Jeff’s Story – 9/11

Last week I had the privilege of bringing the following talk to a gracious group who received it warmly and made me appreciate all the more the power of stories to assert themselves and connect people.  Then I showed an iMovie, compressing and summarizing the talk into just under four minutes.  At the end of the movie there was a long silence, then hands began to go up, to comment, to ask questions.  Something in the room had shifted, and we were together in a different way.  I would emphasize that the power of the talk was not in me but in the calling forth of memory.  And the power of the movie was not in me but in the images and music that came alongside to make a bigger present moment, to help weave storyteller and listeners into “a new creation.” Some of the images below are from the movie.  The music I chose was Enya’s “Only Time.”

“Jeff’s Story”

St. Andrews Presbyterian Church Thursday Activity Group

Phoebe H. Dishman

Beaumont, Texas / August 8, 2019

A few weeks ago I went out to check the mail.  In the usual stack was a legal size envelope, hand-addressed to me.  In the envelope, a gracious, one-page, handwritten letter from Ann, a lady I had yet to meet. She asked if I would come and speak to your group.  All of this just made my day.  I was smiling at the prospect.

Then I re-read the letter and discovered what it was you wanted me to talk about.  It seems someone told Ann I have a presentation on 9/11.  Wait, what??

My husband, who was watching me read Ann’s letter, will testify that my smile turned to consternation. You see, I am many things:

Citizen of Beaumont from birth.  Wife, mother, grandmother, friend.  Poet, creative writer, lover of birds.  Sunday school teacher, amateur theologian.  Certified lay speaker in my church, curator of church history and church seasons.  Active member of the Big Thicket Association.  Queen of the Neches – okay, that was a really long time ago.


Re-enchanter of the world, this being how a friend of blessed memory described me.

As to all of the above, I aim to make every day count.  But as for 9/11, I have no expertise whatsoever.  I called Ann and we explored this mystery.  That’s when I saw the light.  It seems a friend of Ann’s remembers me telling a story eighteen years ago about a friend of mine who survived 9/11.  Friends with long memories! I may forget.  But you remember!

It’s funny how time folds on itself, circles back, and a story from the archives decides it wants to be told again.  And it won’t take no for an answer.

And so I go back to that day in September.  It was a beautiful morning in Beaumont.  I had gone for a walk in our neighborhood, leaving my husband to his breakfast and his paper and the kitchen television tuned silently to the news.

When I returned, he was standing close to the TV.  Without turning, he said, “You need to come here and see this.”


-image from Internet-

As we stood there staring at the small screen, trying to understand how an airplane came to be imbedded in the north tower of the World Trade Center, which was on fire, we saw another plane fly into the south tower.  And more bad news was coming.  As they say, nothing was ever the same.

Austin’s sister Claire was living in Tribeca back then, not too far north of Ground Zero. We had some hours afraid until we learned she was safe.  But thousands and thousands of people were not safe.

For some time I was frozen in shock, staring at the news as it unfolded before our unbelieving eyes.  Then my heart mind and body woke up and I said one word:  “Jeff.”

Jeff Galloway and I were classmates at Forest Park High School, now Westbrook.  His family moved to Beaumont our sophomore year.  Jeff and I were math club and honors English types, which proximity led us to going out on some dates.  We were good companions.  What I particularly remember is driving around and around Beaumont, in Jeff’s car, as he told stories.  Jeff was articulate, a gifted storyteller.  I was not, not yet. But I was in training.  My job was to listen.  Which I did, with pleasure.  Together, with ease.


                       Phoebe in flowered dress- second row up, 2nd from left.  Jeff in striped shirt – second row up, far right


So, we graduated.  Jeff headed to college in California, then to Columbia Law School.


-image from Internet-

He knew exactly what he wanted, and that was the bright lights of New York City.  He became a lawyer, moved into the new Gateway Plaza apartment complex in Battery Park at the south end of the island, at the foot of the World Trade Center.  He married Paula of New Jersey.


-image from Internet-

They had two children – Kiera and Liam, and their family proceeded to live a rich exciting life.


-Liam and Kiera at World Trade Center, Christmas 2000, image from Jeff’s website-

As did I, in my own way.  Home from SMU I worked briefly, married Austin, worked a little more, then became mother to David and Robert.

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Housewife and mom on Evangeline West, birds in my backyard, right where I wanted to be.  Over the years, Jeff and I stayed in occasional touch.  For me the place he lived, that is to say Manhattan, may as well have been the moon.  And then came 9/11, and my heart cried out, “Jeff, are you all right?”  Which is what I asked him in my email.

And now I will read you his reply:


 Thanks for your concern. We barely made it out alive, but we’re now ok in NJ at a friend’s house in Cedar Grove…We had just dropped the kids off at PS 234 (about 4 blocks north of the trade center)


-Public School 234, image from Internet-

when Paula and I were walking on Warren St towards W Bwy, when we saw the first plane hit.  It was surreal.  We see so many movies getting filmed in NY that at first we had the reaction of “how can they get permission to do that?”  Then it stuck us that “this is real!” After staring dumbfounded at the hole and fire in the WTC, we decided to go back to school to check on the kids.  As we were walking into the school the second plane hit.  To us, it looked like a secondary explosion to the first crash, with a fireball COMING RIGHT AT US.  We’ve now seen on TV pictures of a jet engine on Murray at W Bwy, which is a little over a block from where we were, and which must have come from that second hit. At that point, we still thought it was an accident, and we just wanted to get the kids out of school and out of danger.  We went into the school and the principal announced that any parents at school should take their kids home, so we got our kids. We then walked home to Gateway Plaza, crossing West at Warren Street, turning right on Murray and cutting across by the movie theater to Vesey. At one point, Liam looked up and said, “Daddy, Look, they’re jumping out the windows!”  At first, I said, “no, that’s just debris,” and then I realized Liam was right.  I didn’t say anything more to that.  He kept asking, “are the buildings going to fall?”  And, once again incorrect, I said, “no, there’s just a big fire.” At Vesey, they had already blocked the street off as an emergency hospital and they told us we couldn’t go through or get into the Financial Center. We cut through Vesey anyway and went west around the Financial Center to the boat harbor to get to our building.  At our building, we were told we couldn’t go in, because it was being evacuated.  I went in anyway to get our dog, Sephe (100 pound German Shepherd).  Paula and the kids waited downstairs. I grabbed my camera, backpack, palm pilot and one of my cell phones, some water and the dog and then made few calls to family and friends to let people know we were ok.  (Cell phones weren’t working, so I couldn’t call previously.) Downstairs again, we just looked up across the street at the trade center from our courtyard, taking pictures, talking to neighbors in disbelief. The security guards told us we had to get to the river and to cut through the back of Gateway to get there.  As we were easing ourselves back, looking up at the trade center, IT BLEW UP!  


-Getty image-

I thought, “should I duck into Gateway?  should we run for the river?”  We ran to the river through the back of Gateway and decided to keep going.  I had Liam’s hand, Paula had Kiera and the dog.  In the rush, I dropped my backpack, with cell phone, palm pilot, etc., and grabbed Kiera’s school back pack, which she had just dropped.  Liam still had his backpack on.  As we got through Gateway and were almost at the river, I looked back and this black, firey avalanche was heading straight at us.  I tried to get the kids and Paula to the ground, thinking of those nuclear war drills from childhood (and how hopeless the drills’ instructions had been).  I thought, “this is it – the fire will be here in a second, there won’t be oxygen to breath,” when it hit.  TOTAL BLACKNESS.  We couldn’t see anything, our hands, our kids, the dog, each other nothing.  I held tight to Liam.  Paula called out, “where are you! where’s Liam!”  I just reached out my hand and foundPaula, and we all just held tight there.  BUT NO FIRE, NO POISON GAS. Just dust, debris, junk, total blackness.  I told the kids, “stay down, we’ll be able to see in a few minutes, and we’ll get out of here.”  Sure enough, a few minutes later, we could see each other and maybe 10 feet beyond.  He groped to the river railing and headed south.  We couldn’t head north without going towards the trade center to get around the boat marina. We just kept walking.  By the time we got to the South Cove, volunteers were handing out face masks to kids, which they must have gotten from a nearby construction site.  


-copyright Jeff Galloway-

By the time we got to Battery Park, the second tower went and we saw another black cloud coming at us.  We just kept heading south because there was no place else to go, finally making it to the American Park Cafe, where we took shelter under some umbrellas at the restaurant for about an hour, while stuff kept raining down. 


-copyright Jeff Galloway-

Finally, a NY Waterway ferry pulled up by the shore and the crew urged as many who could get on board to evacuate.  We went, kids, dog and all.


-copyright Jeff Galloway-


-copyright Jeff Galloway-

They took us to the Colgate construction site in Jersey City, where a triage center had been set up.  We got food, water, drinks and access to some working phones.  We called our friend Chris in Cedar Grove, who offered to pick us up, but there was no way for her to get to us, with the closed roads.  We were then bused to the Jersey City Medical Center for oxygen and a look-over.  They let the dog into to the emergency center set up in the hospital, where we ran into a lot of neighbors (and other dogs) from Gateway, with stories similar to ours.  We were pronounced fit and we looked for ways to get out of there. Hospital employees were volunteering to help in any way they could. Eventually the wife of one of the hospital people drove us the roughly 15 miles to Cedar Grove, where we are staying now.  I’ve rented a car, so we can go to our NJ cabin if we want.  We spent yesterday buying clothes (and a new cell phone) at a local mall, where we ran into more BPC resident/refugees. We’re thankful we got through everything together, essentially unharmed physically. Thanks again for your concern.  Please spread the word that we are ok. –Jeff

 Jeff said to me, please spread the word:  We’re thankful, we’re together, we’re essentially unharmed.

This is good news.  But we can all feel the shadow.  Think Rita, Ike, and Harvey.

We all know that recovery from trauma is not simple.   Jeff’s wife did group therapy.  Eight-year-old Liam did art therapy. Gateway Plaza was damaged in the attack, but it was repairable.  Some folks who had lived there elected not to return.  But for others, it was the place they still belonged.  By Christmas 2001, the Galloways were home.

Needless to say, other young students at Public School 234 also needed counseling, and art therapy in particular was helpful.  One kindergartener named Noam who from his classroom window had seen the plane go in and saw people jumping drew a picture full of fire and horror.  But at the foot of the tall building he drew a trampoline.  “If we create buildings with trampolines around them,” he said, “people will be safe next time they have to jump from them.”

This is the resilience of the soul – it knows there is danger ahead, but it catches us as we fall.  As Moses said in Deuteronomy, “The Eternal God is our dwelling place, and underneath, the everlasting arms.”

Healing from trauma is ultimately a matter of relationships.  Resilience that grows from belonging.  From being loved and cherished.  People practicing interdependence.  Bonding and working together.  The stronger helping the weaker.  Which as we knows helps the strong, just as much as the weak.

Today, eighteen years later, Jeff and Paula still live in their apartment in Gateway Plaza.  Jeff still practices law.  Kiera Galloway works for a congressman in San Diego.  And Liam Galloway, who saw fire and horror, people jumping from the towers, is teaching high school in Brooklyn.

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Author: Phoebe Dishman

Phoebe H. Dishman was born and raised in Beaumont, Texas. She is a wife, mother, and grandmother. An essayist and poet, she teaches adult Sunday school, compiles a monthly prayer calendar, edits the Big Thicket Association quarterly bulletin, and keeps a keen eye and ear open for birds.

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