Hundreds of hidden Long Island cases often sealed improperly

When investment adviser William Landberg appeared on Fox Business’ “Bulls & Bears” in 2009, he warned viewers against big gambles and described the careful approach of his firm, West End Financial Advisors.

“What we are looking at for our clients is to be only in spaces where our investors have a very high probability of getting not only a return of their capital,” he said, “but a return on their capital.”

Hidden in a Suffolk County records room was a lawsuit that strongly disputed Landberg’s claims of probity, charging him with being a deadbeat and fraud.

The lawsuit could have served as a warning to those who had entrusted their money to Landberg, many of whom would lose their life savings, but a judge’s faulty order sealed the case, preventing investors and the public from seeing the records.

The Landberg case is one of more than 300 identified by Newsday that Long Island judges sealed — often without justification — despite government agencies, hospitals and other entities key to the public’s welfare being parties.

Some cases involved matters more troubling than Landberg’s financial crimes, which landed him in federal prison and cost his investors $66 million.

Judges have sealed cases involving sexual abuse at a taxpayer-funded program for disadvantaged kids; a doctor alleged to have serially molested a mentally disabled woman at his medical office; a toddler who died at an unlicensed day care center; and nursing homes that evicted residents unable to pay for their beds.

Cases that involved allegations of misconduct by prominent local figures in finance, politics and law have also been sealed.

Read Part 2

Other names known beyond the region who have been party to sealed cases include the late John R. “Bunky” Hearst Jr., an heir to the Hearst fortune, and James H. Simons, a pioneering hedge fund investor and Long Island’s richest man. One recently sealed case is Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s lawsuit seeking $10 million from his ex-wife, who he says had an affair with a Nassau County police detective.

In contrast to the Landberg case, judges’ sealing orders in most of these court actions led to concealment of all salient information — what was alleged, who may have been at fault, and whether case records involve matters of public significance. Details of the Landberg case emerged only because a Manhattan judge, ruling in a companion legal action, refused to go along with the investment adviser’s request for secrecy, unlike the judge in Suffolk.

Parties agreeing to seal the record presumably only take their own interests into consideration, and do not consider the interests of the public.

– Judge Paul G. Feinman

In his ruling, the Manhattan judge, Paul G. Feinman, repeatedly cited provisions of the state court rule governing sealing, which requires that judges consider the public’s right to know in making their determinations. He stressed that the power to seal a lawsuit belongs only to the judge, even in cases like Landberg’s where the collection agency had no objection to the investment adviser’s sealing request.

“Parties agreeing to seal the record presumably only take their own interests into consideration,” Feinman wrote, “and do not consider the interests of the public.”

Roots of the rule

Feinman was enforcing a state court rule that was established 25 years ago in part due to worries that a sealing order had hidden information on industrial contamination that threatened a community outside Rochester. The case heightened concern among state court leaders that confidentiality deals were warping case outcomes and that judges, eager to support areas of agreement and keep cases moving, were too often going along when both sides wanted a lawsuit hidden.

The rule bars judges from sealing cases “except upon a written finding of good cause, which shall specify the grounds thereof.” The same language was incorporated in the state’s mental health law, where it applies in cases involving whether a person is unable to care for him or herself and in need of a court-appointed guardian.

Court decisions have interpreted the rule to require that judges do two things: determine whether a party has a legitimate reason to seal a case, then weigh that party’s interest in confidentiality against the public’s interest in disclosure. Also, courts have found that when secrecy is justified, less is best: Judges should not shroud an entire case file when sealing a single record or redacting a name does the job.

Newsday’s examination of more than a decade’s worth of sealing orders found that Long Island judges routinely sealed cases with little or no regard for the rule or case law. Judges neglected to explain their decisions at all or offered boilerplate justifications, citing, for instance, the presence of “confidential and privileged information” in a case file. They also frequently sealed entire files when a more targeted approach would suffice.

For this story, Newsday identified 311 sealed cases that originated in Nassau and Suffolk state Supreme Courts over comparable 10-year periods. Two-thirds involved guardianships, the remainder a range of other civil actions.

Newsday got copies of sealing orders in 261 of the 311 cases and found that:

  • Orders in half the cases that did not involve a guardianship simply declared a case sealed or cited the rule without providing any grounds for confidentiality. In these cases, some naming public agencies, financial firms and major health care providers as parties, judges’ orders clearly fell short of what the sealing rule demands.
  • In 200 orders, judges relied on generic phrases that were duplicated from one order to another. Most involved guardianships in Suffolk and used language lifted verbatim from the relevant law without reference to the cases at hand.
  • In only 14 instances — 5 percent of the 261 orders — did the judge make specific findings substantially tailored to the case being considered.
  • In 35 of the 311 cases, all but four of them in Suffolk, judges decided an even higher degree of secrecy was needed — they sealed the order sealing the case, making it impossible to know whether the rule was honored.

To assess the relevance to the public of concealed information, Newsday a month ago asked state court leaders to turn over the 35 sealed orders and to open up 45 cases that Long Island judges sealed improperly.

Court officials have yet to respond to Newsday’s requests.

Questions left unanswered

A dangerous doctor, a regulatory agency and a taxpayer-funded nonprofit were spared public scrutiny when judges seeking to protect the identity of young victims sealed entire case files rather than simply removing names and other personal identifying information from records, Newsday found.

Consider the case of Dr. Mohan Sharma, which has never been reported in the press. Police arrested Sharma in January 2013 on charges of forcibly touching a woman at his medical office. Sharma’s attorney reported the arrest to the state Office of Professional Medical Conduct, which regulates doctors.

Police arrested Sharma again in October 2013, this time on charges of having sexually assaulted a mentally disabled female patient at his office, a felony. Soon after, the medical conduct agency barred Sharma from practicing, records indicate, and by the end of the year he had sold his Nesconset practice.

The family of the disabled patient filed a lawsuit against Sharma in 2014, alleging that he had repeatedly drugged and assaulted the young woman, identified as Jane Doe.

With the case sealed, it’s impossible to know whether it holds any clues to why the medical conduct agency, in contrast to its actions in other criminal cases, allowed Sharma to continue seeing patients for nearly a year after his first arrest. An agency spokesperson declined interview requests, saying officials were barred from discussing investigations.

Knowledge of the hidden case could have been critical to Sharma’s patients in a variety of ways, from alerting them to the alarming charges against their doctor, to motivating them to step forward if they themselves had been victimized.

Ultimately, the criminal charges against Sharma were dropped, said his attorney David Besso, after several psychiatrists found that his client was suffering from a degenerative brain disorder. Besso said Sharma was not in a condition to answer questions from a reporter.

When he sealed the case, Nassau Judge Thomas Feinman gave no basis for doing so. After being contacted for this story, he amended his order to state that the public interest failed to prevail over confidentiality concerns because the case involved sexual assault in which both perpetrator and victim were of “diminished mental capacity.” He declined to be interviewed.

Allegations at a nonprofit

Another case in Suffolk involved Long Island Child & Family Development Services, a taxpayer-funded nonprofit known locally as Head Start. A mother charged that her daughter had been sexually abused at the program, which readies disadvantaged kids for school. Judge Emily Pines, in a 2010 order, sealed the case because it involved “allegations of sexual assault against a minor.”

Head Start attorney David Cohen said the case occurred before he began working for the nonprofit and he knew few details, but two children were involved and no adult Head Start employee was an alleged perpetrator.

The identity of children in such litigation, as well as trade secrets and personal medical histories, is information that few argue should ever be available to the public.

Pines, however, could simply have redacted the names of children and any other identifying details. With the whole file sealed, it’s impossible to assess the agency’s response to the alleged sexual assault of a child in its care or whether negligence by Head Start, which provides services to hundreds of low-income children at sites throughout Suffolk, played a contributing role in the incident.

In an interview, Pines, who is no longer a judge and serves as chief of staff to the Brookhaven town supervisor, said she could not recall specifics of the case and why she sealed the entire file.

In many instances, such as the 33 sealed cases Newsday identified that involved government agencies, the identities of the litigants alone suggest that judges concealed matters of public concern. One case from 2007 appears to involve the Suffolk Police Department’s hiring practices. Another from 2008 is a Suffolk election law case in which the Democratic Party sought to oust a maverick contender, Jimmy Dahroug, from the ballot.

Attorney Jerry Goldfeder, an election law practitioner for 35 years who has written and taught on the subject, said it’s “extraordinarily rare” for a judge to seal such a case and that he knew of only one other instance in the state.

In an interview, Dahroug said he did not ask for the case to be sealed.

“I think the judge took it upon himself to do it,” he said. “I don’t know what his reasoning was.”

Neither does the public, because the judge, Jeffrey Arlen Spinner, gave no explanation in his order for why he sealed the case, as required. The same is true of the police department hiring case, which Spinner also heard.

Another 2008 action involved an anonymous John Doe and the Suffolk Board of Ethics. Judge Thomas F. Whelan did not issue a written sealing order in that case but simply declared the matter confidential from the bench at the apparent urging of an assistant county attorney. Whelan gave no basis for his decision, according to a transcript of the hearing.

Both Whelan and Spinner declined to be interviewed.

Other government agencies named in cases that judges sealed include the state Department of Health and the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, the Village of Freeport, the Suffolk Department of Social Services and four school districts.

A death at a day care

Though personal privacy was often given as a justification for sealing, Newsday’s examination found that judges sealed cases even when details were already public.

In 2009, for instance, 2-year-old Olivia Raspanti choked to death on a carrot at Carousel Day School, a Hicksville day care center. The case was widely covered in the press, and Carousel’s owner and an assistant director pleaded guilty to running an unlicensed day care center and reckless endangerment, respectively.

Nassau Judge Bruce Cozzens in 2012 sealed a civil case that arose from the death because it was in the “best interests of the estate.” Cozzens did not mention the public’s interest in the case, particularly that of parents who may want to learn more when deciding whether to send their kids to the day care, which continues to operate and is now properly licensed. Cozzens declined to be interviewed.

Carousel Day School and the Raspanti family’s attorney did not respond to interview requests.

Another case involved Dennis McCormack, a self-described Catholic bishop who held services in Latin in a Plainview American Legion hall. McCormack was convicted in 2010 of committing a sex act with a parishioner under the age of 17. His arrest was covered in the press, though his victim was not named.

In 2010, a lawsuit was brought anonymously against McCormack and several Catholic organizations, including the Legion of Christ, a target of Vatican criticism that year for its handling of a sex abuse scandal involving its founder. McCormack attended a legion seminary from 1986 until 1990, said Legion of Christ spokesman Jim Fair.

Judge Thomas Adams, now Nassau’s chief judge, sealed the case in 2011 based on a provision of the state civil rights law meant to protect the identity of sex abuse victims. It’s often used to allow victims to bring lawsuits anonymously, but Adams used the provision to seal the entire file. As a result, what the Catholic groups named in the lawsuit may have known about prior incidents or allegations of abuse, if any, by McCormack and their responses to his crime are hidden.

Fair said he had no details on the lawsuit and could find no indication of abuse problems concerning McCormack, who declined to discuss the case.

Another case, in 2003, involved a former executive at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn who alleged she was fired after attempting to alert medical authorities that she believed negligence by the hospital had contributed to patient deaths. The case made news, but with all files sealed, it’s hard for the public to gauge the culpability of Wyckoff Heights or whether the hospital retaliated against a whistleblower who had leveled serious charges.

A spokeswoman for the hospital said she could not comment because the case is sealed.

Newsday found 55 sealed actions involving nursing homes and hospitals, including large regional institutions like Nassau University Medical Center and North Shore-LIJ Health System, which now operates as Northwell Health.

A more recent example involves Bill O’Reilly of Fox News.

In May, the erstwhile news and gossip website Gawker reported that O’Reilly planned to sue his ex-wife seeking upward of $10 million in damages. O’Reilly had sought to anonymously file the lawsuit, which alleges that his ex-wife “fraudulently induced” him into a consensual divorce “to obtain money and real property to finance an existing extramarital relationship.”

That request was struck down, Gawker reported, but on June 1, Nassau Judge Roy Mahon sealed the case, making records that had been public confidential. Gawker has challenged Mahon’s sealing order in court, but since the news site closed in August, it’s unclear what will become of the effort. A successor entity to Gawker may continue the legal fight to open the case.

O’Reilly’s lawyer, Fredric F. Newman, did not return calls.

Newsday has asked state court leaders to provide the sealing order in the O’Reilly matter to determine whether it complies with the rule, as it has in 35 similar cases.

Though records in the O’Reilly case are sealed, the electronic case management system at the Nassau clerk’s office still catalogs the lawsuit. Search by party name or the case number at public computer terminals and a docket entry appears, as it did for the other sealed cases that Newsday identified.

Some cases in Nassau, however, have not left even this modest trace. Clerk’s office records state that from 2002 through this year, four cases have been completely withheld from the public docket due to “security restrictions.”
Newsday has asked state court officials to explain what is meant by the term and to justify maintaining what appears to be a secret docket of civil actions. They have yet to respond.

Jane E. Kirtley, a professor at the University of Minnesota and director of its Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, said court leaders “need to have a good explanation for this.”

“Court dockets are supposed to be, historically have been and are presumed to be public, for good reason,” Kirtley said. “It’s their responsibility to justify the deviation from the norm. Meaningless phrases like ‘security restrictions’ are not sufficient.”

Judges differ on seal

The sealing rule was designed in part to fix a problem: judges sealing cases just because one or both parties want it to happen and without considering whether confidentiality best serves the public. Despite the rule’s intent, Long Island judges repeatedly cited the desire of parties to seal as sufficient reason.

That is what happened in the Landberg case. When Judge Gary Weber in Suffolk sealed the lawsuit against the investment adviser, which sought to recover a $461,000 debt and alleged that he had engaged in fraud to dodge creditors, Weber’s two-sentence order noted that “no opposition was submitted” to Landberg’s request.

Portions of Judge Feinman’s 10-page ruling in Manhattan denying Landberg’s sealing application read like an unwitting rebuke to Weber. “Sealing is a decision for the court,” Feinman wrote, “regardless of the wishes of the parties.”

While Weber’s ruling makes no mention of the public’s interest, Feinman was unequivocal in his decision: “The investing public has a right to know of any alleged wrongdoing by investment firms, even if that wrongdoing is unfounded, given that investing money requires as much information as possible.”

Weber and Feinman, who made their contrasting decisions in 2007, declined to be interviewed.

Landberg pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 2011, said goodbye to his Hamptons home and luxury Fifth Avenue apartment, and went to federal prison. None of the $66 million his investors lost has been repaid, court records state. Landberg was released from prison a year ago. Attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.

Michael Raounas of Southampton, who lost nearly $5 million, his entire life savings, as a result of Landberg’s crimes, expressed disbelief that judges responded so divergently to the investment adviser’s sealing requests.

“If in the legal system, one judge says A, another judge says B, it’s a contradiction,” said Raounas, 73. “The judges in New York are different than the judges in Suffolk County? I don’t understand it.”


For this story, Newsday identified 311 sealed cases that originated in Nassau state Supreme Court from 2003 to 2014 and Suffolk state Supreme Court from 2005 through early 2015. Newsday did not look at sealing in town, village or district courts.

Neither Nassau nor Suffolk Supreme Court formally track sealed cases. The 311 cases were identified using a code for sealing orders in Nassau’s electronic case management system and notes that clerks made to case minutes in Suffolk’s system, but there is no way to be sure that all sealed cases were found.

Newsday found portions of some sealed cases attached as exhibits in other lawsuits, allowing the curtain to be pulled back a bit. In other instances, despite sealing orders, partial files were available on the state court system’s website. Some sealing orders also offered a glimpse into a case, though in many instances the order was so vague it was impossible to tell what a case was about.

9/11 remembered: Generation Y reflects on the 15th anniversary

Gen Y is the last generation that will have personal memories of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Now between the ages 18 and 34 years old, most millennials have lived in a post-9/11 world for half their lives and, for many, the tragedy shaped their futures.

amNewYork spoke with six individuals in this age group, all of whom were living in the New York area at the time of the terrorist attacks. Each one had a different experience on the tragic day, but they all recognize the attack as a formative moment for their generation.

“It has an effect on us subconsciously,” Terrease Aiken, who lost her father, said. “And it affects everything we do.”

9/11 victims

  • Manhattan: 2,753 (total)
  • North Tower: 1,470
  • South Tower: 695
  • FDNY: 346
  • NYPD: 23
  • Port Authority Police Department: 37
  • Other first responders: 35
  • Flight 11: 87
  • Flight 175: 60
  • Pentagon: 184 (total)
  • Flight 77: 59
  • Flight 93: 40

Source: 9/11 Memorial Museum

“The world changed instantly,” Erin Coughlin, a 31-year-old NYPD officer, said as she stood in front of the Battery Park Police Memorial, which bears her father’s name. She added that her generation went from being sheltered to understanding that “the world’s a little more scary sometimes.”

And for many, it created a sense of cynicism, Absar Alam, 22, said. “We question everything. We question the world. We question everyone’s motives.”

Looking back 15 years later, these six shared their memories, as well as how their perspectives have changed since the attacks.

6 voices, 15 years later

Terrease Aiken

“It took us some time to really cope with the fact that he wasn’t coming back and he was no longer missing.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, Terrease Aiken sat with her two younger brothers in front of the television, hoping to see her dad come out of the smoke.

“I knew if I could just see his face, I would know he was OK,” she said.

Aiken was 8 years old and living on Staten Island at the time. Her father, Terrance, 30, had started work as a computer consultant for Marsh & McLennan in the north tower on Sept. 4, 2001. He was on the 97th floor.

Her mom had tried calling him, but there was no answer. A day went by, and another.

“We didn’t really know what was going on,” Aiken said. “It took us some time to really cope with the fact that he wasn’t coming back and he was no longer missing.”

Aiken, now 23 and a 2016 graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, said it’s still hard to understand what happened that day. “How do you go to work and then a plane just goes into your building?” she asked. At the time, she said, she became scared of everything. “Knowing that you can lose someone like that, so fast and so tragically, I was terrified that that was gonna happen again to my family.”

After the terror attacks, Aiken’s family moved from Staten Island to upstate New York, then to Georgia and then back upstate. She returned to New York City when she started at NYU.

“I always felt like New York was my home,” she said. Even with the memories of 9/11, she said she knows New York is the place she is meant to be. “I can’t just go avoiding a city because of what happened,” she said.

Aiken lived in an NYU dorm on Lafayette and Franklin streets, which is only a 20-minute walk from the World Trade Center. “For the most part I tried not to think about the fact that I was so close to it,” she said.

But Aiken said she tries not to think about 9/11 as only a negative.

“To me it’s a tragedy, but I don’t choose to wear that,” she said. “Because I went through something like that at such a young age, it makes me really appreciate things that are around me and really appreciate life and not want to give up.”

Absar Alam

On 9/11, he was a third grader, one of two Muslim students at his Bay Ridge school.

As one of two Muslim students at Our Lady of Angels school in Bay Ridge, third-grader Absar Alam didn’t think much about what it meant to be a Muslim American. After 9/11, “the terms were set for me,” Alam, now 22, said.

He recalls the worry of his parents, who told him only that “crazy people” had piloted planes into the buildings filled with innocent people. His parents fretfully debated as to whether his mother, an immigrant from India, should wear her hijab outside the house. Alam and his younger brother were told to never deny being Muslim, but also not to “create a big deal” out of their faith.

One week after the attacks, “cliques started to form” in school: He and the other Muslim boy were not permitted in any of them. “I felt stigmatized,” Alam recalled. At a schoolwide assembly, the principal laid down the law: Kindness and inclusiveness would be practiced by everyone.

“Sister Elizabeth! Bless her soul. She made it a point to have us included in everything. I was really glad she took that stance.”

Attending Catholic school and maturing in a city that exposed him to “all three major monotheistic faiths” taught him that reasonable Muslims, Christians and Jews share the same beliefs around personal responsibility, the importance of practicing kindness, participating in charitable acts and working to make the world a better place.

But Alam also felt that Muslim Americans seemed not to have equal standing to critique foreign policy having to do with majority Muslim countries.

“Muslims who criticized the Iraq invasion were seen as terrorist sympathizers or having a conflict of interest: It was completely weird,” he said.

He added that the Iraq war created a generation of cynics, largely because weapons of mass destruction, the reason behind the invasion, were never found. “It goes against all our innate yearning for hope. If there is one thing that 9/11 — and then the war in Iraq — taught us, it is that violence is not the answer.”

Alam, who graduated from NYU last year with a degree in business and technology management and finance, is a co-founder of an all-inclusive business services consultancy and is also active in charity work and the nationwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association. As a Muslim American, he is especially grateful to non-Muslims who have taken issue with GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and is distressed by those who have subjected his community to unwarranted racial and ethnic profiling as a result of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

“In the overall scope of my life, (9/11) definitely played a role. I like to think it shaped me for the better,” he said. “I want to run for public office. I’d like to run for the City Council — and make a pass at mayor after that.”

Erin Coughlin

Then a junior in high school, she remembers getting the call about her father, a police sergeant who worked in the Bronx.

When Erin Coughlin first heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center, she knew her dad would be at the scene.

Her father, Sgt. John Coughlin, was a member of the NYPD’s ESU Truck 4.

“He worked in the Bronx, so I didn’t think he would be there right away, but I knew he would be there,” she said.

Coughlin, 31, was a junior in high school in Rockland County at the time. She remembers her mother getting a call from an officer who worked with her dad, saying someone was going to pick her mom up and take her to 1 Police Plaza. But Coughlin said she had a gut feeling that something was wrong.

“We knew something was up,” Coughlin said. The phone call confirmed that her father was listed as missing.

She would later learn that her dad, who worked in the NYPD for 18 years, died trying to rescue people trapped in the towers. He was 43.

Coughlin, who joined the police force herself in July 2012, said even at a young age she always knew something bad could happen to her dad any time he left for work.

“Anyone I grew up with who had family members who did other things for a living, they didn’t go to the door and say bye to their dad and tell them that they loved him and to be careful,” she said. “I grew up knowing that at any point it could happen, and our worst nightmare came true.”

But the risks of being a police officer didn’t stop her from becoming one. Now serving in the 33rd Precinct, Coughlin carries a little bit of her dad with her each day. The moment she learned she would be a cop, she decided she wanted to wear the shield number 2275 — the same number her father wore when he was a police officer.

“It’s such an honor that, as I show up to work every day and interact with the public, he’s still with me,” she said. “It’s just that little bit of him I get to keep.”

Coughlin spoke about her dad in front of the Battery Park Police Memorial Wall, which honors NYPD members who died in the line of duty. Coughlin said the wall is more intimate than the Sept. 11 memorial across the street. When she visits by herself, she quietly finds her dad’s name.

“He’s up there right now with his guys,” she said. “His guys are on that wall with him.”

9/11 memorials in NYC

Peter James Kiernan

“Very suddenly, that notion of making the ultimate sacrifice became a reality,” says Kiernan, who joined the U.S. Marines at age 18.

Of the 2,753 people killed in the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, more than 40 came from Peter James Kiernan’s hometown of Babylon.

“Everybody had somebody” they lost or who was grievously affected by the catastrophe, he recalled. In his own family, an uncle working in the north tower who had been relentlessly nagged by his wife to quit smoking was saved because he had left the building while on a smoke break. “After that, he just refused” to even consider stopping, Kiernan said.

“Very suddenly, that notion of making the ultimate sacrifice became a reality,” said Kiernan, who was in seventh grade on 9/11. “Most young men feel some sort of calling for service, to be a part of an organization that is bigger than themselves,” and Kiernan longed to be a part of the nation’s defense.

The terror attacks were a catalyst that drove Kiernan, now 26 and living in Morningside Heights, to join the U.S. Marines when he turned 18, infuriating his schoolteacher mom and contractor-handyman dad, who preferred he go to college. But if the United States is to have a good military, he reasoned, “good people have to join.”

Kiernan said he was the youngest person ever to join the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (he was selected at age 18, graduating at 19) — “then they changed the rules so it can’t happen again,” he said.

After becoming fluent in Pashto and the tradecraft skills of sniping, explosives and intelligence, he was sent to Afghanistan in 2012 as a MARSOC Raider. It was a very bloody time. Mourning Afghan friends and fellow fighters who were killed, the sergeant came to several epiphanies: Terrorism, he realized, takes root easily when people are ignorant and isolated. Peace is more reliably achieved with communication and education than physical aggression.

Kiernan left the Marines in 2013. He is now a senior studying political science at Columbia University and is the president and founder of The Ivy League Veterans Council, an organization devoted to destroying the structural, cultural and institutional barriers confronting veterans at elite universities. His aim, he says, is not only to elevate the role of veterans in national policy, but to help prevent terrorist attacks and unnecessary wars.

“The better educated a society is, the less chance we have of fighting each other. I came to realize I want a bigger impact than just my little corner of a battlefield. I was leading 30 men into the battlefield, but I want to do more to improve their lives … Policy can have disastrous effects on the battlefield: I want to prevent that.”

Ritchie Torres

“On 9/11, these distant debates about politics and foreign policy felt less distant.”

New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres didn’t have an interest in politics until 9/11.

He was 13 years old, living in Throgs Neck, when the Twin Towers were attacked. He recalled getting picked up from school by his older sister and hearing on the radio that a plane had crashed into the north tower.

“I had assumed it was an accident,” he said, until the second plane hit the south tower. Torres sat with his siblings, cousins and uncle at his grandmother’s house and watched the news in shock.

“I got a call from my mother, who was crying hysterically as if the world was coming to an end and she was never going to see me again,” he said.

Fortunately, Torres’ family was safe, but like many New Yorkers, his life had still changed.

“When I was 13 years old, I had no interest in the world, no interest in politics, no interest in foreign policy,” he said. “But on 9/11, these distant debates about politics and foreign policy felt less distant.”

Torres, now 28 and representing District 15 in the Bronx as a Democrat, still struggles with the politics that emerged from 9/11. He recognizes the date as the reason for changes in policing, counterterrorism and surveillance in New York City.

“In every constitutional democracy and every constitutional republic, you have a balancing act between personal freedom and security, but since 9/11, it seems to me this pendulum has swung sharply in the direction of security,” he said. “We live in a more complex world, and I have no easy answers for the right balancing act.”

Torres said he has also become more suspicious of American intervention abroad, adding that he can’t imagine the United States without a presence in the Middle East.

“Even when you seek to do good abroad, there’s no telling what Pandora’s box you’re opening. Intervention in countries that we know very little about can have any number of consequences, can entangle us in asymmetrical warfare for decades,” he said. “Permanent warfare seems to be the legacy of 9/11.”

Because of that sense of endless conflict, Torres said he feels his generation has a more tragic view of the world.

“There’s reason to think millennials are more pessimistic about the future than the generation before,” he said. “Growing up amid 9/11, amid the Iraq War, you have a sense that history will never end, that we’re in a cycle of never-ending violence and warfare.”

Torres said he thinks the city, and country, has struggled to move past 9/11 as it memorializes it each year.

“The challenge for me is, how do you remember 9/11 without becoming enslaved by it?” he said.

9/11 memorials around the world

Helaina Hovitz

Leaving school just blocks from the WTC, a 12-year-old Hovitz saw the attacks and their aftermath up close.

The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers have defined Helaina Hovitz’s entire life and career.

Her school, I.S. 89, was six blocks away from the World Trade Center. After a plane plowed into the north tower, a neighbor retrieving her son from school offered to take Helaina, then a 12-year-old seventh-grader, home with her own son.

The trip home was a nightmare. Hovitz and her neighbors saw people tumbling through the air to their deaths. Then the south and north towers collapsed, enveloping her in a blanket of debris and black smoke.

“We were running for our lives. I kept thinking I was going to die and never see my parents again. I thought we were being bombed. When the second tower fell, we found a loophole by the Smith Houses Projects under the FDR Drive, where we waited for the smoke to clear.” The windows of her apartment facing the towers were black. Cellphone service was nil. “Every second became more and more traumatic,” Hovitz, now 27, recalled.

“People who survived and didn’t lose anyone were lucky, but we still lost a lot — and to this day we don’t feel like we have the right to talk about it,” said Hovitz, who still lives about six blocks from the World Trade Center site.

She grew up resenting not only the destruction of her neighborhood, but the gawking of tourists who came to see the damage. The terror attacks marked the dawning of a new age of fear, and when Hovitz and her classmates returned to school, restrictive new rules hampered their freedom of movement.

Normal teenage angst was amplified by an early experience that taught her “no adult could ever keep us safe.” She experimented with drugs and drank too much, cycling through therapists.

“It took me eight years to get the right diagnosis” of post-traumatic stress syndrome and the correct treatment, she said. Now sober for five years, Hovitz is a graduate of The New School and a journalist who has written for Newsday. She researched the fallout 9/11 had on her fellow students and wrote “After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning,” which will be released by Skyhorse Publishing in September.

Processing the horror of 9/11 made her realize the importance of hopeful, solution-oriented, inspirational stories instead of dwelling on all that is wrong in the world. That epiphany led Hovitz, earlier this year, to co-found “Headlines for the Hopeful,” a digital news service that spotlights individuals and organizations working to create a better future.

“People need to see there is good in the world and that there are good people looking to help and make a difference,” Hovitz explained. “It’s a cliché, but it’s true: If you can change the way you look at the world, you can change the world.”

Interactive editor: Polly Higgins | Design: Matthew Cassella, James Stewart | Video editor: Matthew Golub | Copy editors: Jennifer Martin, Martha Guevara | Videographers: Alejandra Villa, Yeong-Ung Yang, Charles Eckert