Nurse mends emotional wounds after facing terror

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2001

Two months ago Ruth Perez-Matera was fleeing for her life as the World Trade Center collapsed behind her.

Although the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history did not claim the Juneau woman, the memories of Sept. 11 still haunt her.

After suffering repeated nightmares and a bout of depression following the attack, Perez-Matera said she is starting to heal emotionally. But she cannot forget the carnage she saw on the streets of New York City.

"It's hard," said Perez-Matera recently from her home in downtown Juneau. "But it's something I have to learn to live with."

Perez-Matera was in the Marriott Hotel across the street from the towers when the first jet struck. At first, her mother and sister, on vacation with Perez-Matera, thought their hotel was on fire.

The trio fled from their room to the lobby, where Perez-Matera, a nurse at Bartlett Regional Hospital, saw injured people staggering into the hotel and ran to help them.

Then they heard the second jet plow into the other tower, and they went outside. To their horror, they saw body parts strewn in the street, and the women fled with a crowd toward a nearby park.

Perez-Matera turned to look at the towers just as one began to fall, and the crowd panicked as a cloud of smoke engulfed them. Perez-Matera and her sister escaped Manhattan by running across a bridge to Brooklyn, where they took refuge in a church. They lost their mother in the chaos and spent an agonizing night searching for her before reuniting the next day.

Perez-Matera spent another three days in New York before leaving the East Coast and for three nights she could not sleep. When she finally dozed off, the nightmares came.

"I had a dream of a man jumping on a trampoline, and he jumped so high that he was falling. And I knew he was going to hit the ground and there was nothing I could do, said Perez-Matera, who awoke from the nightmare yelling.

In another nightmare she was inside a hospital and people missing body parts were coming to her for help, Perez-Matera said. Then there were the nightmares about explosions and bombings and terrorists.

"I would dream of people coming after us with guns," she said, adding that the nightmares came almost every night for a month.

She fell into a depression in the days after the attack and took some time off from work to cope with the trauma.

"I lacked energy and ambition and didn't feel like doing anything. I had a great sadness that overcame me," she said. "You have a certain amount of guilt because you're alive and the others are dead."

Her mother, Jan Perez, also had nightmares and struggled with feelings of guilt.

"I felt like there was more I should have done or could have done," said Perez, who stayed in Manhattan the day of the attack to help load the fleeing people onto ferries.

"I had this real deep sadness for the people who were still there working and searching for bodies. I wish I could have been there with them to help," Perez said from her California home.

A Juneau counselor helped Perez-Matera work through some of her sorrow.

The counselor "helped me realize a lot of the things I was going through were normal and to expect them," said Perez-Matera, noting that the nightmares have tapered off.

"I'm calm. I'm feeling a lot better now," she added. But "you never get over that sadness and that trauma that you go through."

Perez-Matera said the event proved the U.S. is as vulnerable as any country to terrorists. Although she considers Juneau a relatively safe place, she has come to believe attacks can happen anywhere.

However, it's pointless to panic about anthrax and other potential strikes, she said, adding that people must accept the fact that bad things happen.

"Everybody is very reactive to all the things that are occurring. I think that's wrong," she said. "I don't think we should get overly concerned about everything because unforeseen circumstances will occur.

"Emotionally and spiritually we have to be prepared for these things."

Kathy Dye can be reached at

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