Rescue & Recovery at 20: Lila Nordstrom, Civilian Survivor

  • May 27, 2022
With a row of American flags in the background, a group of men and women pass a pen around as they prepare to sign a document

Lila Nordstrom, left, with members of Congress after successful lobbying. Photo courtesy Lila Nordstrom.

Lila Nordstrom, a student at Stuyvesant High School on 9/11, still lives with the emotional and physical effects of her ordeal that morning. But she parlayed her experience into a life of health care advocacy, founding the organization StuyHealth and lobbying in Washington, D.C. to ensure former lower Manhattan students were covered under the Zadroga Act 

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the formal end to rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero, Nordstrom - who also authored the book "Some Kids Left Behind" - shares her 9/11 story and its long-term impact. 

Where were you on 9/11?
I was a student at Stuyvesant High School, about three blocks away from the World Trade Center. Suddenly, we heard a big explosion and the school shook. When we looked, an enormous fireball was coming out of one of the towers. We looked on with alarm, but our teacher had been there during the 1993 bombing, so he kept teaching until the second explosion. When a student ran by our classroom and told us it was a second plane, we knew it was terrorism. It was in the back of everyone’s minds, but we were hoping it wasn’t. Shortly after, a huge rumbling started, and the dust cloud rushed by. The school decided to move us to our homerooms, but I went to the nurse’s office because I was asthmatic. The nurse’s office was right near the exit we would evacuate from, so when that time came, I was one of the first students out. When I stepped out of the building, the second tower started to fall, so I ended up in a stampede of people running uptown. When things started to calm down, I didn't know anyone and continued walking. Eventually, I saw another teacher from Stuyvesant who kept walking with me.

I walked by my house in the Chelsea neighborhood. People had their car doors open, with the radio blasting so everyone could hear the news. On the radio, we heard rumors that they were evacuating Manhattan, and that there were planes they anticipated heading towards more buildings in New York. I lived right under the Empire State Building, and I decided to get away from skyscrapers. A classmate lived in Astoria, Queens, so the I started walking there. My dad reached me at one point, when I had just gotten to Queens. He told me to turn around and come back, and I said no. I assumed they hadn’t gotten the news that we had to evacuate Manhattan, but it turned out that wasn’t true.

The teacher that I walked with was incredibly comforting to me. I was so happy to have someone take charge of the situation. Now, after communicating with her, I know she was only 25 years old. She was scared herself and holding it together because she was the adult. We walked together for quite a while. During that time, there was another rumor that something happened uptown, and we would have to get to New Jersey. We had whole conversations about how realistic it was to swim to New Jersey, but I didn’t know how to swim. She was the gym teacher and swimming coach, so she was like, “I can swim you to New Jersey!” To me, it was just incredibly comforting to have someone else have some responsibility.

After 9/11, how were you connected to lower Manhattan?
Stuyvesant was one of the first lower Manhattan schools to return, on October 9th. The school had been used as a command center with first responders and search dogs who were sleeping there, and they cleaned it over a weekend. Stuyvesant students were not caught in the dust cloud, so we had no reason to get exposed to the dust on 9/11, but because we returned so early, we got exposed to the clean-up in numerous ways. The building was contaminated, because it was never cleaned properly. We didn’t know that until we left the following summer. The air wasn’t safe, because fires were still burning and continued to burn for months. The area smelled like smoke. The area wasn’t open to the public yet, so it was just residents and us. Then, one of the barges that carried debris to the landfill was moved right next to our school. Trucks dumping debris were driving past all day, every day. We continued to get exposed for months. All that World Trade Center dust with those mystery chemicals that made first responders sick was going right into our airways.

Can you describe the bond you feel with the 9/11 community? How has that community impacted you?
I’ve made so many first responder friends. Advocacy groups that represent first responders and survivors operate in different circles and their resources are different too, which meant there were a lot of obstacles to creating bonds with the responder advocacy community. But the way that they took me in, helped me make introductions, and echoed my points was impactful. There is also a bond between graduating classes who experienced this together. I’ve noticed they are all still in close touch, which speaks to what it is to go through a crisis together.

What does May 30th mean to you?
It was a hopeful moment because it felt like some chapter of this event had closed. For us, by the time that date rolled around, it didn’t mark the end of the crisis for us. It didn’t end up closing in the way we would hope. Our exposure continued after that point, and the back and forth about whether it was safe was ongoing. The date was the end of a specific kind of effort, but not the end of the effort entirely.

Do you have any health issues connected to your time at Ground Zero and the surrounding area?
There were immediate health effects that we experienced, but we were told they were temporary. In retrospect, I can see that’s not something they could have known. If you have 80 kids waiting to go to the nurse’s office over “minor coughs and allergies,” that’s indicative of a larger problem. There were reports at the time that it was impossible to get in to see the nurse at Stuyvesant because the line was so long. My asthma worsened, I developed GERD and PTSD.

Why is important to share your story - and the stories of others - with the generation now growing up with no memory of September 11th?  
If you don’t learn your history, it will repeat itself. I see connections to other disasters, and I see the same mistakes being made over and over. I think the fact that the survivor community has been overlooked in the narrative in 9/11 has not only had consequences for us, but also for how we treat civilian survivors everywhere. It's important to understand what it is to be a civilian survivor and how we can do better by those people. My book is a civilian survivor story that is not about getting sick, but how to take action. I feel obligated to pay that information forward. I want to provide other survivors with the tools needed to become a public figure after a crisis.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I got involved in health advocacy in 2006, when I graduated from college. I was working in college but wasn’t offered health insurance and knew I'd be in the same predicament after graduation too. I realized there would not be a lot of health options available, and I was already struggling to pay for my asthma medication. I was a childhood asthmatic, but my asthma had gotten worse after 9/11. I was stockpiling medicine because I knew I wouldn’t be able to see a doctor to get the medication.

During this time, [NYPD detective] James Zadroga died [January, 2006], which began the discussion about whether more people would also die from their exposure at the World Trade Center. At the time, the conversation was around first responders. I wrote an op-ed and started sharing it with people and eventually turned it into a petition. We started lobbying in Washington and took off from there. The student population was difficult to organize around because they were not residents. There were other schools in the area, like Stuyvesant, that didn't serve local residents exclusively. There was a gap in the advocacy community when it came to young people and someone who went to school downtown. 

Compiled by Caitlyn Best, Government and Community Affairs Coordinator

See Also:
MEMO Blog: Stories of Hope 
MEMO Blog: Lila Nordstrom Advocates for Affordable Health Care

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