9/11 Survivor Recalls Unspoken Bond With Victims of Japan's Great Tsunami

Stephen Kern and Dr. Craig L. Katz recount their experiences with an outreach exchange between 9/11 and 3/11 survivors at Asia Society in New York on March 8, 2016. (3 min., 1 sec.)

When Stephen Kern stood on a seaside mountain last year in Ishinomaki, Japan, he noticed stairs leading down to a barren field that had once been populated. It was, he said, a “lightning bolt moment.” The area had been leveled by the March 11, 2011 tsunami, and the image jolted him back to the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center. In 2001, he’d been working on the building's 62nd floor when a hijacked passenger jet struck and began the worst terror attack in American history.  

“I could immediately picture people trying to get up those stairs to escape the tsunami and save their lives,” Kern said during an event at Asia Society in New York Tuesday. “I was struck by the fact that I was desperately trying to get down stairs, trying to save my life, along with hundreds of people.”

Kern had been in Ishinomaki on one of several outreach missions conducted in recent years where survivors, families, and first responders directly affected by the 9/11 attacks have traveled to Japan to meet with their counterparts hit by the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. The visceral parallels between the two disasters — like what Kern felt — were partly why disaster psychologists and 9/11 survivors organized the exchanges. The hope was that, by sharing their stories, both sides could cope with the ongoing trauma.

Last night, a panel of participants and organizers convened at Asia Society in New York to discuss these effects.

“I’ve seen estimates that the structural recovery [after disasters] is usually about 10 times as long as the immediate relief effort,” said Dr. Craig L. Katz, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry and medical education at Mount Sinai Hospital. “But the psychological and the spiritual recovery is undefined in how long it goes on.”

Dr. Katz, who had started a program providing disaster psychiatry services to 9/11 survivors a decade earlier, was anxious to apply what he’d learned to the case of Japan. “I think this kind of exchange, which relies on the most basic of things — human capital, support, and just the natural human urge to share, respond and help — is a resource that you can have forever, and it’s not that costly,” he said.

Kern recalled that he was reticent before participating in the exchange, not knowing what he could possibly say to the Japanese who had suffered so much. “But in the end, one thing I learned while I was there was that I didn’t always have to talk, and neither did they,” he said. “There was really what we could call 'a ministry of presence,' and our mere presence there really said volumes.”

Dr. Katz says that simple bonds like this could have profound implications for post-trauma recovery in future disasters. “These outreach trips are something worth replicating,” he said. “So you don’t just have medical professionals flying into places, but you have people flying into places to help out and share.”

In the above video, see Stephen Kern and Craig Katz discuss their experiences with the outreach exchanges. 

Watch the complete program:

Participants in exchanges between survivors of the 9/11 terror attacks and the 3/11 Great Japan Earthquake and Tsunami share their stories at Asia Society in New York on March 8, 2016. (1 hr., 21 min.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.