"In the three seconds that it took me to turn around [last Monday], at first I'm like, 'Oh God, did a plane crash into a building?'" said the Darien resident, who no longer works in New York City as she did in 2001. "I jumped out of my skin. I threw whatever was in my hand."
Like Hughes, many in Connecticut revisited feelings this week related to previous traumas, whether it was the Newtown school shootings, the 9/11 attacks or another incident. The anxiety of being under attack, unsafe and threatened was re-awakened by this week's events and 24-hour news coverage.
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A general sense of vulnerability and uncertainty was heightened by news that ricin-laced letters were sent this week to President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, and the wild manhunt that ensued Thursday and Friday in Cambridge and Watertown, Mass.
What's different in the post-9/11 era is that many Americans have mental and emotional reference points for what happens after an attack from an unknown assailant intent on killing random civilians. For some, there's even a resolve to carry on and not be afraid of airports, parades, ball games, city streets or other places an attack could happen.
Hughes says she was watchful in crowded, public places for years after 9/11, but the vigilance waned with time. The marathon bombs brought back the initial terror, and then a familiar awareness and caution.
Hughes, 43, worked on the trading floor in fixed-income sales for Merrill Lynch at the World Financial Center, near the World Trade Center. By chance, she was home in Connecticut for 9/11 — her birthday — but Hughes was worried for hours about the safety of her co-workers and the man who would become her husband.
Those feelings rushed back Monday.
Hughes was at the marathon finish line when the first bomb erupted on Boylston Street just west of Copley Square. Only seconds after the first boom, her mind jumped to her young children, who were with a friend in a car at Copley Square. Hughes ran away from the site, south on Dartmouth Street and borrowed a cellphone so she could text her friend to get the children out of the city. Then she dashed into her hotel, got her luggage and waited for her husband, Danny, to meet up with her.
The family escaped uninjured, though far from unaffected.
"We're better prepared today to react to things like that," Hughes said. "It is a new reality. I think it's going to bring people back. I think we're going to be more cognizant. Do I bring my 4-and-8-year-olds into this very crowded place?"
Accidental Versus Intentional
Two days after the marathon bombings, an explosion ripped through a fertilizer plant in Texas, killing at least 14 and injuring about 200. Horrific as this was, the event didn't provoke the same national emotional response as the marathon bombings. A large part of this has to do with the sinister intent behind the latter, psychology experts say.
"The most immediate threat to our survival is if someone else is attempting to attack us," said Julian Ford, a psychologist at UConn. "It's clearly a very biologically hard-wired instinct to survive and protect."
And while the victims of the fertilizer plant explosion were mostly limited to a specific geographic and demographic group, the marathon bombings emphasize the fact that terrorism can happen to anyone at any time. An 8-year-old boy, a 29-year-old restaurant manager and a graduate student from China were the three people killed Monday in Boston. Those injured, many of whom had traveled a long distance to get there, were equally varied in their backgrounds.
Also, fertilizer plants bring with them an understood risk linked to hazardous chemicals. Bridges collapse and waterfront homes face flooding. It doesn't make it any less tragic when these things happen, but it does make it less shocking, they say.
"But at a marathon, everyone's guard is down, it's celebratory, so [the bombing] feels like a blindsiding," Ford said. "An elementary school is one of the safest places we have. We have to believe our schools are safe because we trust our children to them, and for the most part, they do an exemplary job."
That's what makes terrorism such an effective weapon.
Ten times as many people are killed in motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. every year as were killed in the 9/11 attacks, but 12 years later, that day still resonates —all the more so in recent days.
Yuval Neria, a Columbia University psychologist who has been studying post-traumatic stress disorder in people and who closely experienced the events of 9/11, said that with each tragedy of this kind, our responses improve on a practical level. Emergency workers are better prepared, and security officials identify vulnerabilities and safeguard against future attacks.
But these improvements are accompanied by an emotional toll.
"The fact is that you always have people who develop post-traumatic reactions after certain events," Neria said. "For those people, reactivation and re-exposure is tough and can either lead them to some more debilitating pain and more fretful memories, especially for the bereaved. Those victim groups are increasing in number and size over time. That's what you see in nations like Israel — you have highly experienced response systems, along with increasing numbers of people who are suffering."
Contributing to both aspects of the trauma, since 9/11, is social media.
"We access information so rapidly and so effectively through social media, so it's kind of helpful in a way," Neria said. "It helps us to regain a kind of control. We are more updated and more informed more quickly than before. Information is empowering and it's very, very important to us."
With smart phones, he said, "we can make better plans — we can deal with transportation and flights, and hopefully we can protect our families better because of those tools."
But again, where we benefit on a practical level, we pay emotionally.
"Perhaps we are over flooded with gruesome images," he said, "and perhaps we are more anxious because of that."
Countless cameras were already out at the marathon's finish line when the bombs exploded, so gruesome images abounded minutes after the blasts. Add social media like Twitter and Facebook, where these photos can reach audiences without going through the filter of mainstream media, and you've got a public that's taking in a steady stream of some very disturbing images.
Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor in the department of psychology and social behavior at the University of California-Irvine, said she avoids Twitter and Facebook for this reason. Still not known, she said, is exactly what the effect of social media is in such cases.
"We want to explore some of that," Cohen Silver said. "We really don't know."
But she has studied the effects of media related to 9/11 and the Iraq invasion.
"We found that a steady diet of those images was connected to more physical and mental effects in three years," she said. "I would discourage anyone from a steady diet of these images."
'What's The Next Target?'
A small group in the Boston Marathon ran to remember the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Among them was Newtown pediatrician Laura Nowacki, 47, who took part in a ceremony days before the race to dedicate the 26th mile to Newtown.
Nowacki's husband, Newtown dentist David Nowacki, wanted to surprise her at the finish line, so he brought their four children, ranging from 10 to 16 years old, to the race. They secured seats in the VIP stands, very close to the site of the first explosion.
Fortunately, Nowacki finished the race about a half hour before the first blast. The family was back in her hotel room on the eighth floor of the Four Seasons Hotel Boston, down Boylston Street a few blocks from the finish line. She got a news text alert about the bomb.
"When we got the text, I foolishly turned on the TV and saw where it was and we had to turn off the TV right away because that upset especially my 10-year-old daughter because she was in Sandy Hook," Nowacki said.
Nowacki called the front desk of the hotel, ready to respond to the scene as a medical professional — just as she did after the Sandy Hook shooting — but learned that the scene was already blockaded.
"You go into that doctor mode, but at the same time I'm staring at my 10-year-old who just went through this," Nowacki said. "So, the parent mode absolutely won out here."
She would have stayed the night in a Boston hotel had her children not been there.
"My husband and I, we felt we had to get our family out of there, and we did," Nowacki said, fleeing before the city was locked down.
"While we were making this decision, they had said that there was a third bomb at the library … so it started getting really scary: What's the next target?" she said.
The thoughts do not always stop when the trauma has ended. Many people who experienced the bomb blasts at the marathon have reported nightmares and troubled, or interrupted sleep. Hughes is among them. She said she had a dream that she was running near the bomb as it detonated and another that the bomber was chasing her.
In her waking life, she believes in perseverance.
"People will come together," Hughes said. "We're not going to go hide, but we're going to be cautious. We're going to be cognizant. We're going to think about it. We're going to be aware."
Nowacki agrees. She believes the Boston Marathon bombings made her resolve stronger.
"Number one, it's to protect my children and show them," Nowacki said. "And I remember saying that to them right afterward when each of them were crying. Even my 16-year-old, [who] is so amazing, she's so strong. And I remember hugging her and said, 'You can, you will make a difference in this world.' And she gets it. And she's the most amazing kid. She's a leader. So, I know that she is going to do great things and leave this world a better place. And I feel like we all have that responsibility if we can."
Nowacki says she certainly will run again next year, and her resolve is echoed by others.
Another marathoner and Sandy Hook resident, David Hagerman, finished the race before the bombs exploded. The 46-year-old operations executive at IBM was on a train from Copley Square to Revere, Mass., when the first bomb went off. He got a call from a friend.
Hagerman's wife and his 14-year-old daughter, Sydney, were waiting for him at his hotel in Revere. They watched the news before deciding to get out of the Boston metro area because of the uncertainty of another attack.
Both 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings brought a feeling of survival first — getting out of the way of whatever might be the next target. That was followed by anger, Hagerman said. There's anger that someone stole the positive mood of the day, anger that terror kept people from wanting to go to public events and anger that society copes with body scanners and security measures because of the actions of a few people with nefarious intent.
"I was truly moved by the people of Boston as I was running, and they saw my shirt with Sandy Hook," Hagerman said. "And you could just see it in their face, the positive spirit of humanity and their support of what I represented, who I was running for, and then just the thrill of finishing a marathon … to, instantly, this fear and somebody ruined this day."
Newtown is different. Newton has brought a grief that is enduring and ubiquitous, particularly for people who live there, Hagerman and others have said. There also is an emotional chasm between a person whose family member was killed on Dec. 14 and a person who was not at the school that day — even though Hagerman lives less than a mile from Sandy Hook Elementary.
"There's no playbook for [this that tells you] here's they way you're supposed to respond. Here's the way you're supposed to talk to your neighbors," Hagerman said. "There's probably some survivor guilt that goes on in our town, too. So, you have these 26 families and maybe even some of the first responder families that are going through just a terrible time. And I'll tell you, in my opinion, the real answer is, people aren't doing well."
After the Boston Marathon, Hagerman's daughter had a panic attack on the ride back from Boston — a feeling of nausea that her father could have been among the victims.
"She actually told me that night, because she couldn't sleep, she said, 'This is different from Newtown,'" Hagerman said, adding, "When we were back at the hotel, she saw the images on TV of the blood, just horrific stuff. And she said, 'At least with Newtown, I know it happened and how terrible it is, but there wasn't the images.'"
Blood on the street, real-time panic in the faces of runners on TV were too much for Sydney to bear, knowing that her father had just been there, Hagerman said.
For Hagerman, the sentiment has turned to the familiar resolve that many Americans came to know after Sept. 11th.
"I don't want these guys to win, being very candid with you," Hagerman said. "And I've already made the decision, I told my wife in the car, because my time qualifies me for next year, I said, 'I'm going back.'"