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'An experience beyond experiences'

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Gary Thorpe thinks less and less about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, but when his mind inexorably creeps backward, it's the bodies he remembers - the bodies that improbably fell from the sky on that nightmarish day.

"The images of these people coming out and hitting the ground with a plop is what sticks with me," said Thorpe, who was attending a conference in the World Trade Center the day of the attacks. "I try not to think about it, but when I do, that's the first thing that comes to mind."

For others, it's the acrid smell, the squeal of metal buckling. It's the howl of fire, it's gray figures running, it's a pregnant woman retching, it's paper raining down as if in a giant snow globe.

Marylanders who survived the attacks at the Pentagon or the World Trade Center say those images still come, forceful and unbidden. But for many those dark daydreams are, finally, less persistent. They say they're less jumpy, less watchful. They've healed a little or a lot; they've rebuilt.

But they are not the same, most say, never will be. Some are still physically sick; some are emotionally adrift. Others say they're more patriotic or more mellow, or their priorities have shifted.

Thorpe, 68, then a Severna Park resident, rushed out of a breakfast meeting when the first plane struck. He stood across the street from the towers scanning the crowd for his wife and daughter, who had joined him on his business trip.

That was when people started throwing themselves out windows. A man and woman leapt holding hands; someone inched along the outside of the building before slipping and plunging.

He saw the second plane hit, and then, when the south tower started to collapse, he ran. He ran for his life, he said, dodging huge chunks of steel and rock.

"It was chaos, fear," he said. Paper was blowing as if it were a ticker-tape parade. He didn't see the second tower fall because the air had turned black.

After wandering alone for hours as if in a dream, he finally reunited with his family.

Thorpe, who was Maryland's assistant comptroller for years, used to think he would stop working when he was laid in a box. But two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, he retired and moved to Florida with his wife.

"I think I realized that life is pretty precious," he said. "I don't see the need to achieve like I used to. I'm kind of more at peace with myself."

In a small community near Fort Myers, he volunteers, he plays golf, he travels, he spends time with family. He reads a lot - not the English history he used to love but about the relationship between the Muslim and Western world. "I'm certainly looking for some personal understanding," he said. "And the more I read the more pessimistic I get and probably the more conservative."

Gripped with fear She would have been eating breakfast right where the plane hit. But because she was running late that day, Wanda Ramey, a police officer at the Pentagon, was sitting outside in a security booth when the plane swooped out of the sky. She tried to say something, but no words came out.

"It was like the building had sucked the plane inside it," she said. She wasn't sure whether she had seen what she had seen. Seconds passed, and then there was a boom.

"That's when I knew it was definitely happening," said Ramey, 38, of Waldorf. "I wasn't quite here anymore after that."

For months after witnessing what she thought might be the end of the world, Ramey was gripped with fear. "My mind went and just ran with it," she said. "I was really convinced that bin Laden was after me personally."

She'd sleep under the bed or in her closet at night and was afraid, after a while, even to go to the grocery store. Ramey stopped working and retired on disability. Her two young children worried that she "was going downhill and wasn't going to come back," she said.

But gradually, the miasma of dread began to lift. She started a children's party rental business and as that became more consuming, her constant fearfulness receded. She began sleeping in bed again. Her business flourished.

She would never have become a successful business owner if not for Sept. 11, Ramey said. And yet, something irreversible happened that day. She hasn't had one peaceful night's sleep for five years. And some fears won't leave, will never leave, her. "You couldn't get me back to the Pentagon to this day," she said. "Never been back, never will go back."

'We're going to die' May Farris, 45, was sitting at her desk at Barclays Bank when she heard a boom. She jumped up to look as a plane sliced into the first of the twin towers across the street. She was still absorbing it - could it really be? - when the second plane hit and everyone in her office began screaming and running. She could see people jumping and lying crooked and bloody in the street.

An emergency plan at the bank was jettisoned in the confusion, and Farris couldn't get out of the building initially. But when the first tower crumbled, a mob of frantic employees, some crying, "We're going to die, we're going to die," pushed past firefighters stationed outside and fled.

"There was just a mass of us running, pushing, stampeding," she said. "In my mind, I kept saying, 'Just please, let me get home to my family. Please.' ... It was an experience beyond experiences."

Farris, who is married and has six children, made it home to her family's arms and soon after, when the bank building was repaired, went back to work.

But the grisly images clung, and it was never the same after that. When the bank moved offices and eliminated her department, she decided to pull up roots. "With everything that happened, I wanted something different," she said.

In 2005, she moved to Glen Burnie, where she works at a Subaru dealership. She leads a quieter life, she said, always cognizant that "tomorrow isn't promised."

"I feel that I'm a stronger person," she said. "If I can make it through something as horrendous and overwhelming and overbearing as that was for me, I can make it through anything."

A transition First, a loud explosion, then darkness, a jolt and crying and screaming. When the plane hit the Pentagon, Col. Marilyn Wills was tossed across the room and lost consciousness. She came to, coughing, and began crawling toward a sliver of light.

As she picked her way through the terrible smoke and rubble, she bumped into an older woman who said she couldn't make it. Wills pulled her onto her back and trundled forward - they would get out, she told her.

With a small group in tow, Wills made it to a window, pounded on it until the seal broke, then helped lower several colleagues from the second floor to safety. She escaped and was rushed to the hospital, where she spent the next seven days. She couldn't speak or move her arms when she got there; she was covered with burns and bruises.

Wills, who received a Purple Heart for her efforts that day, quickly returned to work. But Sept. 11 marked a transition for her, "and thank God, it was a transition for the good," said Wills, a Mitchellville resident. "My priority was no longer work, work, work. My priority was family and living a whole life."

She stopped routinely working 12-hour days. She carved out time for her two daughters' sporting events. She recommitted herself to her church. She never rushed out in the morning without hugging her children.

"I pray that everyone won't have this type of experience," she said. "But there should be something in life that makes us stop and re-evaluate the way we're living."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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