It has taken me nearly 13 years to write these things down. It has taken twelve years because to have put them on paper before this would have caused too much pain. Even now the nightmares happen when I least expect them, the cough is a daily reminder of where I was that day, and the cringe at any loud noise never fails to bring me back there if only for a moment.
On a day in June 2001 I was in early to work. I was the Controller at the Floating Hospital, a barge docked at Pier 11 and Wall Street. Often we would walk up Wall Street on our way to the Broad Street Subways, and sometime stop at J&R Cigar bar for a drink and perhaps a cigar, or walk over to the South Street Sea Port for dinner. On warm days we would eat our lunch on the flag deck watching the boats and Ski Jets traverse the river. There is a fire house across South Street from the Piers. On calm days a piper from that house used to walk the pier practicing his art. There were street fairs and hot dog eating contests. The economy was booming and people downtown were none-too-eager to rush home.
I had come to the “Boat” in August of 1999 with the task to straighten out a rather haphazard accounting system. I took the job temporarily as I finished my Masters Degree. The “Boat” was at a dock on Pier 11 & Wall Street. My Office was sparse to say the least. It was at the bow with a look up “the Street” toward Trinity Church. As you walked down Wall Street the white hull came into view just before you crossed South Street and on it the red, white and blue logo.
We had made great progress in spite of one of the co-CFO’s who knew little about accounting and less about ships. Aside from him I had hired a good team from my Assistant Controller Katie (from England) to the personnel director Terry (not from England). We had achieved the admirable goal of reducing the auditor’s management letter considerably, to a few points that were correctable. One of the “benefits” was that on Fridays during the summer we would hook up to a tug boat and take underprivileged or disabled children on a ride up the Hudson to the George Washington Bridge and back… It sure did break up the week.
As the summer of 2001 approached a paper I had written had been accepted to be presented at a conference in Portugal. In preparation I was running around lower Manhattan getting my passport and visa. Along the way on that early June morning the CFO (the real one) and I had coffee on the flag deck and watched a vintage WWII era B-25 and two chase planes flying low over the river. I told Stiles that this year marked the 60th anniversary of a B-25 crashing into the Empire State Building. It happened in the fog and the plane was flying too low. I had seen pictures of the crash and its aftermath… they were disturbing to say the least. I speculated that perhaps there was a movie in the works recounting the event.
West Nile virus made its appearance that summer. Birds found lying dead were to be reported to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). They were not to be touched in case they were infected. The CDC would play a different role in the fall. On September 12 few would recall that some individuals in the city had died from the virus.
Toward the end of June I doubled over in pain and was taken to a hospital where it was determined that I had a stricture in my small intestines that required surgery. I was laid-up for the rest of the summer. Portugal cancelled, my nephew’s wedding missed, etc. The recuperation from this surgery seemed to take forever. In mid-August I managed to get on a plane to Florida for a few days where convalescence continued. I recall the first Sunday Mass there I could barely walk up to communion, by the next Sunday it had become easier.
All that spring and summer the news stations announced that the Elmhurst tanks would be destroyed by explosives. Early one Sunday morning in the late summer the explosion rocked Middle Village, Elmhurst and Maspeth. I was still laid-up and missed going to watch this from a vantage point in Juniper Valley Park. The very place from where I would watch the smoldering visage of what had been the mighty Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
It had been a long summer. Finally, on the morning of September 10, 2001 the doctor cleared me to return to work the next day. I was excited to be getting back into the swing of things.
The sky was cloudless that morning as I walked through the turnstile and onto the waiting train. As I walked up the steps from the M train at Broad Street smoke and bits of paper filled the air. People were talking about a fire at the World Trade Center, and that a small plane had crashed into it. My mind flashed back to that June morning and the B-25. As I walked further down the street, there was a murmur and people making their way away from the Trade Center not in panic (that would follow later when the buildings fell) but with urgency. The sirens of fire engines rang out in the warm still air.
When I got to the push-cart where I bought coffee in the morning, the young woman who operated it was happy to see me after such a long while. We exchanged greetings and I asked her what the commotion was about. She said that a small plane had crashed into the Trade Center. And calmly added, “Probably the pilot had a heart attack.” Unlike the B-25 crash in 1941, this day was brilliant! 80° and sunny!
I continued on to the Floating Hospital and as I stepped onto the gangway there was a horrific explosion that rocked the ship. I looked up at the chief engineer (a former fireboat captain with the NYFD) and asked, “What the f**k was that?” he surmised that it was a secondary explosion from the boilers. Then one of the crew came out from below decks and announced that a second JET had crashed into the second Tower. His face was expressionless as he intoned the word “TERRORISTS”.
It’s kind of interesting that in the midst of all of this my first steps were toward my office to call my wife who worked uptown. Sheila told me that from her office on 49th Street and 6th Avenue she had watched the second plane fly down the river and turn into the building I asked if she had heard from her sister, who worked at 10 World Trade, she said that Kate was fine and was at that moment watching the events unfold from the street. Landlines went down first so I switched to my cell phone. During our conversation we decided to meet at my brother-in-law’s office near the Empire State Building. From my view point I could see objects falling from the upper floors… when I later learned what those “objects” were I wept. Before heading up town, there was more to do aboard.
As Sheila described the buildings coming down the cell phones also went dead. As I said earlier, my office looked right up Wall Street. I witnessed firsthand the rush of people running down Wall Street toward the water with the ball of smoke and ash chasing after them. It reminded me of the last scenes of “The Last Days of Pompeii” when the people ran to the water. This vision will haunt me until the day that I die.
I made my way topside where the new COO had assembled the senior staff. It was Ellie’s first day aboard. The CEO was stuck between Hoboken, NJ and Wall Street. The gangway was up and people were yelling up at us for help. Some were burned others covered with ash, all frightened beyond frightened.
She asked everyone for their opinion on what course of action to take. I boldly said that we should hail a tug and begin taking some of the thousands of people to Brooklyn just across the river. The consensus, however was to remain where we were! Inaction in true crisis is cowardice. One member of the group cited a liability issue. I looked him dead in the eye and said, “You’re worried about insurance! We’re going to die today!” Then I went to the med room and broke out surgical masks and began handing them out. In the med room one of the Nurse Aides was crying. I grabbed her by the shoulder and shook her. I told her that we had work to do, and that if we were going to die, we should do so with dignity and while doing our duty. It never ceased to amaze me that there we were the Floating Hospital emblazoned on her forecastle with the gangway up… not even offering a place for people to rest until transportation arrived. And there they were, packed tight on the dock. Ellie would later tell me that she wished she had taken my advice. She was new… we had never met before… she had no idea of my abilities or the validity of my judgment.
At last the order was given for all non-essential personnel to evacuate the ship. One member of the staff (Emm Barnes) would not leave until he had finished transmitting payroll over the one T-1 that was still active. This man is to be commended!
The trek uptown began. As I reached the South Street Sea Port I realized that I had forgotten staff phone numbers in my office… I didn’t dare turn back (this omission would cause me grief the next week but hey! I was the only crew member willing to get dirty.)
There were others making the same trip. Alongside me a man lit up a Lucky Strike. When I smoked, that was my favorite brand… I did not ask him for one. Another man in a suit sidled up to me. He was white with ash covering his entire body. A worker at the Fulton Fish Market took a hose and watered him down.
I was one among a crowd making its way north, walking under the FDR Drive. As I approached Peck Slip, someone yelled that there were men with guns ahead! A general panic erupted and people began to run in different directions. It was here that I recalled a dumb little argument that Sheila and I had had over the weekend that now seemed meaningless. As it turned out, the men in guns were US Military. The scene was like something out of a movie: F-16’s flying low over New York harbor; people moving like cattle up town; armed military on the streets of New York… The walk up town has been described by many as surreal. That word doesn’t quite capture it for me… ethereal is closer.
Not being proficient at navigating the streets of neighborhoods like China Town, I stopped and asked a Traffic Officer for directions she looked at me, pointed north and said, “You want to go that way!”
The empty feeling of watching health care workers was disheartening! As I passed by St. Vincent’s Hospital, there were nurses and docs standing outside the ER entrance stretchers at the ready to receive ambulances bringing injured from the Trade Center… they waited in vain!
Among the things that amazed me were that there are real neighborhoods in Manhattan! Neighborhoods where real people live and sit out on stoops and kids play ball in the street. Along one of these neighborhood streets I noticed a church handing out bottles of water to anyone who passed by while directly across the street a corner store was selling the same bottles for $5.00. It was on this block that someone picked at the ID card still hanging from a lanyard around my neck. I tucked it in.
Along the way I passed the Church of the Most Precious Blood on Baxter Street. I walked up the steps and through the center door. I knelt and prayed that we would all get home safely. As I walked down the steps, there to greet me at the bottom was a young Franciscan priest. He blessed me and said, “Take it easy, son.” Take it easy son the words sounded comical to me as this priest could not have been more than 30. I thanked him and continued north. At some point along the way I stopped at a pay phone and called my brother-in-law’s office to make sure that they would wait for me. I was tired and scared, my belly was still tender from the surgery and was beginning to hurt. I was in need of rest.
When I reached the numbered streets I turned west toward Fifth Avenue. It was when I reached this hallowed thoroughfare that one of the shocking of September 11, 2001 met my eyes. Others, who knew their way around town better than I had met the avenue farther downtown than I had… When I looked downtown the shell of the Trade Center with smoke billowing out of it burned a scene on my mind’s eye that cannot be erased. I walked without stopping but gazing behind me every so often and gawking at the sight. It was then that a strange thought crossed my mind: “So this is what it’s like to live history.”
Finally, I reached the building where the rendezvous was to take place. Now a new fear shook me: Stan’s building was directly across from the Empire State Building… Why had it not been a target or was it one as yet untouched? I walked to the elevator and rode it to the proper floor unchallenged by a doorman. There I was met by Stan’s secretary who let me in and gave me a hug. She said, “We’re so glad you made it, John!” then, “Can I get you some water or something else to drink?” I answered, ”You got any whisky?” There are only two Irish girls I know who would not recognize a bottle of whisky. One my darling bride Sheila, who I kissed that day as if I would never kiss her again, and the other one is Jenny. She reached into a closest, dragged down a bottle and said, “Is Wild Turkey whisky?” I said, “It will do.” She handed me the bottle and a cup, which I filled and gulped it, then once more.
I sent emails to people letting them know I was OK then once the entire group had assembled, we started home to Queens. The vehicle was overflowing as Sheila’s brother invited some of his associates to ride with us. So ten of us got into the seven-passenger vehicle and Stan drove through the city toward the Midtown Tunnel.
The traffic was slow and the two glasses of Wild Turkey were beginning to act on my kidneys… I got out ran into a D’Agastino’s and asked for the men’s room… I will be forever in the debt of the manager who pointed the way.
As said, traffic was moving slowly… in fact the car was only a few feet closer to me when I left the store as when I had entered. Once we reached the tunnel however, it was an altogether different story. For the first time in my life ours was in the only vehicle in the Midtown Tunnel. On the city bound side there was a Wantagh Volunteer Fire Company headed toward the Trade Center. It was the only other vehicle We saw. As we immerged from the tunnel, I looked toward Long Island City and there wearing its green shaded windows stood the Citi Bank building. It stands tall above any building surrounding it. How it escaped the carnage is still one of my lingering questions.
The ride home was quiet and what awaited us would quiet it further. There we learned that our next door neighbor’s daughter (daughter of a retired fire Chief and wife of a NYC Police Officer) worked on the floor where the second plane hit the building. She left a nine month old baby boy (who has grown into a delightful young man). In the hours and days to follow we would learn of deaths of others we knew. In the months to come we would be attending memorial services and funerals but no wakes! Among the dead known to me or family members was Father Mychal Judge, OFM, who had been a friend of my uncle (also a Franciscan). Lt. Kevin Pfeifer whose parents were good friends of my own. Then there were those who I had worked with when I was with the Port Authority: Margie Benson, Joe Amatuccio, among others. During the next weeks I would scan the NY Times listing of the dead. I knew over 20 of those who died that day for no other reason than they were there.
There was little chance of any of us going to work in Manhattan for the next few days so we hunkered down in our houses… We would not allow the kids to play in the yard we shared with our neighbors out of respect for them and their sudden loss.
In the next few hours we learned about Al Qaeda and Bin Laden and how they had planned to attack the United States. We learned that the president sat stunned for some minutes when he was told. A French film crew had been shooting a documentary on a day in the life of a Fire Company in Downtown Manhattan… They had watched through the camera’s eye the planes actually hit and slice through the buildings. There were other armature films of the attack. And reports came in of another airliner hitting the Pentagon and one other that had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania when the passengers attacked the hijackers.
I parked myself on the couch with a bottle of Jameson’s and watched the TV occasionally sobbing or just mumbling, “O! MY GOD!” over and over. Sheila forced me to get out for a walk on the second day. we walked to Juniper Valley Park and from the high point we watched the smoke rising from the wreckage of what had been the tallest buildings in New York and at one time the world. The skies were quiet for the first time I could recall. This stillness was broken every once in a while by the roar of a military aircraft. It was also the first time I had ever seen a high flying KC10 tanker with an F-16 attached to its tether.
Finally, on Friday evening Sheila made me go to our parish bazaar. It’s sort of interesting to note that in our parish school where many of the parents are fire and police officers, and others work downtown, not one of our parents died that tragic day.
In the aftermath
· Sheila and I decided that we should not both work in Manhattan… I took a job in Bayside, Queens just after I finished my Masters Degree that May.
· Our flag has flown almost non-stop since that day.
· In those days the lines that separated liberals and conservatives blurred as the lines between interventionists and isolationists had after Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
· We attended funerals and memorial masses (Lt. Kevin Pfeifer FDNY — we attended one before and then after his body was found).
· The Floating Hospital was “punished” for its inaction that day by being moved to the “Fulton Fish Market” side of Pier 17 — with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Police vessel that was on constant patrol below it. Summer Sails were ended. No one ever intimated that this was a punishment, but rather a re-allocation of Piers. It is my contention however, that had we taken a more active role, here would have been a public backlash to moving one of the hero boats of 9-11.
· The next February former General Colin Powell, Secretary of State of the United States testified that there was incontrovertible evidence that Saddam Husain was hiding weapons of mass destruction… 12 years later, they have yet to be discovered.
· One morning in February 2002 my son Ryan who had turned 7 in July 2001 came to me as I ate breakfast. He asked me if our country was very poor. I told him no and asked him why he thought we were. His answer so pure and innocent: “Because they just said on TV that we are going to fight with A Rock [Iraq].” It struck me that at 18 he does not have a firm memory of a time when there was no fear in our country.
· Sean, now approaching 23 asked if we would go to Canada if he was drafted. I told him that it was too cold in Canada, that we would go to the Bahamas. The thought of young children posing such grown up problems was just too much for me so I had to try humor.
· Danny (16) has a vague memory of that day. He recalls playing Bingo with Sister Bridget in the school basement until he was picked up. Like Ryan, Danny has no vivid memory of a time when there was no fear.
· Saddam Husain was ultimately caught, tried and executed, although no clear reason for invading his country has ever been given. I am not defending his regime under any circumstances. But on some level I believe that our adventure there at that moment may have been misguided.
. Osama Bin Laden was also ultimately executed in a covert operation. President Obama (Commander-in-Chief) was blamed for taking credit, and recently charged with playing card in the Situation Room while the operation unfolded.
. I was forced to cross the Whitestone Bridge shortly after “the event” (I have never been able to refer to it as “9-11” I was just too close). I swallowed my fear and drove over the bridge many times that fall on my way to Iona College… Oh! and I never heard the piper at the firehouse practicing again.
. It’s odd the way a tragedy such as the one we had just witnessed subtly changes a person forever. I still jump at the sound of any loud noise. Whenever I enter a tunnel or cross a bridge “what-if” scenarios cross my mind. I still have nightmares of running into the World Trade Center trying to get people out, or running into the subway as I’m chased shadowy figures. From the beginning of September until after each anniversary I’m somehow “different”: less joking, more edgy.
. That day changed us all as surely as Pearl Harbor, the death of FDR and VE-day had my parents’ generation and the assassination of President Kennedy had mine. As with all major historical as years pass, people recall where they were and what they were doing. The colors may fade, but the scar tissue lingers. The memorials continue year after year, the number of mourners grow fewer. And yet, the names are read and now a memorial garden has enshrined them in perpetuity. Some of us believed that as the battlefield at Gettysburg has remained a National Monument for 150 years that the site should also have remained untouched as a tribute to the 3,000+ individuals who died that day. However, that did not, could not, would not fit into the economics of the area. And, so we have the freedom tower.
. For those of us who were there and those who watched the events on TV, there are images from that day and the days that followed will never leave us.
“And in the end The love you take
Is equal to The love you make”
“Golden Slumbers Medley”
– John Lennon and Paul McCartney