This profile is part of a series called ‘Living in the shadow of 9/11,’ which looks at how the worlds of five extraordinary people changed, twenty years later.
In the days afterward, Brian Clark would get phone calls from family members of his missing colleagues, pleading to know if he had seen their person on his descent from the 84th floor of the south tower. He found a gentle way to tell them that if they hadn’t heard from their loved one by then, they were not going to. “I took some comfort, if you like, in that I was already helping other people understand what had happened and I could be sympathetic,” he says.
Clark seems acutely aware that his basic emotional okay-ness as a survivor of 9/11—then, now and in the intervening years—seems unusual, but he’s always had a sunny outlook by default, and his Christian faith provides him with ballast. He never says no to any group that asks him to speak, though the endless retelling eventually became so onerous that now he directs them to a recorded version of his story and he’ll speak to them afterward to answer questions. “I can remember that day, it rolls like a movie in my brain,” he says. “Other than the 10 seconds when our building swayed after the second impact, after our building got hit, I was only terrified for those 10 seconds. At all other times, I had this feeling wash over me that, ‘Brian, you’re going to be okay.’ ”
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While 9/11 does not haunt Clark to the degree it does so many others, he lives in its shadow. Recently, he called a real estate agent and the moment he introduced himself, she said, “I know exactly who you are, you’re Brian Clark of 9/11.” Other times in social settings, he can see it coming in the usual flow of small talk: the standard question about where he’s from leads to a mention that he moved from Toronto to New York when his company opened an office in the World Trade Center. The reactions vary from embarrassment to naked curiosity, but people are always kind about it. “I sort of internally say, ‘Oh darn, here we go down the rabbit hole again,’ ” he says. “I don’t mind telling the story but I make it a really brief summary.”
As for whether he has ever tried to make sense of why he was spared that day when so many were not, Clark takes a philosophical approach to what might otherwise be survivor’s guilt. “I don’t waste my time trying to answer unanswerable questions,” he says. “Because, by definition, they’re unanswerable.”
Very few of us are inundated with global media coverage marking the passage of another year in our lives and our distance from events etched into our memories, but Clark waves off the premise that this is distinct for him. “We’re all blistered or oversaturated in the 20th anniversary, but my 20th anniversary is no different than your 20th anniversary,” he says.
At first, this doesn’t seem to make sense: 9/11 belongs to him and his life story in a way it doesn’t to the world at large. But then Clark elaborates and it becomes clear what he means. The march of time since that seismic day is the same for all of us, because whether you were on the 84th floor fleeing to safety or somewhere hundreds of kilometres away watching on TV in horror, no one will ever forget where they were when the towers fell.