In the elevator of the Nyack College Manhattan campus, then located at 93 Worth Street/335 Broadway, Evangeline Couchey felt the tremor she would later learn was the impact of a plane striking the first World Trade Center Tower on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
“I could hear and feel that something had happened. It was so far away but ‘What was that?’”
A Nyack employee since 1994, Vangie, as she is fondly known, would soon join others who gathered to pray in a large room used for chapel services. Her next move was to call her mother, who would naturally panic if she saw a news broadcast before hearing from her daughter whose normal commute included taking the PATH through the World Trade Center. But that call was cut short when a co-worker shrieked that another plane had struck the second Tower.
Fast forward two decades.
It was earlier this week, while playing a Book of Questions game that Vangie and her fiancé came to one that asked, “How did the events of 9/11 change you?”
“I started sobbing because I had never cried for me,” she explains. “I had cried for the general events and the heaviness associated with it, but I had never cried for my own trauma from it.”
She recalls hearing the sounds of people yelling and screaming on the street below her tenth-floor office. Looking out the window at people running and looking over their shoulders, she says “I saw the fear on people’s faces.” Then power in the elevators had to be shut off and walking down ten flights was the only way to get to her friend and out of the building with the hundreds of others evacuating the building.
This was supposed to be an evening of fun for Vangie and her friend who had won tickets to an MTV taping of the boy band, O Town. Instead they and another Nyack employee rushed to Vangie’s car at a nearby parking garage and joined the mass exodus headed out of the City. In the car, they heard news reports about the attack on the Pentagon and the plane crash in Pennsylvania. It was clear these incidents were not accidental. What did not register immediately, though she was aware of an explosion, was the hundreds of people in those falling towers.
Despite fierce determination to get out of the City northbound moved slowly. The only cars moving south were ambulances, police cars, EMS vehicles and fire trucks. After driving her two companions to their destinations in Westchester County, Vangie made it to Rockland County, where she stayed in Nyack with friends for a week so that she could be surrounded by people who loved and knew her.
In the days that followed, it was difficult for anyone not to compare Lower Manhattan to a post-war zone, “a military police state,” where people were required to show identification to travel below Canal Street. For months, Vangie remembers the horrible smell of fires burning beneath the rubble, the 24/7 candlelight vigils and blocks lined with photos of missing loved ones.
How was such a moment processed by the Alliance Graduate School of Counseling and Alliance Seminary M.Div. alumna trained to help other people navigate tragedy? “I think of two things. It definitely made me wrestle with the loss of control and safety. In some ways, I had experienced this personally with my dad, who died in a plane crash in 1987; but on a national level—we always had the feeling of ‘we’re the best; we’re untouchable; we have the strongest military; these things happen in other places.’To have this happen here, it was national group vulnerability. We are not safe. We thought we were, but we’re not.”
She mentions the feeling of fully expecting it could happen again. But then there was a shift in perspective. “I finally got to the point where I refused to live in fear. I thought unless I live in a cave, I am not going to be safe from things potentially happening.”
How did this experience change her relationship with the City?
“It increased my love for the City because it was a shared experience. So often tragedy gives people a common experience and a common language. It’s like what you experience when you discover the ways that you are alike outweigh the ways that you are different. It made the City feel smaller because everyone was vulnerable. It happened to us. It was humbling, but unifying, too.”
And how has another national—indeed international—horror impacted her? “There are ways in which COVID has reminded me of 9/11.”
In 2001, she, along with Nyack’s Executive Vice President and Treasurer Dr. David Jennings and Admissions Counselor Rev. Lesly Milord made phone calls to check on students. At the peak of the pandemic and its death toll surpassing 9/11, students were called to see if they were safe or needed anything. The responses were sometimes heart-wrenching. One student Vangie called announced that her mother had passed away that morning. Another person told her how he had lost four friends.
“It was reminiscent of another communal tragedy, that regardless of the direct impact, we’re all aware and know things are not going well in our City. I’ve been saying that COVID is clarifying for me. In other words, ‘What’s the most important thing we can do?’ It’s given me a little bit of renewed energy and purpose in a way because when people need help, I know their lives are in a heightened level of stress. Serving them feels more meaningful when you know people are in need and there’s something you can do to make them feel taken care of and alleviate some stress.”