There are a handful of moments in history that stand out to the point where we remember exactly where we were when they happened. Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, the moon landing, and the Challenger space shuttle explosion are a few that come to mind. More recent are the events of September 11, 2001 in which thousands of Americans lost their lives from terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC. Almost all of us who were around and watched the live news coverage of the World Trade Center towers as they fell into clouds of dust can relive the day as if it just happened. Fifteen years later, Rockwall resident Samantha Horwitz still relives those moments more intensely than most–Because she was there.
Sam was on her first assignment with the U.S. Secret Service in New York. Working with the electronic crimes task force, her office was in the 7 World Trade Center Building. On the morning of September 11, 2001, she was in an elevator ascending from the underground parking facility to the plaza level on her way into the office when the first plane hit the north tower. “The lights flickered, the car shook, then shot upwards several feet and stopped. As the doors opened, we were met with this blast of hot, dusty air which literally blew us backward.” She could see debris falling all around, and her first thought was “bomb!” Immediately, instinct developed by years of training kicked in, telling her to help whomever she could and get out of the building.
“When we got outside it was like being in some kind of surround-sound movie theater. The senses were bombarded with sights and sounds. It was so loud you just wanted to put your hands over your ears. Debris was everywhere. Paper swirling all around. Falling pieces of concrete and metal. Pieces of…people. My first thought as a law enforcement officer was, Where’s the bad guy? I’m armed and ready. Who do I go after?”
Dodging the debris as best she could, Sam sought shelter from any available overhang. She eventually managed to unite with members of her squad, who helped her evacuate her building and get as many people as possible away to what they figured would be a safe distance. “The whole time we still had no idea what had happened. We were too close to the building to see anything. When the second plane hit, we couldn’t see the south tower. We just heard the explosion. All we knew was, it was time to get as far away from there as we could.”
Then she noticed the shadows. Fleeting images flashing downward. One of her fellow agents finally realized what they were. “Bodies. They just kept coming and coming. We could feel them hit the ground. How bad must it have been up there for someone to make that kind of choice? The images are seared in my mind forever.”
They managed to get to a school ball field a few blocks away. As the towers came down one after the other, the group set up a makeshift triage unit to help any victims who might need it. “Nobody came. There was no one to save.” Eventually they made their way to the waterfront where a ferry had been dispatched by the New Jersey field office to get them home.
Sam was safe, but the nightmare was far from over. Signs of post traumatic stress began to appear almost immediately. Sleeplessness, anxiety attacks, recurring nightmares and a developing alcohol dependency eventually led to her resignation from the Secret Service along with seven of her teammates. “That was unheard of. Nobody quits the Service. But I just found it hard to even get out of bed in the morning, let alone do the job. I knew it was PTS. I just didn’t know how to fix it.” Things went from bad to worse, to the point of a suicide attempt, from which she was brought back by an inner voice telling her it was not her time to go. What it was time to do was to use her experience to help others in the same situation.
There is a lot more to Samantha’s story of descent and redemption. After several years of seeking and finally getting the help she needed, Samantha feels she has found the purpose that her inner voice had been guiding her toward during those dark days. Her outreach program, Heroes for Healing, is dedicated to helping veterans and first responders suffering from post traumatic stress. She refrains from using the term “disorder” with its negative connotation. “It’s more of an occupational hazard, an on-the-job injury,” deserving of the same level of care one would receive for a physical wound.
She has finished writing her memoir entitled The Silent Fall: A Secret Service Agent’s Story of Tragedy and Triumph After 9/11, available on Amazon.
Story by Bob Lewis
Photos courtesy of Samantha Horwitz and Amazon.com.
Web site: courageaboveall.com/