A decade after the devastating attacks, family, friends, and colleagues of terror’s victims are finding peace through service
Liz and Steve Alderman
“Because Peter lived, the world is a better place.”
Liz and Steve Alderman were in the South of France, celebrating Steve’s 60th birthday, when a shopkeeper ran up to them. “Your country has been attacked,” she exclaimed. Until that moment, the Aldermans had considered themselves fortunate. Steve was a radiation oncologist in New York’s Westchester County; his wife was an avid painter, a quilt maker, and an opera fan. They were happy, prosperous, and close to their three grown children. Now, as they learned of the destruction at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they wondered whether their luck would hold. Their son Peter, 25, worked for a financial company in Manhattan; their daughter, Jane, 28, lived in Washington, D.C. Either could have been in harm’s way.
For hours, the worried couple tried to phone their kids, but there were no overseas connections. Finally, their son Jeff, then 30 and a physician in Oklahoma, managed to reach them. “Jane’s fine,” he said. “I talked to her.”
“What about Pete?” Liz asked.
There was a pause. “Pete was there. People are looking for him, but I’m sure he’s okay.”
Peter had been on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center, attending a conference at the Windows on the World restaurant, when the first plane hit directly below. At 9:25 a.m., he sent Jane his last e-mail: “We’re stuck. The room is filling with smoke. I’m scared.”
Over the following weeks, the Aldermans learned how beloved Peter—the baby of the family, all “laughter and sunshine”—had been to others: When they threw a party to memorialize his life, 300 people showed up. “Peter enjoyed creating and cultivating relationships,” says Steve. Adds Liz, “He was constantly taking care of people. He made them feel better about themselves.”
As their grief descended, the couple nearly collapsed under its weight; Steve retired from his medical practice, and Liz gave up her artwork. On some days, they could barely get out of bed. Liz recalls the horror of the endless tape loop spooling in her head: “I have no idea how my child … how long he lived, if he was alive when the building crumbled. And my only prayer is that he didn’t know he was about to die.”
Eventually, she found a way to cope. “In the worst circumstances in life, I learned there are only two options,” she says. “You can kill yourself—either literally or emotionally by crawling into bed and never getting out. Or you can put one foot in front of the other and take baby steps forward.”
The breakthrough came one sleepless night in June 2002 when Liz watched a Nightline program about the psychic scars of war and terrorism. She learned that one billion people around the world have suffered from mass violence and natural disasters; among those directly affected, about two thirds develop depression and other crippling psychological problems. The Aldermans could afford counseling; most of these people could not. Liz remembers thinking, If we can help bring these people back to life, that would be the perfect memorial for Peter.
The couple called an expert featured on the show—Richard F. Mollica, MD, director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma. With his guidance and some of the $1.4 million they received from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, they launched the Peter C. Alderman Foundation. Their mission: to train doctors and nurses in countries ravaged by war to treat emotional trauma.
They found that the challenges of effectively launching their project were more than just logistical. At the first clinic they opened, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2005, Steve learned that when Cambodians feel depressed or anxious, they believe it’s because the household gods have deserted them. So he encouraged monks from a local monastery to counsel patients for a year after they were released from the clinic. Now it’s part of every patient’s treatment. “Our model is to include spiritual healing because we know it works,” says Steve.
They know because it has worked for them. “The whole business of work and spirituality—you go outside yourself,” says Steve. Adds Liz, “The nature of the work gave me a reason to get out of bed every day. I thought I was never going to feel good about anything ever again. And I feel incredibly good about the people who have come into my life and the people we’re meeting along the way.”
The nonprofit now operates mental-health clinics in Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, and Haiti; its nearly 600 doctors have treated thousands of trauma victims in 22 countries.
From some safe beyond, Steve and Liz sense their son’s approval—and amusement. “We’ve won awards, and they’ve made a movie about us, and blah, blah, blah,” says Steve with a little laugh. “We feel that if Peter could have seen that stuff, he’d have thought we’re a real hoot.”