The Red Bag: The Morning the Planes Hit the Twin Towers by Paige Valdiserri
The morning the planes hit the Twin Towers, a feeling of ‘pang’ came over me as I opened the refrigerator where I had been living in the outskirts of Philadelphia. I wasn’t sure what the pang meant, but I knew it wasn’t good. A few minutes later the confusion of the first plane’s crash into the Twin Towers hit the news. It was first reported as an accident but deep in my gut I knew otherwise. Minutes later as the second plane hit the other Tower, our nation’s deepest fears were confirmed—we were under attack.
I began urgently calling my friends and loved ones as I drove to Delaware, where I worked as a trauma therapist. Were they safe? Were their families safe?
When I walked into work, I was hit by the chaotic buzz of fear, panic, and sheer disbelief. The need to connect with loved ones was paramount. Once in my office, I began receiving strong messages from deep within: You need to be in New York. It is your time. We’ve been preparing you for this. I had been receiving intuitive messages throughout my whole life. Sometimes they come in the form of dreams, visualizations, a sense of what will happen and clear messages that come through my heart center.Throughout my lifetime I have learned to recognize, listen and trust them, no matter how different or off the beaten path, they may have seemed. They always come from a place of my higher knowing and for my highest good and purpose.
At this point I needed to step outside to get some air. I walked outside of the practice and stood alone on the grass looking up at the sky when I felt a strange pushing motion hitting the back of my heels. I can tell you without a doubt there was no one standing anywhere near me but I kept feeling a sensation as if someone was standing behind me tapping the back of my heels with a foot. As I kept looking back, there was no human in sight. With each tap on my heels, the messages kept coming to me: Don’t stand still. Move forward. Do what you need to do to get to Ground Zero. The heel-kicking kept continuing until I finally relented and listened wholeheartedly to the messages I was being given. I knew I had to go to New York.
These messages were validated by other senior therapists in the practice, especially my mentor, Margie, who felt the same way about my need to go. I had lived, trained and worked with trauma most of my life. It felt second nature to me, so I knew in my gut, Ground Zero was where I needed to be. Although I had a full caseload of clients in Delaware, Margie and the senior therapists understood this need to go and we made it happen. For the next three months, I would commute to New York City during the week for several days at a time as a member of Crisis Care Network to help the healing process begin for those devastated by this tragedy.
For a trip like this, since I had yet to own a suitcase with wheels, my red gym bag, which was more akin to a duffel bag than a suitcase, was the only piece of luggage that would work. When my sister dropped me off at 30th Street Station in Philly, I had no idea how this red bag would transform my life and what it would come to symbolize. Not only did it carry my clothes, toiletries and amenities necessary for the journey, but it also carried my soul’s purpose. It would come to represent the collective experience of all the hope, fear, pain, and loss I would hear from the countless stories of those directly and indirectly affected by this tragedy. It would serve as a repository for all the emotions I would hear from others, as well as become a container for all the emotions I had to process while I did my best to do what therapists do and that is to hold the space for others. Most importantly, because of the mysterious nature in which the red bag was handled, as you will soon read, it would become a message and a sign that I was not operating in this experience, or this lifetime for that matter, by myself. As you will see, I was clearly and undeniably not alone on this journey.
A week later as I prepared for the first of many trips to New York, I remember being overcome by a deep sense of quiet and a feeling that I was being connected to something much larger than myself. As I sat waiting for the train to arrive in 30th Street Station, I felt a sense of excitement as I knew deep in the fibers of my soul this work would tap into my purpose here in this world but I also felt a great level of apprehension and trepidation as I was about to venture into something with a magnitude that neither I nor our entire country had ever experienced. When the train finally arrived, as I reached down to pick up my red bag a gentleman appeared asking if he could carry it for me. Ever since the terrorist attack it seemed as if a wave of compassion had spread throughout the country, which made offers like this seem normal and nothing out of the ordinary. I, of course, accepted the offer and he carried my bag all the way down the steps to the train until I was able to find my seat.
When I arrived a few hours later at Penn Station in New York City, before I had a chance to get off of the train, I was approached by another man who offered to carry my red bag. Once again, I gladly accepted. He carried it from the train to a block beyond the station at which point he placed the bag on the ground and apologized for not being able to carry it further for me as he was going in an opposite direction. I thanked him profusely for his kindness and smiled as I watched him walk away. Not only was I grateful for the help but I enjoyed the conversations I had been able to strike up with both of these men as they both had asked what I was traveling to New York for. Since I still had a few blocks to go, I reached down for my bag but before I had a chance to pick it up, a third gentleman arrived on the scene offering to carry it yet again. By this point, I began to know these encounters were not coincidental. These weren’t just random acts of kindness or chivalry.
Once again, I accepted the offer and he carried my bag several blocks to the lobby of the hotel where I was staying. Just like the previous gentleman, I thanked him and he wished me luck as we parted ways. While checking into the hotel, the bell hop already had my red bag in hand before I could reach for it. Once I got upstairs to my room and began to look out onto the city, the thought occurred to me that not once did I have to carry my red bag during this entire trip. Could this have been the Divine or a Divine Source stepping in knowing I would have more than enough to carry in the next three months?
Before I began my work at Ground Zero, I had a chance to survey the scene with a friend of mine from New Jersey who had been assisting those whose loved ones had died in the attack with their personal death claims. On our way to Ground Zero together, I felt the heaviness, angst and profound stillness of the city. We stopped often at the countless living altars of candles, notes, pictures, and pleads for any information on missing loved ones. These had sprung up throughout the city as a heartbreaking reminder of the pain, toll, and desperation that gripped the city. I assumed Ground Zero would be loud with movement. Instead it was filled with an eerie silence. I remember looking at the remains of the structure, searching for spaces where air could possibly get through in hopes that someone could still be alive. I, too, wanted and needed to believe that life underneath the rubble was still hopeful.
As we took in the hard work of the first responders, a team of eight fatigued firefighters emerged from the rubble. They were surrounded on either side by teams of onlookers, many of whom were clinging to the hope that their loved ones would be found alive. Sadly, it became clear that no such signs were to be found and that they were simply walking back to their firehouses for a long overdue break. As they moved through the tunnel of people, you could hear a pin drop and then all of a sudden the quiet was pierced as we all began to cheer, clap, cry and yell encouraging words of love, support and gratefulness for all they were doing. I noticed many of these men had tears streaming down their faces and appeared hunched over, almost as if they didn’t feel worthy of the appreciation. I found myself wrapped up in a swirl of emotion and so began the many weeks I would be assisting the people of New York. The days ahead would be long, intense, and fulfilling, even spiritual. It was time to do whatever small piece I could to help the city and the people of New York begin the healing process.
After that first day, I eagerly began my work performing critical incident stress debriefings as a Crisis Care Network provider for various groups of people from firms on Wall Street and the surrounding areas. This work entailed working with numerous individuals in various group settings, to process all they had experienced on the day of the attack, the weeks after and how the event was impacting their daily lives. Many of the folks I debriefed had been in direct view of the towers and had actually been able to see the planes hitting the buildings, as well as their eventual collapse. They had also seen the faces of those trapped in the buildings. I heard countless stories of how hopeless and helpless they felt while watching in horror, not knowing if anyone would be able to escape. In those moments, they would not realize the ongoing impact this attack would have on their lives. As someone who has worked with trauma for decades, I can tell you that experiences like these lodge in the body leaving its imprint. For these folks, the impact of this attack and what they witnessed, would bleed out with nightmares, hyper-vigilance, and scenes playing over in their minds like movie clips, sleepless nights, and daily fear that another attack was inevitable. As you can imagine, the impact from these events, not only directly affected those who lost loved ones but also the first responders and therapists, such as myself, who had to battle our own vicarious traumatization from exposure to the horrors of what we were hearing, seeing, and trying to process. This is what I and many other trauma therapists were faced with on a daily basis as we functioned as the ‘hidden figures’ trying to shepherd those through this unfathomable event.
Throughout my three-month journey, I would have several specific incidents that would leave lasting impressions on me. One of them happened to be an experience I had on the subway. One evening after work while traveling on the subway, the fear and anxiety I had been hearing throughout the debriefings was now permeating throughout the city. I had been traveling on the subway when all of a sudden the lights went out and the train came to a screeching halt prior to our stop. You could just feel the fear and anxiety in the air. People began to cry and shout in panic. To compound the situation, our cell phones weren’t able to get service. Trapped in this subterranean cage, I was able to remain calm and did my best to soothe those around me who were in complete panic but the damage had already been done. For a city reeling from the events of the attacks, this was another reminder of how vulnerable we were and served to reinforce our fears that we were under attack again. I can’t tell you how long the train had stopped in that position but when the lights did come back on and the train began to move, the relief was no match for the unbridled fear. When the train arrived at the destination, people ran desperately out to get to daylight where they could begin calling someone to share what had just occurred. Sadly, this had become the new normal for New Yorkers: hypervigilance, startled responses, anxiety, lack of trust and fear of the next attack.
As the weeks and months began to pile up, it became increasingly difficult to tear myself away from Ground Zero, both mentally and physically, to serve my clients back in Delaware. It also became difficult in general to return to normal life back in Philly with friends and family. I had become so entrenched and emotionally invested in my work up in New York that I found it hard to ‘switch off’ and return to the normal existence I had before. This is the essence of what trauma therapists do for their clients – help them re-adjust and re-acclimate to a new normal, although this time the ‘new normal’ had shifted for me as well.
Each time I would return to my hotel which by now had become my second home, I was always greeted with such care, warmth and understanding. I will never forget the kindness the hotel concierge extended to me one evening after work. He had an extra ticket free of charge to the Lion King as Broadway had just reopened. He mentioned how he had seen the long hours I had been putting in taking care of others and wanted to give something back to me in return. I graciously accepted as tears filled my eyes. The Lion King movie had always been one of my favorites. As I walked the quiet streets to the theatre, the significance of the story hadn’t occurred to me. From a cathartic standpoint, I sat crying throughout the entire production watching this beautiful, colorful, and poignant play. Art was imitating life – the cycle of life. And I had been smack dab in the middle of it every day.
Although it was tough to pull myself away from Ground Zero, I reached a point in mid-November when I knew it would be my last. I knew I had to pull back. As exhilarating and personally fulfilling as the work was, I reached a point of mental and physical exhaustion. Every muscle, fiber, and cell in my body was beyond depleted. I needed to take care of myself and literally had nothing left in the tank to give anyone. I had heard every unthinkable traumatic story, shared the space with others in their deepest of grief, held many in my arms as their tears flowed onto my shoulders and continually gave a higher spiritual perspective (when appropriate) of hope and understanding to a situation that felt hopeless and helpless. I had given all I had to everyone who needed me after this horrific and life-changing event. On one hand I was ready to return home but on the other hand I didn’t want to leave. I equate this situation to a soldier returning home from battle because of an injury. Even though he or she is away from the danger, there is still that part of him or her that wants to remain, and feels guilty, for leaving comrades behind. I felt like this as well. Even though my heart was still in New York, I knew I had a responsibility to myself and others to ensure that my mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion didn’t bleed out. It was time for me to step away and begin to recover and process all that I had experienced. That last train ride from New York to Philly would prove to be the longest.
And so my three-month journey of weekly commutes would come to an end. As I looked back, it occurred to me that I NEVER had to physically carry my red bag throughout the journey. Men kept showing up to carry it for me at various times throughout the trip. I’m not sure how to explain it – in a cosmic or spiritual sense it was as if the Universe was supporting me for taking care of others. But just like the trip began, something interesting happened on the way back.
Just like my time in New York, if I wasn’t busy debriefing folks in an official capacity my time was filled with informal conversations as my background and personality lent themselves to any particular situation. It was no different on the train as I could barely find any time for myself to sit quietly and try to process my experience because I had come to know the conductors so well through this three month journey, that they regularly looked forward to talking to me as they were also in need. I arrived in Philly completely wiped out and with almost no energy to make the trek home, let alone carry my red bag. As had happened week after week and month after month, like clockwork another gentleman showed up offering to carry my bag. He carried it off the train until we reached the foot of the escalator, when he realized he had forgotten something and had to leave me with it. To make matters worse, the escalator happened to be broken, which was the first time it had been broken during this entire three-month journey. So there I stood at the bottom of the broken escalator wondering how I would muster up the strength and energy to make it up.
I can’t underscore the significance of that moment. It looked like the steepest, heaviest walk I would ever have to make. In the exhaustion of the moment, the emotions of the three-month journey finally hit me like a ton of bricks and I began to get very emotional. They came over me like a flood. As people walked hurriedly by me to get to the top of the steps, I just stood there with tears streaming down my face immobilized by the emotional toll this experience was taking. The broken escalator symbolized the brokenness of the people I had been helping these past months and in that moment, I, too, felt like one of the broken.
As the train emptied out and all of the folks had made their way from the platform up the broken escalator, I stood there alone staring at my red bag when something hit me. The red bag had become a metaphor for my journey. It contained the memories of everything that had happened to me these last three months from the many emotional debriefings and informal conversations I had with folks along the way to the situation on the subway and the cathartic feeling from watching the Lion King. The red bag became my placeholder for all the emotions I had carried, not only for myself but for those I carried for others. Now I stood there with nothing left to give and in desperate need of a helping hand. In that moment, I felt a hand touch mine, although this was no ordinary hand. It felt different. I can’t explain it. His touch was something I had never felt before from a human hand. He gently took my hand off the strap of my bag and placed it with his, all the while smiling graciously at me without uttering a word. His presence gave me renewed strength to walk up the escalator. Together we made our way to the top as he carried my red bag, tears continuing to stream down my face.
What I remember most vividly about that experience was the feeling of being in a different time and space, perhaps a different realm. I heard nothing around us. I remember trying to say ‘thank you’ several times but nothing came out of my mouth. As we reached the top of the escalator, several things began to happen simultaneously. I saw the gentleman put my bag on the ground and felt him slowly put my hand back on the bag. As I felt his hand leave mine, I raised my head to try once more to say ‘thank you’ but just as softly and mysteriously as he’d arrived, he was gone. If you know anything about 30th Street Station in Philly, no one can disappear that quickly out of sight. Just like that, he had vanished.
As a trauma therapist, I have been ‘carrying the bag’ and ‘holding the space’ for others to work out and make sense of the events in their lives that often challenge the very core of their existence and the very purpose they see and feel for themselves in this lifetime. I have been blessed with the gift of being able to help others make sense of it all, and sometimes use my clairvoyance to help guide them to and from places they’d never expect, let alone be able to see on their own. As I have been providing these spaces for my clients and others, so, too, have others been holding the space for me. And in some cases, I firmly and unequivocally believe these others come from realms beyond this earthly existence. The experience I had with my red bag, particularly the final encounter on my last journey, was something beyond this earthly realm. It was a message from another dimension, what I have come to know is the Divine, giving me validation that I’m not alone on this journey. It was also a message that none of us are alone, even when we face the most difficult, desperate, and downright horrific challenges to our existence.
I deliver this message to you now as a placeholder of hope. No matter how bleak things seem to be, you are right where you are supposed to be at any given moment. When the mind can’t wrap itself around the destruction, violence, illness, loss, and death of this lifetime, there is a support system in place for you, if you choose to be open to it that can guide you through. This doesn’t mean you won’t, or shouldn’t for that matter, feel the emotional burden of brokenness but maybe, just maybe, you will feel and/or connect with the support that is just a whisper away….the Divine within us all, who may one day show up to carry your red bag.
To get your copy of the Red Bag, click here: https://paigevaldiserri.com/product/the-red-bag/