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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Oral History Project gives voice to those affected by 9/11

Interview room used for Oral History Project to talk to those who were affected by 9/11. It is located in World Trade Center in Commack, New York and is made to seem like a living room to create a comfortable space. MARIAM GUIRGIS/THE STATESMAN

Benjamin Luft, M.D., director and principal investigator of the World Trade Center (WTC) Wellness Program, has been leading the Oral History Project, where he interviews patients that were physically and mentally affected by the attacks that took place on 9/11. 

His team has been compiling all the interviews and transcripts from the project to send to the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center.

The project was first established in 2009 when Luft’s patients shared their experiences and stories from 9/11.

“I wanted to give [a] voice to them. I wanted them to tell their own story, to tell the story of 9/11, how it impacted them and all the things that were important to them,” Luft said. “The stories were so powerful that it became obvious that it was greater than anything. It was greater than my center or myself. It was really something that people had to hear.”

Over the years, the program has completed roughly 450 interviews. It stopped running when the COVID-19 pandemic happened but is starting back up again to prepare to send its collection to the Library of Congress and film more interviews. 

“One day, Congressman Steve Israel … came in … and we put one of the videos from our interviews, and he sat down and he watched it and then he turned around — and I’ll never forget he had tears in his eyes — and then he looked at me and he [said], ‘Ben, this is better than Spielberg, we have to get this into the Library of Congress,’” Luft said. 

Luft explained that Israel, a Democrat, and Peter King, a Republican, worked together on compiling the project. From there, they brought it to the Library of Congress, which agreed to archive the interviews.

Archiving the interviews and transcripts at the Library of Congress meant that they’d always be maintained by recent technological advancements.

“If you don’t preserve it, if you don’t maintain it, [it] becomes obsolete very quickly,” Luft said.

Camile Arnone, a communications coordinator at the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program, explained the goal of the next phase of the project.

“We’re hoping in the next phase of the project to focus on family members, spouses [and] children because they were greatly affected whether or not they lost someone. The healing process of their parents or spouse or who was there [is] ongoing,” Arnone said.

Bruno Valenti, a nurse practitioner, explained how it felt being on the site where the attacks took place in New York in an episode of “60 Minutes” on CBS News,

“Many people were on the outside with bottles of water, just trying to help in any way they can, and I think that was a moment that really captured the amount of good in the world versus evil, and you realize that the world is really made up of good people that want to help,” Valenti said.

Those who do the interviews and help out in the program have also shared how isolated the patients felt when they spoke about their experiences. 

“A lot of them said they never talked to anybody about it until they did these interviews,” Luft said. 

“They’ve really hid their pain from their families [and] from their friends,” Arnone said. “There’s the stigma of mental health that they just don’t want to talk about how they’re suffering. So, this I think gives them a safe space to do it and preserves the memory of those that were lost and honors what they’ve been going through everyday since.”

Luft was also motivated by his own experiences. 

“Maybe [it] was subconscious. My parents were both Holocaust survivors and they were always so grateful to those who liberated them, so maybe I kind of had that same feeling, people that went in and responded and did something,” he said.

Luft explained that after 9/11, newspapers that reported on the events had their own political agendas regarding the coverage. 

“You would read these things in the newspapers, and you would think that [9/11 first responders] were xenophobic and angry, but they weren’t,” Luft said. “That’s not what was driving them at that time. They weren’t concerned about whether someone was going to build a mosque; that was not in their head. They were grappling with real existential questions.”

During the interviews, the team gives interviewees prompts to help them open up and tell their stories. 

“It could be, ‘Tell us your first impressions of working down the site.’ Or, ‘How has this affected you so far in your life? How has this impacted your family?’” Arnone explained.

Luft also added that while hearing the stories of those affected, he realized that defining someone as a hero cannot only be confined to what that person does, but what sacrifices they made along the way. 

“The thing that [I didn’t realize that] always struck me was … that to be heroic, you know to do these things, it’s not for free. When they do this type of thing, they leave something there. They’re not whole, a piece of them is gone, and they can never be the same because they had to give up something to do that,” Luft said. 

By sharing these interviews with the world, it gives the people who were affected by the attacks a chance to move forward and help people and new generations understand the impact of its aftermath.

“I am very privileged to have done it because it takes a toll, but at the same time it changed me. You can’t help but be affected by this in a very positive way,” Luft said. “I’m sure once you see these interviews, it’s gonna change you. And it’s not going to change you for the worse, it’s going to change you in a way to say, ‘Oh my gosh, there are people out there who do these types of things.’”

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About the Contributor
Mariam Guirgis, Assistant News Editor
Mariam is an Assistant News Editor at The Statesman. She is a second-year journalism minoring in political science. When she's not editing news articles, she is deeply involved with her Church community, planning events and hanging out with friends.
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