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Scarred, survivors try to move on

NEW YORK -- The recurring dream always seems so real: David Lim, a police officer with the Port Authority, is walking his police dog Sirus along the grounds of the World Trade Center as he did for six years. It appears to be an ordinary day in his dream. For Lim, a survivor of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers, however, that's the trap.

"Everyone assumes you have nightmares of the building collapsing, but it's more subtle: I am back at work and it's a normal day, walking my dog, doing my job, checking trucks, and you wake up and realize none of it is true," Lim, 47, said. "Sirus is dead. The towers are gone. You know you have to go back to work at the airport now, but the dream seems so real because it was so much a part of your life."

For millions of Americans, the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks will be a day to reflect on the tragedy that took the lives of some 3,000 people, but for the few who narrowly escaped or were rescued from the crumbled towers, today will be a time to take stock of how far they have come.

"It's a sad day," said Harry Waizer, a tax attorney for Cantor Fitzgerald who survived after being trapped in a burning elevator in the trade center and descending 78 flights of stairs despite his injuries. "I have no big plans. I don't want to immerse myself in the day as a memorial, but I want to take a few moments during the day to think about those friends who were lost. . . . It's impossible not to look back, but it is possible not to dwell on it."

Many who summoned the will to escape the World Trade Center lost friends on Sept. 11. The old lives they now dream about vanished that day as well, but the survivors push on.

Lim, one of 16 who escaped after being trapped in the collapsed north tower for five hours, has a new bomb detection dog named Sprig. They spend the day searching for bombs at the New York airports. Waizer, who was severely injured and lost 650 co-workers, now finds solace in simple things like writing a memoir for his three young children to read when they are in their 20s.

"I can't do the things I used to, but I am alive," said Waizer, 52, once a hard-charging lawyer who has been slowed by the burns he suffered. "I think of myself as very, very lucky, very fortunate, and very blessed." That blessing, however, carries heavy burdens. The euphoria of surviving is often replaced by deep guilt about not dying as so many others did. A yearning for their old lives continues to haunt their dreams.

"I do have those dreams that I am back at work with colleagues, and I wake up and realize it's gone," said Waizer.

Relationships between some people who survived together have broken off because of disputes about what exactly happened to them that day.

"It does hurt," said Richard Picciotto, a retired battalion fire commander whose book "Last Man Down" has caused a rift among some of the 16 people, including Lim and Picciotto's former colleagues, who were all buried in the north tower with Picciotto. Lim and many of the survivors dispute Picciotto's claim that he took charge of the group, which was rescued from the rubble. Picciotto, who retired after 30 years with the New York City Fire Department, insists the book accurately captures his account of the day.

At the second anniversary, these survivors find that the physical and emotional pain has eased. Yet the guilt remains strong. "At first, there was a lot of trying to understand why I survived, opposed to others," said Lim. "I don't feel special. You feel guilty so many friends died, and you ask why were you there with them and survived. I struggled with that."

Lim added: "I still have nightmares. It's funny, sometimes I am just lost. The building is complete, and I am just walking around asking people which way out. They point, but there are no stairwells."

Lim said that therapy, patience, and understanding from his family, speaking to the public about the tragedy, and continuing to work have helped him move forward.

"Since then, I have learned not to sweat the little stuff and to appreciate the little things in life," said Lim. "I mean, when I see the sunrise in the morning, I realize how many I could have missed."

Picciotto, the former New York firefighter, said writing a book about his experience was therapeutic, keeping him just busy enough not to have to sit and face his thoughts. When he completed the book, Picciotto said he felt depressed, like so many other firefighters, because he had more time to dwell on the tragedy and his friends and co-workers who died. His wife was forced to take on more responsibility around the home because "I just couldn't be bothered with routine things."

"How do you move forward when life isn't fun any more? I am looking forward to enjoying life again," he said.

Few of the survivors said they visit the site of the tragedy. Waizer, who lives in Westchester County, visited Lower Manhattan for the first time since the terrorist attacks in April when he spoke before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

Waizer was riding the elevator somewhere between the 78th and 101st floors of the north tower when the elevator burst into flames. He beat the flames out, burning his hands, arms, and legs. His face was also burned by a fireball that burst into the elevator from the crack of the doors. When the door opened, he jumped out and began a harrowing descent down 78 flights.

In the last two years, Waizer has endured eight surgeries. No longer working as a lawyer, he spends time at home with his three teenage children and his wife, also a lawyer. He is deeply involved with his local synagogue and continues to write about his experience in a memoir he plans to share only with his family.

"It's the slowest, most difficult writing I've ever done," he said. "It's so hard to find the right words to describe what happened," said Waizer, who whispers when he speaks because jet fuel burned his vocal chords on Sept. 11. He is unsure whether another operation is in his future. But Waizer and his wife have worked hard to make sure the family keeps up the old routines.

"Life is perfectly normal for my family. I don't need care, and I am perfectly able to care for myself," he said. "What I can't do, I can compensate for, but there is no way for those families to compensate who lost a wife, a child, or a husband."

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