OCTOBER 2002

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French Businessman Publishes His Story Of Surviving 9/11 Nightmare
From France-Amérique
By Jean-Louis Turlin

World Trade Center, 47th Floor: The title seems to say it all. But it is just the starting point to French businessman Bruno Dellinger’s own September 11th "survival story."

After the first suicide plane hit the North Tower–the first tower to be hit but the second to fall–Dellinger, not realizing the urgency of leaving quickly, calmly tidied up his office on the 47th floor, locked the door behind him, and made his way down the steps and outside the building. He escaped from being crushed by the falling tower by only a few seconds.

The psychological survival took longer: "The nightmares didn’t stop until I finished the process of writing my book," he told Figaro-France-Amérique one year after the catastrophe.

The work was all the more therapeutic for the forty-something founder of a financial advice company because it gave expression to a latent calling to write. Despite his career in business, Wall Street hasn’t quenched the artistic sensibility of this art lover who also serves as the New York agent of several young artists and who, before his life was turned upside down, had dabbled at novel writing.

Dellinger has been able to heal a great deal from the traumatic events of September 11 by putting on paper his conscious and repressed feelings in the same way others do by while stretching out on the couch of a psychotherapist. Beginning the work wasn’t easy: it took him six months to begin to write about the reality "which one must confront if one is to move beyond."

When he took up the pen in April, Dellinger says that he didn’t remember "anything anymore . . . I could only imagine what the noise of the towers falling down was like by comparing it to the sounds of everyday life. For example, the sound of police sirens on Madison Avenue one day made me hear the alarms again in the emergency stairwell that I used to evacuate my tower."

Dellinger recounted dozens of times, to satisfy requests from the media and because he had "a need to speak", the several hours that turned his world upside down. But it wasn’t until later, when he began to detachedly organize the events of that day, that he began to overcome them.

One paragraph puts the reader into the reality of Dellinger and his three employees at the moment the first plane hit. "Suddenly, I hear the rumble of the airplane engine coming full speed towards us. I don’t understand immediately, I pick my head up from my computer. Barely have I looked through the windows when an incredibly violent impact shakes the building.

"One second, two seconds: the wave of shock descends on the upper floors, the tower oscillates with extreme violence, tables turn over, a marble statue about to fall, my chair rolls forward and then back on the floor.

"Three seconds: behind the windows, an endless flood of airplane parts, steel supports, aluminum, glass, debris, kerosene, fire, bodies maybe, tumbles down before our petrified eyes."

However, Dellinger didn’t fully grasp the seriousness of the situation. He "tidied up" before leaving his office and walking to the central stairwell: "The people with burns coming down the steps don’t give me the slightest idea of the horror which is going on seventy floors higher. Or maybe I just don’t want to realize it?"

It was only when he came out of the building and onto the street where he could see the spectacle of devastation above and his building "asphyxiated" by "sinister spirals" that he actually realized what had happened.

In the following few seconds, the South tower fell and Dellinger saw "a gigantic rolling pin rush down on me below." He was only able to escape by seeking refuge under the cover of an ATM machine in front of a nearby bank.

Before the saving hand of an FBI agent brought him to safety, under the gray-black cloud which came down with the tower, "the day has crumbled in on itself; there is no more sound, no more air. My lungs are going to implode. I am still conscious but the evil is done: I have received the kiss of death. My unconscious is certain of it: this time I am dead." This is what he thought until the brutal return of physical sensations.

"The dust came all the way into my eyelids. There was dust in my mouth, nose, lungs, and under my teeth, which creaked with it . . . "

The rest of the book is a detailed description of the slow return to life: the long walk to the apartment, unreal and reassuring at the same time, frustrating attempts to make contact with his wife who had left for Chicago and was unable to find out the status of her husband, the first contact with relatives who called desperately from France, and even on that first day, the refuge in action to forget the shock: that first afternoon "I made my first phone calls to find another office," Dellinger explains.

Finding a new locale for his company, which was a real obstacle course, brings the reader into the labyrinth of emotions of a person oscillating between hyperactivity and depression, between a thirst to live and questions about the meaning of an existence turned upside down.

One year later, Dellinger’s life is back to normal, and yet he is another man, transformed like the World Trade Center itself: "The very foundations of my life were shaken. The World Trade Center was one of the solid things which I could count on. The loss I feel is something I will never be able to get rid of. I have to learn to live without it and writing the book has helped me a great deal to do this."

The terrible experience was itself an education: "Two weeks after the tragedy we began again to work again as best we could. Human nature is extraordinary. I don’t consider myself a hero but I found in myself unexpected strengths. The formidable power of adaptation is what New York and America have taught me."

Dellinger is today torn between the happiness of being alive and a vague, unspoken feeling of guilt for having survived . His book aims to be a "witness" before any consideration of profit: "I won’t publicize this book, which is for me a literary work on the suffering of a man, a woman, and a team of employees in a situation which surpasses understanding and which is larger than life itself." Perhaps never before has an American historical experience been so faithfully rendered by a French eyewitness.

Translated From France by Brian and Christelle Beard

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