled over us. All the lights went out."

Steel, stone, glass crashed around them. So many pieces big enough to kill.

Deborah slipped and fell. Dzavid huddled beside her and held his coat over both of their heads.

A plate glass window from the Gap store in the corridor shook loose and fell on top of them. Somehow, it didn't break.

Before they left the 47th floor, they had wet some paper towels and stuffed them in their pockets. Now they put the towels over their mouths. Deborah didn't want to move. She thought she'd fall in a hole. But Dzavid made her get up and walk.

Out of nowhere, someone appeared with a flashlight. They went down another level, everyone linking hands, until Deborah smelled fresh air.

They had made it two blocks down the street when the north tower fell.

Deborah says two co-workers were just up ahead when the first tower collapsed. A third was just behind.

All three are missing, along with the woman who stayed on the 17th floor.

Another nearby co-worker, Tom Canavan, dug his way out. A photo of him, his head covered in blood, appeared in People magazine.

Deborah got home Saturday night. She wants people to know that not all her heroes are in New York.

First Union got her and other survivors everything they needed. Friends keep her on the phone eight hours a day.

She hasn't felt like going out, but Thursday morning she went and had her nails done. A tiny flag ribbon is painted on each ring finger.

She'll try to go back to work Monday. She's a little nervous about it. But she has so many people to talk to, so many people to thank.

First on the list is the co-worker who covered her with his coat and led her out of the darkness.

Deborah says he saved her life. And she wants people to know who he is.


Dzavid Kahari.

He's Muslim.

Story #2 from the archives:



Published 9/11/02

Some mornings, Deborah Tourloukis still wakes up rubbed raw.

She dreams about the World Trade Center and she scratches herself. Always the same spots. The inside of her right knee. The back of her calf. She doesn't know why she scrapes those spots. But they stay sore and bruised.

In her dream, it is dark and she is stuck and she is clawing to get out. In her sleep she reopens the old wounds.

At 8:46 a.m., exactly one year ago, the first plane hit the World Trade Center. To this day it's still not clear how many people were inside the twin towers. Some recent studies estimate as few as 10,000 - plus the firefighters, police and rescue workers who went in the buildings to help.

Roughly 2,800 died.

The rest are in a club whose enrollment will never grow.

The survivors club.

Deborah Tourloukis of Mount Holly still has her membership card. It is a day pass to the World Trade Center's north tower, marked Sept. 11, 2001.

She was on one of her regular trips to train employees at First Union Corp.'s office. At a farmers market outside the building, she bought a ham-and-cheese quiche and a loaf of banana bread to share with her co-workers.

She joked with the security guard, took the elevator to the 47th floor.

And then history happened.

In the months since, she has told her story to a line of strangers on the front porch of her childhood home.

She has told her story to a flight attendant who started to weep when he discovered who she was.

She has told her story in an empty bar because the owner wanted to hear, because he lost a son in the terror she survived.

She's 42, divorced with three grown kids. She still works her same job in accounting, although First Union has now merged with Wachovia. She never imagined a life where so many people would want to hear her story.

But with each telling she feels the story's power. The power to help others feel what it was like. The power to heal her raw places.

This morning, Wachovia will hold a Sept. 11 memorial service. Deborah put it together. She has worked extra hours, gone in on her days off, to make it right.

At one point, she thought the service might give her closure. But there is too much blocking the door.

So, instead, she has swung it open.

She tells her story.


Glad for the darkness

"I've got two props - my water and my tissue, " she says. "I just may cry."

She is talking to the Gaston County Extension and Community Association, which used to be a homemakers group but now discusses all sorts of issues, usually over coffee and brownies.

Deborah wears a dark suit and a Mickey Mouse American-flag pin. On the table next to her is a display case with a shard of glass and a hunk of stone. Her brother, a New York City firefighter, got the glass and stone from ground zero.

Deborah is new to public speaking. She doesn't build to dramatic pauses. She doesn't pull her words into a theme. It just spills out.

"I called my boss in Charlotte and told her I thought there was an earthquake. She said, 'Get out; a plane has hit your building.' I made a call to my daughter Demetria. She was ironing her clothing. I said, 'Demetria, a plane has hit. I don't know if I'm gonna come home.' "

But she did. She went down 46 flights of stairs and then under the building. She passed burned bodies, exhausted people who decided to stop, firefighters heading up.

The rescue workers told her to buddy up with someone. She found a co-worker, Dzavid Kahari, a Muslim.

When the south tower fell, they huddled on the floor and Dzavid covered her with his coat. A plate-glass window fell on them. Somehow, it didn't break.

They made it outside.

Two blocks from the north tower, a photographer was trying to fit the awful scene into her camera. She snapped a picture of Deborah and Dzavid as they walked by. Deborah's hair is thick with dust. Her eyes are cast in shock.

Minutes later, the north tower perished.

Five of her co-workers died. Two had been just ahead of her. One had been not far behind.

Deborah thanks God for all the smoke that day.

"The darkness was a gift, " she says. "It was hard enough to hear it as we came through the building, but it's a gift that we didn't have to see. It made it hard to breathe at the time. But I believe it made it easier for us to live today."

The women in the crowd are dabbing their eyes with paper napkins. Deborah has already had to stop three times. But she doesn't want to leave everybody sad.

"I'm from Brooklyn, and most of my family is still up in New York, " she says. "But I've been down here eight years and it's been a wonderful thing for me. Thank you so much for listening. Sharing it with other people makes it lighter."

She likes to share inspirational quotes, like this one from Mary Gardiner Brainard: I would rather walk with God in the dark than go alone in the light.

She believes in it.

She also carries a flashlight in her pocketbook. And another in her car.


A story told over and over

Word got around the old neighborhood. Debbie's here. The one who was in the tower.

Deborah sat on the front porch of her childhood home on East 34th Street in Brooklyn. Her sister Denise owns the house now. Deborah had come to see family. Now she saw half the neighborhood, lining up down the street.

"Just about everybody there had lost someone, or knew somebody in the neighborhood that did, " she says. "It always started off with, 'How are you doing? How's North Carolina?' And then they would come in with the other questions. The ones about 9/11."

Every so often, something like that happens. Denise called after visiting a Sept. 11 exhibit at a museum on the USS Intrepid. She was looking at a strip of photos when one stopped her cold. It was the picture of Deborah and Dzavid. No one had known the picture even existed.

And so in January, Deborah found herself looking at an exhibit where she was one of the featured characters. A stranger, a visitor from France, stood next to her. "That's me, " Deborah said. And she told her story again.

She went back to New York to look for a place for her daughter's bridal shower. She stopped at a bar they had thought about. The owner's son had died at the World Trade Center. "I was there, " Deborah said. "Are you sure you want to hear this?" He was. And they cried as she told her story again.

Once in a while, someone is rude or creepy, wanting to know if she saw any severed heads. Deborah just cuts the conversation off.

But most of the questions are simple. Most of them aren't even questions. They're pleas. Tell us where you were. Tell us who you saw. Tell us what it was like.

The more she tells the story, the more she remembers. The quiche and banana bread came back to her just the other day.

It's like vacation pictures, she says. You can show them to people all you want. But it's not the same as having been there.

Not the same at all.


Making gradual progress

For the first couple of weeks afterward, she slept in a spare room with the TV on for company. She turned it to Nickelodeon because she knew it wouldn't show any horror movies.

She took Ambien to help her sleep, saw a doctor about the nightmares. As she talked to him, she scratched her left shoulder without even knowing it.

She can look at photos from Sept. 11, but not TV footage. She can't take the sound.

She has been back to ground zero four times - most recently, last week for a Wachovia ceremony. When she gets near, she smells the smell from that day. An acid smell. None of her friends can smell it.

And still, every day, she gets better.

She has decided not to put up with people who make her unhappy. This has led to a couple of hard conversations, one with a family member, one with a co-worker. But she came away refreshed.

She calls and tries to cheer up Dzavid, who has a hard time talking about that day. She goes home from work at a decent hour.

She will speak at the Wachovia service this morning. But there also will be a choir, and people reading poetry, and a slide show, and a toll of a bell for those who died.

All over this country, in places all over the world, people will stop for a few minutes to remember that Sept. 11 belongs to all of us, that all the stories of pain and fear and hope blend into one big story.

Everyone's story.

And tonight Deborah Tourloukis will go home, and maybe she will scratch herself raw in her sleep, and she will get up tomorrow morning and put on some skin cream and start a new day.

Her story.


Anonymous said...

Outstanding set of stories Tommy. May all who suffered through this tragedy be richly blessed.

Web Designer Lucknow said...

NIce post n thanx for sharing that for me..

Anonymous said...

Terrible tragedy.
But where are the pics of OSL after destroying the evidence with the burial at sea?
Not defending Bush but you know these same libs would be crying for the pics if he were still in WH. Why does BHO get a free pass?

And what about his doctored birth certificate? Does he get a free pass on that now and why?

Anonymous said...

Is OBL really dead or have you been tricked again?

Anonymous said...

That rear pic of OBL with the long gray beard is really ZZ Tops Billy Gibbons just having smoked some Afghan hash.
Propaganda is one of militarys greatest tools alltime.

America demands a damn body and DNA proof. We know you didnt bury him at sea because hell we dont even think he ever existed much less planned 911. Now they say he knew the steel would melt in the towers? Unfukinreal.

That pic is as authenic as BHOs birth certificate. How quickly they sell out when they win. Elect Ron Paul in 2012.

Anonymous said...

Ready for a bigger US police state with the OBL fakery?
What fools these mortals be.

Anonymous said...

I know Deborah I met her about a year ago. She never told me about this I was just looking up her son online and this came up. I'm stunned to find this out because my father was at the building and he passed away. I'm so happy that Deborah made it. Much love to her and her family.