Surviving 9/11 And Homelessness
Leslie Haskin was one of only two African-American women working in the executive ranks of Kemper Insurance at their offices in the World Trade Center. The fiery ordeal of 9/11 unhinged her mind to such an extent that doctors said she would never work again.
At 8:46 a.m. on September 11, she talked with her assistant next to a large window on the 37th floor of the North Tower – the first building hit. “I felt an incredible explosion that engaged all my senses,” Haskin says. ‘I felt it, smelled it, and heard it. It was a huge event.”
Even though she was many floors away from the crucible of fire and destruction in the impact zone, she and her coworkers grasped the dangers immediately. “Ceilings were collapsing and you could see fire through the seams. The building swayed back and forth and never righted itself. There were explosions everywhere,” she recounts.
As Haskin and her coworker looked out the window, they saw papers, furniture and bodies plunging to the ground, banging against the building as they fell.
An underwriting director ran through the office yelling, “The building is coming down; the building is coming down!”
While the nation’s tallest building may have appeared steady to outside observers, insiders formed a different conclusion. “It was utter destruction and terror on the inside. There was no doubt we had to get out.”
Since elevators were unusable, Haskin made her way to the stairs. “The problem was only a few people could fit in the stairwell, so it was slow-going.”
As she inched her way down the crowded stairwell, the South Tower was hit by United Airlines flight 175. When the jet hit the second building, everyone around her felt the impact because the two buildings joined at the concourse level, so the concussive vibration reverberated next door.
“We didn’t know what was going on. Everybody was in shock; it was sheer visceral terror.”
As she made her way on to the concourse level, she found a surreal war-time scene.
“I walked through blood, fuel oil, and water." In response to these horrors, Haskin suffered a nervous breakdown. She wandered in a daze on the concourse, then she heard the firefighters and police yelling at her to run, so she ran.
Haskin hurried to the ferry terminal, about 600 feet away. “I turned around and watched, but it was too hard to see, the horror of it all.”
Just as she reached the boat – already jammed with people – the second building hit by the terrorists began to collapse. “I heard the crumble and rumbling of Tower Two falling,” she recalls. The ferry started to pull out quickly. Haskin had one foot on board and a woman reached out, grabbed her, and pulled her aboard.
Everyone on the ferry was shell-shocked. “Most of us were weeping. All of us had just escaped with our lives.”
Later, Haskin learned she lost 22 friends that morning. She also lost the man she loved, Michael Cortez, who worked for the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 people on Sept 11th.
Hours later she made made it to her house in upstate New York.
The effects of her nervous breakdown and severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were already apparent. “I couldn’t say my name or form a complete sentence. I had a severe stutter.” The mere closing of a door caused a “startle reaction” she likened to an explosion.
She tearfully reunited with her 12-year-old son, Eliot, who was at a private Christian school when the attack happened.
In the days that followed, her fear and paranoia intensified.
Haskin was committed to a psychiatric hospital for several weeks, then under a doctor’s care for eight months, and saw a therapist for three years. “The situation was bleak. The doctor’s prognosis was that I would never return to a productive state of mind.” She was heavily medicated.
Over many months, her healing progressed. “It took a while for me to trust that I could stop taking the meds,” she recounts.
For two years, Haskin and her son lived off her savings and credit cards. Then the day of financial reckoning came, she lost her home, and they went to live with relatives.
“I lost everything, including my mind.”
Homelessness can happen to anyone. “Your 9/11 might be cancer or drug abuse or the foreclosure of your home,” Haskin says.
To learn more, read Between Heaven And Ground Zero, Leslie Haskin's harrowing first-hand account of being one of the last people to leave one of the crumbling twin towers and her remarkable journey afterward.
'Exec became homeless after 9/11'
By Mark Ellis