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A year of healing

His world fell apart; months later, so did he • A Sept. 11 survivor, haunted by what he saw, confronts ghosts and angels

A former Portland man still isn't sure what was real and what he imagined last Sept. 11 on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center.

Meaux Craig Ñ his first name is pronounced 'Mo' Ñ had just arrived at work in the south tower when the first plane hit the north tower next door. It was chaos. Dust and paper were flying everywhere. People were crying and throwing up. Others stared out the window in disbelief.

That's when Craig saw the guy with the bright red hair and yellow hard hat.

'Come here,' he whispered.

Who, me? Craig thought, pointing to himself. He looked around and then back.

The guy nodded. 'Here,' he said. 'Use this door.'

Craig was bewildered. He'd never seen the door before. But he remembers floating through the other people as if they weren't there. The big fellow held the door open, and Craig didn't hesitate. He started leaping down the steps and reached safety not long before his own tower collapsed.

Today, he's not sure the worker existed. Where did the door come from? Why did he whisper? Why didn't anyone else see the red-haired guy, who he now thinks of as his Irish angel?

Sound a little spooky? Craig has been dealing with numerous ghostly issues since Sept. 11 and a later visit to his family in Portland. He took four months off work to heal physically and emotionally and now, a year after the attack, he's still sorting out what really happened and how his life changed.

'I felt like I was invaded and I'm going to be invaded again,' said Craig, an analyst in New York for Aon Corp., a financial services company. 'It's anticipation of another attack.

'At first I didn't understand it. I tried to fix myself, but you can't fix everything about yourself. It was too much for me to handle. When I was a child, they said if you love God and do the right things, nothing bad will happen. But I question that now.'

The problems started soon after Sept. 11. He couldn't sleep. Tears erupted without warning. He drank a lot and was short-tempered. The sound of a plane made him nervous. Untended boxes made him panicky. His hearing grew more acute, and he jumped if he smelled something burning.

And even now, he washes his hands every day when he gets to work, just like he did the morning of Sept. 11.

'Every day,' he said, 'there's something.'

Craig, 37, once a student at Jefferson High School, visited Portland last Thanksgiving to see his mother, Dee Craig-Arnold, and family. His therapist said the trip would help his healing. Soon after returning to New York, he visited ground zero, a major step.

But the real problems were still to come.

It all came to a head one day in late January after Craig arrived at his Manhattan office from his home in Brooklyn. He was stricken in his desk chair. He cried uncontrollably. He curled up in a ball and couldn't move. It was, he thought later, like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat.

Sympathetic co-workers bundled him off to a hospital, where he spent the night. He needed their intervention.

'It's like a bridge where you keep taking the bricks out, and all of a sudden you come crashing down,' he said.

Digging out

Craig found out later he was suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. William Sack, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, said such conditions are frequent among those who went through the events of Sept. 11, even those without as horrific an experience as Craig's.

'It's a plausible and often common aftermath to trauma,' Sack said. Depression can be treated and overcome, he said. Post-traumatic stress disorder can linger for years, even decades.

Craig spent the next four months on leave from work. He saw a psychiatrist three times a week and a psychologist three times a week. He took three kinds of medication three times a day. He also underwent treatment by a physical therapist for a vertebra injury he suffered when the second plane shook the south tower as he scrambled down the stairs.

He's still trying to separate what was real from what wasn't. On the stairs, for example, he ran into a woman sitting down and crying that she couldn't make it. Craig helped her up, and together they continued down the stairs to safety. Now he's not sure she existed.

'You can be almost so traumatized that you lose touch with reality,' Sack said. 'That certainly can happen.' Victims of a traumatic experience, he added, occasionally invent companions Ñ 'guardian angels,' he said Ñ so they don't go through their trauma alone.

Memories of lost friends haunt Craig. About 10 close friends and scores of his co-workers died that day. He's haunted by thoughts of what they went through in their final minutes. He struggles with survivor's guilt. Maybe if he had died, he thinks, they might have lived.

He especially remembers Susan Blair. He saw her as he got off the elevator that morning. She always used to tell Craig that his smile brightened her day. Promise me, she said that morning, that you'll always keep smiling.

'It was the last thing she said to me. They never found her. One of these days I want to get back that smile. I laugh sometimes, but it's a nervous laugh. It's not a real smile. I don't show my teeth.'

Looking for a rainbow

Craig struggled financially while on leave, at one point borrowing rent money from his mother because of delays in his workers' compensation and short-term disability pay. But he returned to work in May to a warm reception.

He's a big, personable, engaging guy with a big laugh, and his colleagues were glad to see him back. He said he was a little wobbly and wide-eyed that first day but has become less so every day since.

Soon he noticed that other co-workers were disappearing from the office for long stretches, just the way he did. All of them, he realized, were experiencing the same problems he'd been through but on different schedules.

'Everybody's going through the same thing. It was a delayed reaction. People would disappear. There'd be these empty chairs, and no one would say anything. But the biggest step I took was to fall apart and have them force me into this.'

The realization, Craig said, has brought the co-workers closer together:

'We hug, we kiss. We violate all the human resources rules.'

Today, he's still on medications, but his psychiatric visits are down to once a month. He accepts that he may never return emotionally to where he was before Sept. 11, but he believes he'll eventually be better off than he is today.

His mother sees the changes in him. The events of the last year caused her son to address other long-standing emotional issues that had sat ignored, said Craig-Arnold, who lives in Northeast Portland.

'It was like scratching off a scab,' she said. 'It pulled the cover off other issues. When you get in touch with your own mortality, it frees you up to express your issues.'

Craig reconnected with family members who had grown distant, such as his older brother, Kevin, who lives in Atlanta. They hadn't spoken in 12 years.

'This opens your eyes to things that are important, like caring about people,' he said. 'I look at children and parents and trees, all those things I used to not pay attention to. The future's promising. I look around and see so many pregnant women. What was taken away that day will be replaced.'

Today he can look in someone's eyes and tell right away if they went through a similar experience on Sept. 11.

'There's a certain expression we have, a reaction to everything,' he said. 'We go outside and look up at the sky, and we don't take another step until we realize everything's OK. Out of the storm comes a rainbow.'

Contact Don Hamilton at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .