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Sept. 11 survivor shifted priorities, left Morgan Stanley to become nurse, moved to Florida

Charlie Caraher was on the 68th floor of the World Trade Center, starting his day as a computer programmer for Morgan Stanley, when the first plane hit the other tower.

Office paper fluttered from the building, like snow. Charlie smelled jet fuel. He saw people plummeting.

He was leaving a message for his wife at her work to tell her he was okay when the second plane hit his building.

"Hi, Catherine, this is Chaaaaaarrlie," he said, his voice quavering from the impact.

The building lurched and the floor felt like gelatin.

"I'm okay. All right?" he said. "I'll talk to you later. I want to see you. I'm going to hold you."

• • •

Charlie, 52, still talks about what happened as often as he can because it helps with his post-traumatic stress disorder. He noticed the others who tried to shove it down deep ended up getting sick.

He and his wife, Catherine Balkin, moved to Hudson just over a year ago because Charlie needed to be out of New York City by the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Florida is warm and they have family here. They hear frogs at night now. It's different.

Charlie has gotten good at reading cues to see how much people want to hear. Some want to know the basics: The second plane hit his tower as he called his wife. The floors were slanted, the stairs were slanted. There were giant cracks in the walls.

The building fell 13 minutes after he got out.

That's what he tells the people who don't want to hear much.

• • •

For the others, he speaks of what haunts him, how he and his colleagues went to the window after the first building was hit, a ring of fire and smoke, and watched people jump to their deaths. The first man, he said, was so calm. Even though Charlie was far up, he could see them hit the ground, terrible red blossoms. There was a woman who wore a beige dress that fluttered as she fell and her horrified, panicked, desperate eyes locked onto Charlie's as she passed his window. The image of her will be with Charlie until he dies. At the window, Charlie kept thinking that minutes earlier, those people were just like him, settling in for a day of work, wondering what they wanted for lunch.

From his desk, he grabbed a set of pens Catherine had given him and one cigarette, a Nat Sherman, the last in the pack. He had quit smoking almost a year earlier and saved it. He left everything else and raced for the exit. The building wobbled. It was early so his office had been fairly empty. Charlie was alone in the stairwell for about 20 stories until he saw life, other people going down, rescuers headed up. There were piles of high heels in the stairway tossed aside by fleeing women. The path moved slowly. An announcement on the speaker system told everyone the building was safe and there was no need to panic. Charlie thought he was going to die.

He got through the jammed exit and walked out of the building, trying to make sense of the nightmare around him. He begged a match from someone, lit his cigarette and couldn't believe he survived.

He wanted to make changes in his life. He and Catherine, now 57, worked very hard, and their identities were wrapped up in their jobs. His job, he said, was to help the company "take money from people and make more money and take more money from people."

Next time he came close to death, he said, he wanted different dying thoughts.

• • •

Charlie became a registered nurse. He and Catherine planned to stay in the city forever but, as time passed, they felt the city changed. The government was too intrusive. The Sept. 11 victims and survivors and first responders weren't respected, they said.

So they left their beloved Park Slope, Brooklyn, apartment, so small they couldn't open the oven door all the way, and moved to a large suburban house an hour's drive north of Tampa. They feel like they are living on a football field. Their back yard faces a forest. They saw their first armadillo.

Charlie is studying woodworking and enjoys buying tools for his new garage. Catherine likes swimming in the community pool. Their 14-year-old parrots, named Woof and Meow, seem to adore sitting out on the lanai and talking with the other birds. Many of the couple's relatives have visited. Some have talked of moving down, too. Charlie and Catherine go on adventures now, driving, exploring, trying to find the best cup of coffee in Tampa Bay. Today, on the 11th anniversary of the attacks, they will be vacationing on a quiet island off the Florida Panhandle. What they endured made them closer.

Charlie doesn't have as many nightmares as he used to. He tries to live life with more balance now, to still plan for the future, but live more. He works at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in the cardiac unit and loves doing whatever he can to save people, to comfort them in their pain. He works the midnight shift, a time often without visitors, when lonely patients need someone to talk to. They usually ask what brought him into nursing. He asks them if they want the short story or the long story.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6229.

Sept. 11 survivor shifted priorities, left Morgan Stanley to become nurse, moved to Florida 09/10/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 11:02am]

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