The Day That Changed Our Lives Forever
Submitted by Edwin Rivera
Eddie and Grace Rivera suffered burns over more than 30 percent of their bodies in the attacks of Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center.
(Photos: Jamie Scanlon-Jacobs)
The alarm clock went off at 5 am Tuesday morning 11 of September, 2001. My wife Grace got up first to get ready. I got up to let the dog out, and it turned out to be a beautiful morning. I put the coffee on, and went back upstairs to get ready for work. I turned on the television to Fox 5 news as I always did in the morning. Grace started breakfast for us. My son had left early for his internship and my daughter left to catch her school bus. Grace and I ate our breakfast and headed for the car for the short drive to catch our bus to New York City. The bus came early that day, and it wasn’t the usual bus driver. According to the bus driver the buses were ahead of schedule. I sat down with my wife. She fell asleep and I started to read my book.
The bus arrived at about 8:30 am. My wife and I walked to One World Trade Center just enjoying the morning walk to the office. I was contemplating if I should pick up a coffee before heading to the office. When we arrived at the lobby I told Grace that I was going straight to the office and starting early. Usually Grace would go window-shopping before she went to the office, but on this day she decided not to.
So we strolled together through the lobby to the elevator bank. Just before we reached the turnstile, I had to reach into my brief case for my ID card. Grace scanned her card first then I scanned my ID. We both started to walk to the middle elevator bank suddenly we felt the building shake. Grace grabbed me thinking that she got dizzy, and I asked if she was okay.
I asked her did you feel that? Everyone in the elevator bank stopped short and looked around wondering what had just happened. Then I heard this loud whistle coming through the maintenance elevators. Out of instincts, I grabbed Grace and started running to the nearest exit that was the West Side Highway. At that moment the doors to the maintenance elevators blew wide open; debris and a strong wind emerged from the elevators. As we reached the exit doors to the street I pushed Grace in front of me to get her out first. Then that’s when all hell broke loose. There was a huge explosion that picked us up and threw us through the glass doors. It felt like a truck hit us from behind. We just flew about ten to twenty feet. Broken glass was everywhere on the ground and embedded in our bodies. We hit the concrete planters that prevent any vehicle from reaching the buildings from the road. My adrenalin kicked in at that point. I jumped to my feet and noticed parts of my body were bleeding. I looked back at the lobby of the building. Everything was pitch black. That’s when I saw this huge orange glowing ball of fire coming straight at me. My reaction was to turn around and cover my face with my hands. That’s when I felt the heat engulf me. I just froze. All I could think of at that moment was if Grace was okay. When I felt the fire vanish I looked for Grace. She was still on the ground. Her clothes were on fire, so I just started to pat her down, not knowing that my shirt was also on fire and that my arms and hands were burned. In those moments a lady ran passed me who was engulfed in flames. Grace was yelling at me to help her, but in those moments my concern was for her. Then I saw a man come to help the lady. I was so confused at that moment, wondering what the hell was going on.
At that moment I heard this very loud thump to my left about ten feet from me I saw the body of a man laying on the sidewalk. He looked deflated and bloodied. Then I realized all his bones were all crushed. I just looked up, and that’s when I saw the tower was on fire. There were people just jumping out the windows to their death and debris falling everywhere. I started to scream at my wife to get up, and she tried but couldn’t. I kept yelling at her. That’s when I realized that aside from being burned she was bleeding profusely from her left leg. I tried to pick her up and realized that aside from my burns my left arm was also broken. I just grabbed her with my right hand and dragged her away from the burning tower into the middle of the street. I was trying to get help but everyone was mesmerized in shock just looking up at the burning building. I ran to the security booth and started to yell at the guard inside the glass booth for help, and he looked at me like I was crazy. I yelled at him to look up, and his eyes just opened wide and he started to push all kinds of buttons in the booth. I still didn’t know what caused the explosion and fire.
I started to worry about my co-workers and everyone in the building. I reached for my brief case and cell phone, but I had lost them in the explosion. Grace still had hers, and she tried to call upstairs but couldn’t get through. At that moment, I told her to call her mother, and she was able to get through to her and told her that we were seriously injured. She begged her mother to stay home, not to move from there.
I saw a fire truck and called out to them. A fireman came over and asked if we were okay. I told him we were both hurt. He grabbed Grace and we walked to the ambulance. When we got on there were other injured people in the ambulance. As soon as we sat down the ambulance pulled out to the nearest hospital.
We were taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital where there were doctors and nurses all waiting for the injured to arrive. I was the first one out, and I was put in a wheelchair and rushed inside. One of the nurses asked me if I was a survivor of the airplane crash. I was very confused when she asked me that question. I told her I was caught in an explosion at the Trade Center. I started asking where my wife was, and I heard her calling out for me. They told me she was being taken care of. They started cutting my clothes off, removing my jewelry, and asking me all kinds of questions. The last thing I remember was,
he’s going into shock.
I woke up in a room confused, disoriented, and I started yelling for my Grace. A nurse ran in and told me I would have to stay calm, that she would check on my wife for me. When she came back she told me she was in the next room, that she was fine and being cared for. Grace told the nurse to tell me she loves me. I asked the nurse if she could contact my children or my brothers for me. It took a while to get through, all phone lines were busy, but she succeeded. My upper body was really starting to hurt. The pain was getting unbearable. A doctor came by to see me and told me thirty-six percent of my body was burned with second and third degree burns. I was given morphine for the pain and I was out again.
The next time I woke up I was screaming. The nursed rush in, and I was burning up with fever. I remember my left arm was about ten times bigger than my right. The doctor came to check on me and said I needed to have emergency surgery on my arm. I had my surgery, and I noticed that my legs were also bandaged up. That’s where the surgeon had taken the skin grafts for my arm. I was in and out of consciousness for the first few days.
It was Friday, and I was told that my wife and I were going to be transferred to the burn unit at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey. There we spent one month in ICU. Grace and I had various skin graft surgeries done, and removal of glass that was embedded in our bodies. During my stay at Saint Barnabas, I was put into semi coma because of the pain from the burns. Family members came to visit me, but I was unaware that they were even there. The last week at the hospital I was started on physical therapy. I had to stand up for the first time and, believe me, I thought I was going to die. The pain in my legs as well as my upper body was excruciating. This went on for about a week before I was sent home.
At home we had to get physical therapy for the first six months since we couldn’t travel. Once we could travel, we were sent for more physical therapy for another eighteen months. After the skins grafts healed, we were fitted for pressure garment. We had to wear the pressure garment 23 hours a day for two years. These pressure garments prevent and control the formation of hypertrophic scars by applying counter pressure to the wounded area. I had more surgery on my left shoulder and more therapy. These surgeries went on for six years for both of us for the removal of scar tissue.
Grace and I suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which we are being treated for. I developed a pulmonary condition RADS (reactive airways dysfunction syndrome) from inhaling the fumes from the fire and debris at the Trade Center, the diagnosis was changed to chronic asthma at a later date, I continue to be treated for this condition. To this day, Grace and I suffer from pain, nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety attacks. As a result of my lung condition, I visit my pulmonary specialist every three months and have breathing tests done every six months to check my lung capacity. I worry about my lung condition every day.
I finally learned what happened on that tragic day of September 11, 2001. This was kept from me during my stay at the hospital. I also learned that eleven of my co-workers perished on that day. On this day of September 11, 2001, two new persons emerged and the old ones died. By this statement, I mean our life changed physically and mentally. We have had to adapt to a new way of life. This has angered me very much finding myself unable to do the things I could do before this tragic event occurred in my life. It has been nine years since the attacks at the World Trade Center. We have not returned to New York City since that tragic day of September 11, 2001. We still have fears that there will be another attack on our nation. We live each day at its fullest because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. What happened to Grace and me was unique, to have a husband and wife go through the same tragic events.
We both spend our time with our children Michael and Alicia and our grandchildren Allura and Joel, and how could I forget we also have Miles our dog. I started to paint in oil; this helps me get my mine off of things and to focus on beautiful things. We also gained a new family of injured survivors of 9/11/2001. We spend time together and support each other.
Union Beach couple deals with physical, emotional pain of Trade Center attacks
Eddie and Grace Rivera, who managed to escape the World Trade Center attack of Sept. 11 before the towers crashed to the ground, must wear special pressurized suits under their clothing to help their burned skin to heal.
By Eddie Rivera
By Eddie Rivera
Eddie and Grace today