September 11, 2001 will forever hold a place in our memories. Where we were, what we were doing, the way we felt as we watched in horror. Many who weren’t even involved directly, still experienced emotional trauma that day.
On this episode of Calm, Cool and Connected Dr. Fedrick is joined by Kayla Bergeron. Kayla was working for the Port Authority and was at her desk on the 68th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the building was struck by terrorists. This episode may contain material that will be triggering to some.
Key Takeaways from Liz’s 1-on-1 with Kayla:
• Hear Kayla’s incredible story from September 11, 2001
• Learn when Kayla became aware that she had a problem, post 9/11
• Find out how Kayla finally received her PTSD diagnosis
• Discover how Kayla is now working as a mental health advocate, and using her experience for good
All of this and more, on this episode of Calm, Cool and Connected.
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DISCLAIMER: THE CONSULTATIONS OR INTERACTIONS OFFERED ARE NOT MENTAL HEALTH THERAPY. THE CONSULTATION IS FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND NOT STRUCTURED IN A WAY TO PROVIDE MENTAL HEALTH COUNSELING/PSYCHOTHERAPY/THERAPY/ DIAGNOSING OF ANY KIND. YOU UNDERSTAND THAT CALM COOL AND CONNECTED IS NOT PROVIDING INFORMATION AS YOUR TREATING MENTAL HEALTH COUNSELOR, PHYSICIAN, ATTORNEY, LEGAL COUNSEL, EMPLOYER, MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL. We offer no guarantees or promise of results from event nor assume liability for any information provided.
Dr. Liz: Hello and welcome to calm, cooling, connected. I'm your host, Dr.
Elizabeth Fedrick. Our next guest has an incredibly inspirational story about her experience on September 11th, 2001. Kayla Bergeron worked as the director of public affairs for the port authority of New York and New Jersey. The largest transportation agency in the country. And on September 11th, 2001, she was at her desk on the 68th floor of the north tower of the world trade center.
When the [00:01:00] building was struck by terrorists, Kayla's here to share with us about this horrific experience and how she's used it for good and used it really for mental health advocacy and what she's doing with that platform. So, hi, Kayla, welcome to
Kayla: our show. Thank you so much. This is such an important issue.
grateful for the opportunity. Oh,
Dr. Liz: we're so grateful to have you here. This is such an incredible story that you have and, so much trauma wrapped in it, but what is so inspirational to me and to the team at calm cool and connected is how you've really used it for advocacy purposes.
And so we're so grateful and have so much respect for that. Let's jump into you sharing with us. Kind of take us to the beginning of that experience and share with us your story of what took place on that
Kayla: day. Okay, thank you. On September 10th, 2001, I was at JFK airport with my boss who was executive director of the port authority.
We were with the New York times talking about redevelopment plans [00:02:00] at the airport. I rode back with him into the city and he dropped me off and my last words were him. You know, what am I gonna do tonight? Either watch TV, chill, go out or just go to the. Last words or go to the gym. That's the last time I saw him the next day I'm sitting at my desk getting ready for a meeting and all of a sudden the building lunges forward about 10 feet, but then it comes back and then outta my window, my beautiful window view of the statue of Liberty.
It was as if somebody on the hundred seventh floor was emptying. All the files and stuff, paper was flying left and right. And I thought perhaps a small plane must have veered off course. I called both governor's offices to say something's going on? I'll be in touch. Meanwhile, trying to reach my boss, you 11, who had seen the day before he was at [00:03:00] windows on the world on the hundred seventh floor.
Oh, wow. He had, he had no chance. He had no chance. I found that a few, few days later after the search. So we have our business continuity plan. I sent my team to the Marriott, which was on the Plaza of the world trade center. And I said, set up the phone lines, take our business continuity plan, pencils, everything we needed.
And a little while later I texted him. Those were the Blackberry days. I texted him. I said, okay, is everything set up? It turns out they were only 10 floors below. And I thought something was up at that point because they should have been there at the Marriot. So security guard comes up and says, your life is in danger.
Your life is in danger. So I walk the floor to make sure no one else was there. And I said, . let me go turn off my computer. And grabbed my purse and my briefcase again, not knowing. [00:04:00] So I get into the the stairwell. Everything is calm because after the 1993 oral trades center bombing, we did countless drills.
And one of the things that came out of that was we had this reflective tapes. All we had to do was stay on the line as. Policemen came down and firefighters went up with all their equipment. So, but things are calm. Things are calm until we get to let's see the 20th floor. I see a friend from our aviation department.
Meanwhile, I get a story on my Blackberry that says terrorist attack the world trade center. Now I didn't wanna cause panic, but I showed my friend. I said, look at this and don't say anything. she looked at it. I looked at her and I'm like, let's get this line moving. Let's get this line moving. So again, were
Dr. Liz: you trailing with a, a group at that point?
Down the stairs? Yeah. Okay. So there was a whole group of you going down. Yeah. Whole group
Kayla: from all from all the different floors and different businesses, but [00:05:00] primarily the port authority, which built the world trade center. Okay. Everything is fine until we get to the sixth floor. That's when the south tower.
Imploded and our building twisted and we were trapped. We were trapped. Oh my goodness. For about 30 minutes, the lights went out, the chiller that keeps the air conditioner cold. All this water came rushing down. And so we couldn't see. And all these pipes burst with water everywhere. And so that's the moment.
that's the moment. You don't know what your fate is, but you accept it.
Dr. Liz: Yeah. Yes. And so, as you, you are in the stairwell full of people, full of water, no lights. And what is your internal experience at that point? What are you going into paralysis? Are you panicking? What, what are you feeling at that
Well, all along my job was to deal with the [00:06:00] news media and elected officials. What helped me the fight or flight was to stay in the work mode. I had sent people to our police station right outside the Holland tunnel in New Jersey. So I was setting up the continuity plan. So I that's where I was. So I didn't really consider.
I was very calm at the moment. Wow. Then all of a sudden, boom, a poor authority police officer appears a floor ahead of us. He said, come up, come up. Now, the last thing we wanted to do was come up because the other building came down. Sure. But there was no other option. Hmm. So we went up, we walked through, we walked through a different offices and a lot of women had taken off the pumps.
And. Wound up walking through shards of glass. And there were wires hanging. There was white sod everywhere. Everything had been crushed, so to speak, [00:07:00] but we get to the other stairwell. We're going down. There are little groups. We went, they grouped us in like three or four because the water over there was going down.
So. They didn't want anyone to be kind of swept up or pushed down. And so in my group, we're going down, we're going down and all of a sudden we see white. And so I think that's the sky and we're out of there, but it turns out we were in the lobby of the world trade center and everything was white. It was as if there was a massive snowstorm.
So all the walls. And the ceiling, it was white, so, oh, wow. So we're still not out. And I'm in a little group of three and we don't see anybody and we don't even see, and we don't even see a way out. So people I was with started to scream. I said, don't scream because there's stuff coming [00:08:00] down. I said, let's look the footprint.
No footprints. So then I said, okay, it's time to screen. Oh. And then there was a light, we saw a light and somebody was in a Bullhorn and they said, if you see the light follow the light. So they took us through we went through a door that was covered and stood and we came out on the side of the world trade center Plaza.
And it looked like war, war. Oh my goodness. Just all of the, the damage, the damage, all the destruction. Yes. Yeah. And my pump got caught. They had to help me with my shoe. We still weren't outta danger yet because we, we still weren't on street level. So we walked around and we came to a stairwell, which is actually in the museum.
We call it the freedom, stairwell, 30 tons of concrete that really [00:09:00] saved our life. That's what got us to safety. And ironically it was at Vizi and church. Church street. Wow. So we get we're down, we're breathing. And all of a sudden the police officer says run run. We spent 45 minutes in the stairwell walking down 68 flights of stairs.
So I turned around and here comes the tower imploding with black, everywhere, engulfing, lower Manhattan. So. I ran as fast as I could, 16 blocks in my pumps. I was
Dr. Liz: just gonna ask if you took them off at that point, you still have 'em on no
Kayla: way hanging on 'em that's the fastest I've ever run in my life. And when the, when the cloud came, I dove under a car dove under a car.
Many people did that. when it cleared, I got up and I [00:10:00] was trying to think of what is the next thing to do. So I texted my staff and the senior staff. I said, we're going to New Jersey to our police headquarters, just on the, on the other side of the, how tunnel
I waved down port authority police because Howen tunnel was another port authority facility. So he drove us to the police headquarters and I'm looking, I'm looking for the leadership of the police. I'm looking for the executive director and the senior staff.
And I said, where is Fred Marone? The superintendent of the police. I went down the rank. and there was silence, as it turned out, there was a conference for the police department and they were on one of the floors and they tried to go up to the hundred seventh floor and rescue our executive director.
They were all lost. Did not survive that 33. And so The CEO, Ernesto butcher gets there [00:11:00]and he is just covered and sued. He was at the Marriott where I sent people and the guilt of sending staff there and having the, the roof come down I'm still dealing with that cause I could have sent them to their death, but I was following the procedure from the last time.
Absolutely. So he said. Kayla need your help. Now I'm trying to set up communication. For the world, obviously the website was gone, trying to come up with a plan and he says, Kayla the human resources people hadn't gotten there. He said, we need to find out who's dead and who's alive, which was a daunting task.
And so I called a friend. I didn't know if she was alive or. Turns out. She was on the last train from New Jersey to New York that had been stopped. So I called her Norma, Norma, Kayla Kayla said, I need your help. She comes in and they set up an Excel [00:12:00] spreadsheet and we set up a vanilla website for port authority, employees needing to know what to report call here.
And every time they call in clap, clap, clap. Then we set up another phone number for families who hadn't heard from their loved one. So that was a, that was a tough task. And basically I called both governor's offices. I said, I'm gonna need public information officers probably for three or four months.
They sent them over. Basically what we did for months is to work around the clock. We went from rescue to recovery. I went to over 30 funerals to the nine 11 commissioned hearings, which was rough families who had lost their loved ones, told us port authority, you killed my son. You killed my daughter.
You should be lucky to be alive. Oh
Dr. Liz: my goodness. So the trauma that is so wrapped up in this event is so complex for you. I mean, so complex for anyone who went through this [00:13:00] experience, of course, but you. Extremely different role than a lot of people who went through this experience. Tell me about some of that from a trauma perspective, really from a post traumatic stress disorder perspective, how quickly did those symptoms kick in for you and how quickly did you seek help?
Tell me about how that kind of, and it sounds like you were in so much of a fight or flight response and you were in so much of a survival mode and I just have to help everyone. But I wonder if that kind of delayed the onset of some of these symptoms. Can you tell us about that
Kayla: perhaps? I just kept working work and working, working, working, because then we had to go into the rebuilding and that was complex because there were so many opinions build the towers, don't build the towers.
Wow. And so really for me, I left the port authority in 2000. Not because of nine 11, but I'd been offered an incredible job in Florida to work an for [00:14:00] an agency that restores the evades. That was a wonderful job. Oh yes.
Dr. Liz: I'm sure. Quite the relief
Kayla: after all of that. So I'm having the job, another dream job.
Then the economy WANs, the housing bust and I'm laid off along with 179 colleagues. So what happened was. I didn't intentionally, but when I had the downtime, I started to drink and I, you know, I wasn't cognizant I was living alone. I had friends, I would go out, but I had DUI. And so I went through the program.
Meanwhile, my mom is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. She's in Georgia, my brother, who is a Katrina survivor. Night of a heart attack at 45 years old. So there was a lot going on, but even though I went through the DUI process, I didn't put two and two together be, and I'm angry at myself because [00:15:00] PTSD, when we think about it, we think, or I think about it.
I think about the veteran. I wasn't a veteran. I think of the first responders. I didn't fit in that category and I wasn't a victim of domestic violence, so it didn't occur to me. And the stuff you see on TV, you know, you have a little bubble with memories and stuff like that. It didn't look like that. So fast forward a few years later after my mom dies, I come to Georgia to help my dad and DUI number two.
So I come into a. A little program in the little county called the foresight county accountability court. And what was interesting and unusual is they have a treatment component. In other words, it's not jail and it's just not drug screens. It was, I had a dual diagnosis program and that's really where I got the diagnosis, which was lifesaving.
But again, I wish I wish I wish [00:16:00] I knew. Earlier. I mean, because 17 years later I don't know if I could have done anything sooner. You know, I keep searching my mind, searching my mind, and I know I can't go back. It's about going forward and, and, and managing the PTSD and the anxiety and recovery from substance.
Dr. Liz: Yes. Yes. And that's exactly, I mean, what you're describing that is exactly what I was thinking in terms of you kept yourself so busy that it was, it was hard to stop and really feel what was going on, acknowledge what was going on, which is so common with posttraumatic stress disorder or a lot of mental illness.
It's so easy to try to numb that out, to try to distract from it. And so. Instead of getting treatment, we just keep scrambling to try to get it to go away without the proper help. And so sounds like it was years before you really received the help that you needed. Tell me, how has that influenced you are now a mental health advocate and working really to end the [00:17:00] stigma around mental health.
How has your experience influenced your advocacy
Kayla: work? Well, let me just say this. One of the reasons I speak out is because I was SU civilian on September 11, you had the first responders, you had the families of the loved ones, and then you had people like me, who. We're left in the shadows and thank God I got help.
But there are hundreds of people walking around with mental health and substance abuse problems and the, the world trade center, the Congress has failed. These folks, people think that, you know, we all got money and stuff and that's not what it's about, but that's not true. And so that's what I worry about.
Actually, here in Georgia, I met two people right around in this area. One was a police officer. He has PTSD, but he is a tough guy. He's a cop, but I met another guy recently and he tells he was on the 20th floor of the [00:18:00] south tower. You could see the look in his eyes. And I, he said, oh, my my experience was real different than yours.
I said, no, it wasn't. And I said, well, how are you dealing with it? His answer was, I started toys for touch to help the community. So folks like that are just everywhere and there's no help for 'em. So. Thank goodness for me for the resources and this small accountability cord is really what saved my life.
Wow. That is so
Dr. Liz: amazing. I, again, have so much respect for the way that you're using this experience to advocate and to help these other individuals who, as you're describing, maybe don't even have awareness around these post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. And that is so incredible that you are putting in those efforts to.
Normalize bring relatability to it and really encouraging them to get help. Kayla, we really appreciate you being here today, taking the time to [00:19:00] speak with us. It's really been an honor speaking with you today. Thank you so much.
Kayla: Thank you for the forum. We gotta end the stigma. I absolutely
Dr. Liz: agree. Thank you.
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