Twenty years ago, Steve Silva of La Puente had a day that was so frightening, he’ll likely never be the same.
It was 9/11, and he was there: descending the stairs around the 44th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower when a hijacked plane slammed into it at 9:03 a.m., 17 minutes after a plane smacked into the North Tower.
Nearly 3,000 were killed in the attacks that day.
Silva is around to talk about it, but the emotional constitution of the 1992 Nogales High and UC Berkeley graduate took a hit of its own.
“I went to see a psychologist a couple of weeks after the event, and I’ve been going on and off since, just to kind of maintain myself, just to have someone to talk to about it,” Silva said.
It’s more than that, though. Silva has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I had all the symptoms. I couldn’t sleep; I didn’t want to eat; I had nightmares; I was hyper-aware of being near tall building or bridges or just anything where I figured might be dangerous. I had anxiety. It was bad in the first several years.
“It’s gotten a lot better.”
He recalls going to Los Angeles not long after returning from New York.
“The first several years were kind of weird,” Silva said. “When I would go to downtown L.A. just after I came back from New York — because I was only there on a business trip — just driving through L.A. would kind of make me dizzy when I’d start looking at the tall buildings. It just kind of threw me off.”
Silva gets the same feeling around this time of year.
His cross to bear
“It’s like clockwork from around mid-August to literally the stroke of midnight on Sept. 11. I just feel like this heaviness,” Silva, 47, said in somber tones.
Then it goes away.
“It’s the weirdest thing, as soon as midnight hits and it’s Sept. 12, I feel well,” Silva said. “But during that two-, three-week period, I just feel this heaviness.”
He tries not to think about it, but …
“It’s like, OK, it’s there, and it’s a big event, and people are going to talk about it. They’re going to want to hear me talk about it, and I’m going to have to bring up these memories again,” he said.
“Every year it’s kind of like picking this wound again, and it kind of never heals because every year I’m kind of picking it open again. I feel like that’s just kind of my burden, my cross to bear. It chose me.”
But death did not.
A decision made in a stairwell
A financial adviser, Silva was in New York for a training session on the 61st floor for Morgan Stanley, his employer at the time. After the first plane hit the North Tower, he made his descent. At the 45th floor, a voice on a loudspeaker announced information about the North Tower but said the South Tower was secure.
Silva said that while some began going back up the stairs, something told him that was a bad idea.
“I think maybe it was just a survivor’s instinct because I was in that stairwell,” he said. “I was the dividing point. The people in front of me went down to leave the building and a couple of people behind me went back up to their offices.”
The plane crashed into floors 77 through 85. By that time, he was on the 44th, on his way to survival.
Does he consider himself lucky to be alive? He thought about that a lot the first few years.
“Every once in a while, you know?” Silva said. “I don’t think about that all day. It’s mostly just, you know, that thought would come maybe once or twice a day.”
When Silva was asked if there is one thing about that day that sticks out more than everything else, his reply was telling.
“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” he said. “It was the moment of impact when the second plane hit my tower. I was on the 44th floor when the plane hit and just the loud boom, that’s what I remember the most. Just the explosion, the boom from the plane hitting my building.”
A brother’s perspective
Silva comes from a family of five brothers, two sisters; he’s the youngest brother. His brother, Ricardo, speaks caringly about Steve’s plight. That came through when he was asked how he believes he is doing psychologically.
“It’s an interesting question because my brother never came home,” Ricardo Silva said. “I remember my brother before he was out there, and the same guy didn’t come back. That always was apparent to me. I don’t know if it was apparent to the rest of the family, but to me, how can a person come back the same after something like that?
“I mean, he told us all (that) he laid there and waited to die.”
Ricardo Silva is concerned about his brother “all the time.” His brother can lean on him, and he knows it. “There’s times he comes over to the house because he just wants to hang out, and I know what’s going on.
“I open my doors to him and let him in, and we’ll sit there, and we’ll watch anything that’s on TV just to help ease his mind off things.”
Ricardo Silva said it’s frustrating because his brother is battling his demons on his own. His only help is his family and his psychologist. He also said that there is always so much talk about the first responders, but little is ever said about the survivors from the towers.
Ricardo Silva is also still upset that Morgan Stanley did not treat his brother well after he returned to work at the San Francisco office.
Indeed, Steve Silva worked about another five months for Morgan Stanley, then was fired for lack of production.
“I wasn’t producing, which was impossible after having gone through what I did,” Steve Silva said. “I had PTSD, I couldn’t sleep. When I would sleep I didn’t want to wake up.”
Steve Silva has since worked for Washington Mutual/Chase, Merrill Lynch, MassMutual and Prudential, which not long ago closed an office during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in Silva today being an independent financial adviser.
APU psychologist chimes in
Samuel Girguis is the director of the Doctor of Psychology and Clinical Psychology Program at Azusa Pacific University. He spoke of the history of PTSD.
“It first came out of world wars, and so the original understanding of PTSD was all about an individual in a life-threatening situation who survives it and yet continually is triggered by reminders of it, to go back to that place and feel unsafe again,” he said.
It’s more than that, though.
“What is missing from the PTSD diagnosis is some of the existential elements,” Girguis said. “And so survivor guilt is this very real phenomenon that asks the question, why them and not me? Why my loved one and not me? Why that other person who had to experience it, why am I somehow left to live?”
Girguis doesn’t know Steve Silva but said his symptoms — including the way he feels when 9/11 approaches, as well as what being around tall buildings does to him — are classic “trauma reminders.”
“All of that takes him back there. So those are definitely both psychological and physiological responses,” Girguis said. “We call them traumatic stress reactions.”
Generally speaking, Girguis believes someone can get back to where they were under these circumstances.
“This is what makes therapy so effective, is that opportunity for someone to be able to sit down and identify the biological, psychological, social, spiritual impact of whatever they’ve experienced and to move forward,” he said. “I am an optimist. I’ve seen people move on from really incredibly difficult things.“
20 years after 9/11: Will we ever stop taking our shoes off at airports?
Biden to mark 20th anniversary of 9/11 at 3 memorial sites
Children make up more than a quarter of the weekly US COVID-19 cases
US airstrike targets Islamic State member in Afghanistan
Biden orders review, potential release of Sept. 11 documents
More Sept. 11 coverage
“Not a day goes by where it’s not just kind of there.” He said he has learned to live with it. “And I’ve kind of accepted that’s how it is,” he said.
The effect has been profound.
“It changed me in a way that it made me at least a more serious person,” Steve Silva said. “It made me more aware of how fragile things are, how worldwide, things just aren’t as stable as people think they are.”