McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
forensic psychology, phenomenology, qualitative research
The police officers of the NYPD who responded to the scene of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 faced a sudden and large-scale catastrophe that caused the deaths of many innocent civilians and threatened their own lives. The present study examines the lived meanings of this experience for three police officers who survived the collapse of the Twin Towers while acting in the performance of their duty. Although a great deal of research has been conducted in the field of psychological trauma, the existential meaning of traumatic events for those that live through them is not well understood. In addition, there is little empirical research that examines the particular nature of traumatic experiences as experienced by police officers in the line of duty. Further, because no disaster such as this, caused intentionally and resulting in such mass-scale devastation and loss of life had ever occurred in the United States, the experience of police officers in living through such an event had not been studied.
In order to collect the data for this research I conducted interviews with three police officers who had been at the World Trade Center site when the buildings collapsed. I asked them to describe their experiences on that day in detail. Phenomenological analysis of these interviews revealed several significant lived meanings of the experience for these police officers. The findings were organized into a general structural narrative delineating ten themes of existential importance for the officers.
The results reveal that the officers identified strongly with their roles as police officers with the NYPD. They took seriously their dedication to protect and serve the public, and held saving lives as their highest value. Because of this, the officers were especially distressed when they witnessed the deaths of innocent people, those who jumped to their deaths from the burning towers or who were killed on the ground. The officers, typically assuming a position of confidence and power, were helpless to perform their most sacred duty. As the world around them changed so dramatically and so horribly, the officers continued to uphold the value they placed in their duty to help save lives. The findings reveal the importance for the officers of being in the world with others, and participating in a shared humanity. Each one of the officers encountered the very real possibility of dying that day, and they all thought of others during what could have been their final moments. The officers came to terms with having survived by maintaining a belief in the value of being in service of others, and that their survival would mean the fostering of aid for others in the future.
Irvine, C. (2005). New York City Police Officers' Experiences of the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks: An Existential Psychological Study (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/682