Agents of change: Students and a father who survived 9/11 share their stories

Remembering 9/11

NEW YORK — There were 50,000 students from nearly four dozen schools and colleges in the exposure zone on Sept. 11, 2001.

Lila Nordstrom was a senior at Stuyvesant High School, Helaina Hovitz Regal a seventh grader at I.S. 89 Middle School and Art Chang had just dropped off his toddler son, Benjamin, at the day care center at 5 World Trade. 

All three spoke with PIX11 ahead of the 20th anniversary 9/11 terror attacks.

Child survivor

Hovitz Regal was just 12 years old and what she witnessed that day led to a lifetime of emotional trauma.  

“When we got out of the school building, we could feel the heat of the fires from the towers on our faces, people were bloody and loaded onto ambulances,” Hovitz Regal said. “The first tower fell and we had to run for our lives with our shirts over our faces.”

Helaina Hovitz Regal, left | Students and a father share their stories ahead of Sept. 11 terror attack anniversary

Alongside a classmate and his mother, both of whom were also her neighbors, they embarked on a harrowing trek back to their apartment building, running into road closures, emergency personnel and mass destruction. She made it home safely but it was only the beginning of a long journey.  

“I started to have early symptoms of PTSD fairly early on,” Hovitz Regal said.  “A plane flew overhead and I would duck and start crying, I was having nightmares I was constantly afraid.”

Her parents saw she was in trouble and took her to therapist after therapist, but it wasn’t until she was 18 and in college, when she was finally diagnosed with PTSD.  

“The diagnosis is a relief, it means that we know what it is finally,” said Hovitz Regal. “It means we can treat it finally.”

A grateful father

Chang remembers Sept. 11, 2001, began as a lovely late summer morning.  

“I left Ben, it was such a wonderful day start to a day and I was so happy and that’s what I remember,” Chang said. After he dropped his son off at Children’s Discovery Day Care Center, he headed to Midtown to work. “Everybody was silent in Times Square it was like out of a movie,” Chang said.  “All the cars were stopped people were standing outside their cars looking at the jumbotron.” 

On the jumbotron was news coverage of the burning towers.  

The country had changed forever.

Chang barely made it back to Lower Manhattan before the subway system shut down.  He and wife Allison frantically searched for their son. As both towers fell, dust and debris from the buildings flew everywhere.  

“It was chaos down there,” Chang said.  “People who escaped the trade towers were covered in white.”

It turned out the day care workers had shepherded the children to safety, carrying the babies in their arms and holding onto the small hands of others as they ran, to find shelter in another building. 

It was a split-second decision, and the right decision – 5 World Trade sustained serious damage and later had to be demolished. 

PIX11 met up with Chang at the original site.

“We’ve told him everything he knows about it and I think he feels somewhat of a burden, a little bit of guilt that this happened, Chang said of his son. “So many people died and others risked their lives for him and I think it makes him feel a little bit uncertain about what his role is.”

Chang credits the staffers at the day care center for saving his son’s life and the lives of dozens of other infants and toddlers. 

Then 18 months old, Ben Chang is now 21 and in college. 

“He is thriving, he’s a great kid,” Chang said. 

A student exposed

After evacuating Stuyvesant on 9/11, Nordstrom and her classmates returned less than a month later.  

“What we returned to was a highly disturbing and completely different set of sights and sounds,” Nordstrom said . “It was also an area that both smelled and was later proven to be highly toxic.”

Nordstom said false assurances were made to the parents association that the school and air were safe. She became an advocate, instrumental in bringing attention to students getting sick from being in the exposure zone. 

“When I heard that there were all of these responders suffering from all of these respiratory conditions, that responders were getting cancers, my first thought was, oh my god that’s going to be me,” Nordstom said.

Nordstrom is a lifelong asthmatic. Five years after the attacks, she began reaching out to local politicians to sound the alarm.  

“In 2006, I was graduating from college and I was about to lose my health insurance this was before the Affordable Care Act,” Nordstrom said.  “This school community downtown had been in the cleanup with the first responders, we had been there for months before the fires burned out and I said we deserve some kind of health protection because we’re about to graduate and we’re going to lose our health insurance.”

As we know now, tens of thousands have become ill.

Art Chang | Students and a father share their stories ahead of Sept. 11 terror attack anniversary

Nordstrom founded StuyHealth, an organization that represents young adult 9/11 survivors. 

She has also authored the book “Some Kids Left Behind.”

“Almost more concerningly is that we are hearing consistent reports of cancers, cancers in people who are in their early 30s and mid 30s,” Nordstrom said. 

She adds, every anniversary shines a light on how choices made by government officials can fail their citizens in protecting their health.  

“I would like us to use the 20th to reflect on what lessons can be learned about how to prevent disaster victims from further harm, I think a lot of the time when we reflect on 911 we’re reflecting on an event as if it has already passed,” Nordstrom said. “But for those of us who have engaged in this health struggle, this has been an ongoing part of our lives, this is not an event that we are commemorating necessarily because there is no reason to commemorate something that constantly causes you further harm, there’s no reason for us to reflect back on anything other than how long it has taken us to get permanent help.”

Agents of change

All three have become agents of change. Chang feels strongly about the day care workers who saved Ben’s life. He said that’s why he made universal childcare a focal point in his run for the democratic mayoral primary this year. 

“People who take care of our kids are essential workers when parents aren’t around teachers are really the line of last defense,” Chang said.  

Hovitz Regal’s book, “After 9/11,” is about her recovery from PTSD, a subject she often speaks on. 

“It’s not just something that we remember on these round number anniversaries,” Hovitz Regal said.  “It affects people by the hundreds of thousands who have health and mental health issues from that day

“There was something that was really precious and that whole sense of trust and safety were lost and it took a long time to get that back,” Chang said.

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