Why I Will Always Remember 9/11
Summer 2021 | By Christine Mouton ’98 ’01MS
9/11. The day 20 years ago this September that changed my life forever. My experience working in nearby New Jersey after that event taught me a lifelong lesson in the capacity to give unconditionally.
That morning, as I was preparing for a meeting of crisis responders in Titusville, Florida, someone rushed into the room and said to turn on the TV. We watched in horror as the World Trade Center’s twin towers burned and collapsed, and everyone around that table knew we would be supporting the recovery effort in the days, weeks and months ahead.
At the time, I worked for State Attorney Norman Wolfinger but was also a trained volunteer for the Florida Crisis Response Team, a nonprofit that provides crisis intervention to trauma victims of both mass casualities and natural disasters.
Our team director, also a board member of the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA), deployed immediately while those of us left at the table developed a plan of action. During the next few months, many of us would deploy to New York or New Jersey as part of the NOVA Crisis Response Team to support those who had lost family members, co-workers, friends — and those who had narrowly survived.
As all planes were temporarily grounded, five of us drove to New Jersey in a minivan, where we worked in the New Jersey Family Assistance Center, a multi-agency, one-stop location that was set up to assist survivors of 9/11 who were Garden State residents.
We were strangers at the start of our journey, but by the time we completed our two-week rotation and returned to Orlando we were friends for life, having shared an experience no one would understand if they had not been there.
During those two weeks, we provided counseling support, served meals, processed expedited death certificates, and helped pay bills with funds provided by government agencies and nonprofit organizations, such as the Red Cross.
We worked 14-hour days with barely any time to reflect or sleep, before starting again the next day in the mammoth task of trying to help others understand how to move forward after such personal and community devastation.
Through it all, we listened to the stories shared by victims and survivors: A family who fled unspeakable horrors in their former country only to have two children die from gun violence and to receive a call from their only remaining child, who was trapped behind the wing of one of the airplanes, right before the building collapsed with her in it. The father who blamed himself for the loss of family members he had recruited to join him at the company in the tower where he worked. The wife who never had to personally put gas in her car, who lost the husband who took pride in taking care of her. The parents who struggled to put their child through college, only to lose him as the towers crumbled. The police officer who stood on a street corner for two weeks honoring those in his law enforcement and firefighting family who were lost in the towers. He stood there working stoically every day, being rained on by granite dust falling all around as the debris-removal trucks lumbered by with gigantic steel beams crushed like tissue paper.
Every person who came to the New Jersey center came in defeated but left with hope. As they left, we shared parting hugs and made sure they received support that continued in the months that followed. Some came back just to reconnect, share another story about their loved ones and to feel supported by complete strangers during this overwhelming moment.
By the time we started our long drive back to Orlando, I was emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Returning to a more normal life required some reflection and integration of those experiences in my life.
It made me realize that we all respond to traumatic events in different ways, and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve or memorialize the deceased.
I will always remember the lesson that sometimes just being present without saying or doing anything can provide its own sense of comfort. Those in mourning and experiencing grief often just need to share their personal memories with someone willing to listen. I remember each recollection like it was just yesterday.
I will always remember my team members, but every 9/11, I recall how we supported the victims and each other. Some team members were stronger than they thought possible; others struggled for a long time after we returned.
This response had such an impact on my life that I have spent a significant part of my career involved in both planning for and responding to mass casualty events.
Today, every time I respond, I remember the lessons I learned from 9/11 — and again feel immense privilege to share time and space supporting victims and survivors.
Christine Mouton ’98 ’01MS is the director of victim services at UCF. In addition to 9/11, she has responded to the Las Vegas shooting and coordinated the initial advocacy response after the Pulse nightclub shooting.