The horrific events that unfolded on Sept. 11, 2001 are never far from Bay Ridge resident Vanessa Sierra’s mind as she goes about her daily life.
“It feels like yesterday to me,” she told this newspaper on Monday, the day before the 17th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
Sierra was a 24-year-old employee settling trades for a financial firm called Instinet and was working in her company’s offices on the 13th floor in the North Tower when the terrorist attack took place.
She made it out of the building alive and eventually went on with her life. But she still thinks about that terrible day. “I don’t let it get in the way. But it’s there,” she said.
Sierra, who is now 41 years old and the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, has been dogged by respiratory problems for the past 17 years that she said can be traced back to the fact that she was at the World Trade Center that day.
She breathed in smoke from the fire and jet fumes from the plane and had to run for her life when the Twin Towers collapsed, releasing toxic dust into the air.
Sierra is seeking health care coverage and compensation from the federal Victims Compensation Fund and has hired lawyer Michael Barasch to represent her. Her case is pending.
The Victims Compensation Fund was established as part of the federal James Zadroga 9-11 Health and Compensation Act.
For the past 17 years, Sierra has had to deal with PTSD, breathing problems and a persistent cough that are affecting her life.
“Things are going on with my breathing and I never smoked cigarettes in my life,” she told this newspaper. She currently works as an executive assistant at another financial firm.
Barasch has represented more than 11,000 9/11 first responders and survivors and is urging victims to come forward before the Zadroga Act’s deadline arrives.
To be eligible for compensation, a person must first be certified by the WTC Health Program and be registered for the Victims Compensation Fund by Dec. 18, 2020.
Many 9/11 survivors are unaware that they are eligible for free health screenings and financial compensation, according to Barasch.
“This is a growing and serious health epidemic and it is so important for anyone who lived, worked or spent time in that area to understand the importance of receiving free health care and compensation. Federal programs are in place for their well-being,” he said in a statement.
It did not occur to Sierra that she might be eligible for assistance until last year, when she went to the doctor for her respiratory problems and persistent cough. She also has sleep apnea.
“For 16 years, I just lived with it. But last year, for peace of mind, I decided to get myself checked out,” she said. “I was hoping that everything would be fine. But everything is not fine.”
Still, Sierra said she’s grateful to be alive.
When the first hijacker struck the North Tower, the entire building shook, Sierra recalled. “The building shook so terribly, I dived under my desk,” she said.
She was convinced she was going to die. “It felt like an earthquake or an avalanche. There were co-workers who were knocked out of their seats,” she said. “Smoke was pouring into the office. I felt like we were suffocating.”
She started going down the stairs to try to escape. She got as far as the eighth floor when she hit a logjam of people who were telling each other that there was no way out. Heartbroken and terrified, she headed back to her office on the 13th floor.
Within a few minutes, firefighters arrived and got Sierra out.
“I was very lucky,” she said.
The sights and sounds of that day are still with her. On her way out, she saw the remains of a person who had been burned beyond recognition. “You couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman,” she recalled.
When she got down to the lobby, marble was falling to the floor. Water was pouring down on her as if it were raining. “The sprinkler systems had been turned on,” she said. It was also dark.
Sierra made her way to the Brooklyn Bridge where she saw some of her co-workers from Instinet. There were lots of hugs and tears. “I didn’t want to walk home over the bridge because I thought it would be a target,” she said.
Instead, she stayed overnight in a colleague’s Manhattan apartment.
The next day, she started picking up the pieces of her life.