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9/11: A Year After / WHO WE ARE NOW

Tirsa Moya

'He was put in my path to keep me ... from worrying about my own safety.'

September 11, 2002

Tirsa Moya, 35, is a customer service manager for a small insurance brokerage firm. She guided 81-year-old Raphael Cava down 89 flights of the north tower of the World Trade Center. They escaped five minutes before the building collapsed.

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"Raphael always refers to me as his angel, but I see it the other way around. I think he was put in my path to keep me distracted and from worrying about my own safety that day.

I only knew him before

Sept. 11 to say hello in the morning. But my boss found him in the hallway disoriented and brought him into our office. The minute he came in, I just took over. We were stuck there for 40 minutes before [Port Authority Officer Pablo Ortiz] broke down the stairwell door and we went down.

I had to force Raphael quite a few times to stop, catch his breath. But he wouldn't. He wouldn't take off his jacket. He wouldn't take off his hat. As hot as it was, he just wanted to keep going. It took us almost an hour to get down. When we got to the lobby, it was like being in a war zone. There was a lot of debris from the south tower that had already collapsed and so people guiding us out would tell us two or three at a time, 'Run, run, take cover, take cover.'

Raphael and I were separated briefly, but he waited for me. We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge together and I stayed with him until somebody came to pick him up about 4:30, and then I went home to Queens and spent the next five hours on the phone telling people I was fine.

We talked every day after Sept. 11 until I got back to work. Then every two weeks or so, I would go over to [his new office] to say hello. Since April, I haven't seen him, but we speak every other week. There isn't much conversation. It's just checking in, that's all.

I don't remember any faces from that day. I still have a lot of blanks. When I talk about it to other people, basically, I try to get across what a peaceful descent it was.

In the beginning, I didn't want to talk about it at all or watch or listen to anything related to 9/11. I was in a little cocoon. I didn't break down or get emotional. It took me a long time to cry.

For a long time, airplanes and the smell of smoke and fire engines got to me. I live near Kennedy airport, so the planes are constantly overhead. Even to this day, the train station where I get out at is outdoors and the airplanes fly pretty low and sometimes I do get the urge to run and take shelter.

I'd say the first few weeks I also had a hard time sleeping. I wasn't having nightmares, not that I remember. That's when I actually picked up drinking coffee again. I've also put on at least 10 pounds. I guess over the last year I have been totally out of control, totally disorganized, shopping a lot, buying, buying, buying without hesitation, eating what I want. I felt like I had no control over my life for a while. I tend to be forgetful anyway, but sometimes I couldn't remember what I had for breakfast.

We were also very busy in the office trying to reconstruct everything we'd lost. We had no paperwork, no documentation, no files. And whatever we were reconstructing had to be from memory and a lot of us, well, our memories were shot.

I finally came back downtown in January. I just had this immense urge to go to ground zero and see what my reaction would be. I had invited a friend who also had made it out of the 89th floor, but she was too busy. So I went alone and that's when I had a really good cry.

The one thing that annoyed me were all the tourists. I'm here boo-hooing and these people are speculating on what happened and what should be built there. I just wanted to say, "Shut up and go home." I don't understand why they bug me.

Then on April 18, our offices moved back downtown and it felt like I was coming home. I'm a lot happier now than I was before Sept. 11. We can either be in a cheerful mood, or be in a bad mood every day. I choose to be happy. I take a lot more chances now. In the past, I used to be very cautious and analyze everything to death. I find I'm a lot more open to experiencing new things.

I had always been petrified of speed, for example, but then this summer someone invited me for a ride on a motorcycle and I thought, 'What the hell, if I don't like it I'll never do it again.' So I did.

I lost my mom at 7 and I don't remember mourning at the time. Earlier this year, I don't remember when, but I felt myself mourning her for the first time. I cried and felt sad for a few days and that was it. It's like I had closure, but I never associated it with 9/11. It was just something that came over me. Weird.

Another weird thing is when we were at the World Trade Center, my co-workers and I, being that we work for a Japanese-owned company, always had a Japanese caterer bring in six selections for lunch. I just got hooked on salmon. I would eat it practically every day, and my co-workers would always goof on me and say, 'We're not even going to ask you what you're having because we already know.'

But after Sept. 11, I couldn't touch the stuff, probably because I associated it with being at the World Trade Center.

Then a month and a half ago I started eating salmon again.

Guess what I had today for lunch?

Salmon and a salad."

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As told to Geraldine Baum

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