For One 9/11 Survivor, the Road to Recovery Is Paved by Helping Others

Nicole B. Simpson
Nicole B. Simpson

In 2001, Nicole B. Simpson was just trying to make money at Morgan Stanley (MS), and she was doing a good job of it, pulling down six figures. She had a promising career in the financial services industry. Then September 11 happened.

"The course of my life changed," says Simpson.

A decade later, her memories of the day are as fresh as yesterday. Simpson, a certified financial planner, worked on the 73rd floor at 2 World Trade Center and was in a typical morning meeting with her two assistants when Tower One was hit. They felt the impact, but initially, she didn't think anything dire until she walked to the window and saw burnt paper flying like confetti in a ticker tape parade.

"I felt the urge to get out of the building," says Simpson, who along with her assistants and the receptionist began walking down the stairs. They made their way to the 44th floor to catch the elevator. "I got on the elevator, hesitated, got off and allowed the door to close. Thirty seconds later the building was hit, there was an explosion, fireballs. People who I had just stood next to in the elevator perished and I was standing there, unaffected," she says.

She had no clue of the magnitude of what had happened until they reached the mezzanine level and saw utter chaos. "My first thought when I saw the doors and windows was to get out, but we weren't allowed to because it was unsafe, because of things falling from above and people jumping out of windows," says Simpson.

Instead, they were ushered downstairs to the building's lower levels and passageways, where the subway station and shops were. "I walked out of 5 World Trade Center and didn't look back until I went a couple of blocks to Broadway. I looked back and saw the plane dangling from the building. It was not a movie. It was real."

A Life Derailed

She survived, but a part of her died that day. "I was in total shock. By day six or seven, I started asking myself how I got out, and why I got out. For almost two years, I had survivor's guilt," says Simpson, who is married and has a teenage daughter and grown son.

"I was grateful to be alive. I thought with my experience and expertise, I would be capable of rebounding. I didn't consider the physical pain, the flashbacks -- thunder and lightening can trigger memories of when the building came down -- it can put me right back there. I have nightmares, sleepless nights. I haven't slept more than two or three hours a night in 10 years," says Simpson.

The stress took a toll on her career, too. She was so traumatized that she didn't set foot in New York City again until 2004. She shifted her job to a Morgan Stanley office in her home state of New Jersey, but her income shrank to as low as $18,000 in 2002.

"I didn't have any other options, because managing money was all I knew," says Simpson. "I floundered in my field, switching firms a few times. I couldn't get my bearings. I had physical symptoms, I couldn't breathe, I had bronchitis, and sinus issues. My lack of sleep affected my work. I was up all night and not falling asleep until 4 a.m. I wasn't able to operate efficiently. In my business you can't show up for work at 11 a.m."

'I Began to Dream Again ...'

It wasn't until 2005 that she slowly recovered some semblance of her old self, and was able to focus enough at work to make $80,000. By 2007 though, she was ready to do her own thing. Late that year, she started Harvest Wealth Financial, a firm that offers financial and disaster planning with a spiritual, compassionate flavor, specializing in serving clients who are dealing with traumas such as catastrophic illness or a premature death in the family. "I use my experience and my empathy," says Simpson.

Helping others helped her. "I reached the point of no return. A decision had to be made. Was I going to continue to allow September 11, 2001, to defeat me or would I make every attempt to find myself again," says Simpson, who marks her rebirth in 2008 when she says she chose to live. She credits her turnaround to her faith, and when was asked to make a speech, she titled it "Dare 2 Dream." She did just that, and the speech grew into a book: Dare 2 Dream: Pushing Past Your Pain to Pursue Purpose.

"I began to dream again. In encouraging others, a spark was ignited to me. I had to start believing in myself again. I began by developing a strategy to meet new clients. I created a daily to-do list. In addition, I began to share my story with individuals while encouraging them to not allow catastrophic and/or traumatic events to define their destiny."

She started interviewing other 9/11 survivors to find out how they were coping. "I realized I was not alone. I was encouraged," says Simpson who went on to write 9/11/01: A Long Road Toward Recovery to help put the needs of 9/11 survivors in the spotlight. During the month of September, a portion of the proceeds from its e-book sales will be donated to 9/11 survivors though the organization Tuesday's Children, a nonprofit that provides support for the families of 9/11 and others impacted by global terrorism.

Getting Survivors the Help They're Due

Simpson has volunteered her services as an adviser to about a dozen 9/11 survivors, shepherding them through the process of determining if they're eligible for money through the Zadroga Act, which President Obama signed earlier this year. The Act makes those who have physical ailments directly related to 9/11 eligible for compensation.

"I will see that they get evaluated at the hospital, that they get an attorney," explains Simpson who has worked with the Department of Justice on behalf of 9/11 survivors to ensure information regarding the Zadroga Act was made available to individuals who were not residents of New York.

That money, which will likely be distributed in 2012, says Simpson, is much needed. "Many survivors have not been able to hold onto jobs, some not only because of the recession, but because they feared going into buildings, or had health issues that made work challenging. They have lost homes, have suffered not only emotionally but financially. I know what it is like to feel like you have no guidance," says Simpson.

"My practice has purpose. I deal with the emotions. When people are overwhelmed it can manifest itself in spending too much. A person can go out and blow $800 because they feel sorry for themselves," says Simpson. People with special circumstances have unique issues. "Someone with cancer may not be able to qualify for life insurance, so if they don't have that lump sum available to them, what savings strategy will there be?"

Giving and sharing brings her closer to recovery, but she still suffers from bouts of depression, anxiety and stress. "If I think about it, I might cry. Survivors will live with this the rest of our lives. I did everything right and an event changed the course of my life. I do realize though, that I have weathered this better than some survivors."

The 10-year anniversary is bittersweet. Simpson, like many other survivors, clergy and first responders, is upset that they have been asked not attend the 9/11 memorials in New York City. "[Mayor] Bloomberg says there is not enough room and because there is significant interest in families of the deceased attending. It feels like a slap in those face to us though. Each politician should give up a seat to a survivor," she suggests.

For her, the silver lining in all the trauma is that she has a new purpose. Her job now doesn't really compare to what she was doing as a traditional financial planner before 9/11. "It's more important to deal with people who are suffering. Trauma changes the course of life and how it changes is based on economics. There are huge financial costs. People need expertise and empathy," says Simpson.

"I may not be making the money I was, but I'm blessed. I use my voice to spread insight, to draw attention to what survivors have endured. I'm 40 now and excited. I feel like I lost 10 years."