Residents and Local Leaders Recall 18 Septembers Ago
Firemen at Liberty Street and South End Avenue
on the afternoon of September 11, 2001.
photo: Robert Simko
Today’s anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 was the subject of shared recollection and reflection on Sunday evening, when a panel of residents and local leaders participated in a panel discussion at the South Street Seaport, hosted by the Howard Hughes Corporation and moderated by CNBC’s Contessa Brewer, who lives in Lower Manhattan.
“I’m a proud Seaport resident,” Ms. Brewer began, “and I have seen resilience in action after Hurricane Sandy. But I remember coming here a month after September 11 — from Milwaukee, where I lived at the time. I remember the smell, and every surface being plastered with 8 x 10 sheets, that had the word ‘missing,’ and a picture of someone who was unaccounted for. I remember a construction worker in a hard hat signing a wall with the words, ‘we will never forget.'”
“For anyone who was alive during September 11,” she continued, “that is a day of special importance. But for people down here, people who were so close, it takes on a whole new color and spectrum.”
Cristina Carlson, vice president of corporate communications and public relations for the Howard Hughes Corporation, welcomed the crowd and introduced the panel.
She then turned to veteran community leader Paul Hovitz, who recalled, “‘war zone’ is an accurate description of what the neighborhood was like. The windows in our apartment, in Southbridge Towers, were shut when the towers fell. But there was still more than an inch of dust inside. There was no water or electricity. And for weeks, that acrid smell was everywhere. And you knew it was burning flesh that we were breathing. Many families on the West Side of Lower Manhattan were evacuated, but in the Seaport neighborhood, we were not.”
When Ms. Brewer prompted Bob Townley, founder and executive director of Manhattan Youth to recall the morning of September 11, he remembered, “standing in front of P.S. 234 when the first plane flew over our heads and into the North Tower,” but then said, “my experience wasn’t very different from that of many other people who were here.”
Next, Ms. Brewer invited Helaina Hovitz Regal (author “After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey through Darkness to a New Beginning”), who was a 12-year-old middle-school student on that morning to share her memories. “It was this minute-by-minute experience of asking ‘what’s happening,'” she recalled. “At 12, if you’re lucky, you have grown up with the assumption that the world is a safe place, that the people in charge can keep you safe, and that everything is under control.”
Fleeing the dust cloud
photo: Robert Schneck
“Normally, it was a ten-minute walk from I.S. 289 to our apartment in Southbridge,” she reflected. “And after the police bomb squad came into our school and said everybody had to get out in five minutes, most of the students were evacuated up the West Side Highway. But I was picked up by the mother of a friend who had come to get her daughter. And as we tried to get home, we saw people covered in blood. And then we were covered in dust. I just kept holding onto her hand, crying, sometimes running and sometimes walking.”
“I was a scared-of-the-child dark child to begin with,” Ms. Regal added, “and all I could think about was to stay with the adult, who knows what to do. I thought we would either make it home together or else die together. There was panic everywhere, but we got through it on adrenalin.”
Ms. Brewer then asked Steve Vince, a Southbridge resident and nurse at New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital to share his perspective. “At the hospital, just two weeks before, we had an emergency drill,” he began. “But nothing could prepare you for something like this. I was off duty that day, teaching a class of intensive-care nurses on 17th floor of our staff residence at 69 Gold Street, where the windows face east,” away from the World Trade Center.
“We all heard a loud noise, and then a lot of car alarms went off. So I went up to a rooftop terrace, and started looking down into street. There was a clear view of the World Trade Center from there, but it didn’t occur to me to look up. And I saw the fire company on Beekman Street jumping into trucks. I called down to the Emergency Room, but they said nothing was happening.”
“A few minutes later, the emergency room called back and said, ‘this is not a drill: a plane hit the World Trade Center,’ and told me to send everybody to the hospital. As I was headed there, I ran into a resident who said, ‘come out and look at this.’ So we went back onto the terrace, and he told me to look up. There was black smoke pouring out of North Tower, with fire visible, and pieces of paper coming out of building. So I went back inside and took the stairs down, expecting power to be cut at any moment.”
photo: Robert Schneck
Ms. Brewer then invited Robert Simko (the Broadsheet’s editor and founder) to pick up the narrative. “We live in Gateway Plaza, across the street from Trade Center,” Mr. Simko began. “My wife, Alison, and I had just got our children ready for school. Our daughter was in seventh grade and son was going to his third day of pre-K. Alison left to take them to school.”
“Around 8:40,” Mr. Simko continued, “I heard a huge crunching sound, followed by an explosion, and knew something was up. I looked out our window, which faced south, and saw the first traces of smoke, which I knew were coming from above me, rather than from the street below. A few minutes later, the television said that a plane had hit one of the towers.”
“Then Alison called and said that just after she had dropped our son at school on Greenwich Street, a plane had flown over her head and hit the World Trade Center,” he continued. “So she ran against the tide of people fleeing, to get to Lucy’s school. While she was there, she met a friend who lived in Tribeca and invited Alison to go there, because there was no way to get home.”
“She urged me to get out,” he remembered, “but I felt like I had to stay, as editor of the local paper. So I went downstairs and saw the North Tower burning. There were worried looks on everybody’s faces, and some people were looking at the building, trying to count floors below the fire, because they had friends or family members in the building. And everybody on the street was watching helplessly.”
photo: Robert Simko
“Then, I heard the whine of jet engines,” he related. “My view was partly obstructed by the World Financial Center, but I could see the last two seconds as the plane hit the South Tower. It looked surreal, like special effects: the plane dipping its wing and then piercing the tower and just being absorbed. Then there was a fireball, and everybody screamed and scattered. I ran back upstairs, and knew that if I came back outside I would be corralled onto a boat and sent to New Jersey, and separated from my family.”
“A few minutes later, the power and water were cut,” he noted, “and the auxiliary lights in the hallways went on, but they started to dim. Not long after that, the first tower began to collapse. The sound of rumbling at first made me think it was a third plane coming in. So I looked out the window and saw the dust cloud pouring through the streets. Then the windows went black. But a few minutes later, light began to reappear.
“It looked like a hazy, foggy day,” he observed, “but the haze was from floating debris. As the smoke cleared, I went to a friend’s apartment in our building, which faced the Trade Center. Through the smoke, I saw a single shard of the South Tower spiking upward, and nothing else left of the building.
Mr. Townley then recalled that the Speaker of the State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, “called me on my cellular phone, which was still working, and he said, ‘we’re wearing green today,'” in a reference to the color of the camouflage uniforms that troops wear when marching into combat. “And I knew after he said those words that our country was going to war, because nobody attacks America and gets away with it. Then he asked me to do a few things, like start organizing the first meeting of displaced residents, which we held at a playground on Canal Street a few days later.”
“I had the same feeling,” Mr. Simko added. “I remembered that a few days earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney was on television, debating the merits of the Star Wars missile defense system. And I thought, ‘if they’re coming in with planes, this is a whole new world.'”
Mr. Hovitz recalled that, “September 11 was supposed to be primary day, and Southbridge was a polling place, which meant that many of our elected officials were there. New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital, which is across the street from our building, had an emergency generator, which they used to provide power for part of Southbridge.”
“The hospital was geared up to deal with victims and survivors,” Mr. Hovitz remembered wistfully, “but there weren’t any.”
photo: Robert Schneck
Within 24 hours of the attacks, he noted, “it was clear that local pharmacies would be closed for a while. So we organized volunteers to check in on elderly residents, many of them shut-ins. We collected prescription bottles and the hospital filled those prescriptions. We came together in a way that I haven’t seen New Yorkers do in a long time. Everywhere you looked, people were helping each other.”
Mr. Vince said, “my wife and I stayed, and around two or three in afternoon, the whole neighborhood became eerily quiet.”
Ms. Brewer asked, “what were challenges in the weeks that followed?”
“We were out of our apartment for two months,” Mr. Simko recalled, adding that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), “was pretty good. You’d get a phone call and meet a guy in front of Post Office at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue, show him your identification, and he would give you a card with $500 to buy food and get your laundry done.”
“We always had to show identification at checkpoints,” he added, “and all the local stores were closed, and there were chain-link fences around many perimeters. The streets were crowded with large trucks carrying generators, to provide power to the buildings. And telephone lines were being strung across the streets.”
photo: Robert Simko
Ms. Regal remembered that, “the first few days were about fire: smoke and trucks and uniforms. A few days later, there were National Guard troops with rifles and dogs and there were always helicopters in the air. And we kept getting warnings that more buildings might collapse, and other warnings that we would be evacuated at any moment.”
“It was weeks of chaos and no school,” she continued, “and I was starting to experience what I know now are the early signs of post-traumatic stress disorder: nightmares and panic attacks.”
“Our school was eventually relocated,” she said, “but there was very big difference between Lower Manhattan and the rest of the City. In the new building, we had kids telling us to get out of their school, and shoving us in the hallways. One day, a truck backfired in the street outside, and all the children from I.S. 289 hit the floor screaming, while the other kids laughed.”
“Trauma manifests differently in everybody,” Ms. Regal reflected. “It changes you. And the fact that kids are resilient doesn’t mean that you are not permanently changed. Former classmates now tell me they’ve been living with this for years.”
Ms. Brewer noted that, “when I moved here in 2005, the City was offering tax abatements to encourage people to move in, and I didn’t understand why,” because the neighborhood had become so appealing. “Did you question whether you should continue to live here?”
Mr. Hovitz replied, “even on September 12, when we were told to pack a bag because they thought the Millenium Hotel would topple over, even that day, it never crossed my mind to leave this neighborhood. We had a mission to take our homes back and show that they couldn’t make us back down.”
photo: Robert Simko
Mr. Townley reflected that, “the Downtown Community Center, which we built with Paul’s help, was planned before September 11, and then delayed eight years. I’m project-focused, so those eight years went by pretty quickly. I wasn’t going to be able to not do that. I’m a community organizer, that’s what I do. So I didn’t move out of Battery Park City. I wasn’t going to let anyone push me out of my home. I didn’t want to leave my friends, and I didn’t want my kids to be separated from their friends.”
He added that, “I had some friends who left the neighborhood because of September 11, never to return. I wasn’t happy with them, although I understood why they did it. They knew it was going to be years of recovery. It took six months just to put the fires out. So they chose never to return.”
“But I was not upset about the nature of the neighborhood after September 11, even with the fires burning, and a barge [used to haul away large debris] moored right outside my window. It didn’t bother me as much. What would have bothered me was having somebody kick me out of my apartment, and leaving my friends, and abandoning my projects.”
Ms. Brewer then asked Ms. Regal, “did you want to leave?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t up to me,” she answered, evoking a round of knowing laughter. “It was up to them,” she said, gesturing toward Mr. Hovitz and her mother. “But what I learned is that wherever you go, the damage is already done. No matter where we went, I was going to experience the symptoms, and relive the trauma.
“When you are a child, you are not in control of very much, anyway,” she said. “What was so impactful was the idea that nobody can protect you: not your parents, not the U.S. Army. It seemed like the world was ending, especially in the weeks and months that followed, with scares about anthrax and suspicious packages. Ten years later, I interviewed former classmates for the book I wrote, and so many of them had the feeling that nowhere was safe.”
photo: Robert Simko
Mr. Vince chimed in that, “my wife and I never discussed moving. It just never came up. We had a real sense of community here, and so many friends.”
Ms. Brewer noted that, “I travel all over the country to places hit by disasters, and not all of them bounce back,” and then asked what allowed Lower Manhattan not merely to survive, but to prosper.
“So many buildings emptied out as businesses left,” Mr. Vince noted, “but many of those were converted to apartments.”
Mr Hovitz observed, “we have best schools in the City. People move here to go to our schools. The services are what this place so wonderful.”
Mr. Townley agreed, saying that, “the amenities we have now make me glad I never left.”
Mr. Simko observed that, “Lower Manhattan is a unique place, with a rich history. The people who live and work here work really hard. And our elected officials stepped up to the plate. So Alison and I never had any doubts about staying. There was never any question that we would rebuild and get on with life.”
Ms. Brewer queried, “what can we, as neighbors do, to be more resilient and be more prepared for whatever comes our way — to harden our infrastructure and prepare our kids and organize with neighbors?”
Mr. Simko replied, “we already have that in place. Our Community Board, with all its committees — focused on the waterfront, and parks, and schools — is vital. People like Tricia Joyce [who chairs Community Board 1’s Youth & Education Committee] telling the Department of Education that a 70-story building will bring hundreds of families here, so we they need to build another school. Other communities don’t have that. We’re lucky to have community leaders working with elected officials to keep Lower Manhattan vibrant.”
Looking toward future challenges, Mr. Hovitz predicted, “we could be underwater again at any time. The greatest progress we have seen has been by entities like the Battery Park City Authority. But we still have only two subway stations in Lower Manhattan that the City has created covers for. So we need the City and State to step up more, and decide what we’re going to do. And the proposal for Seaport City to take over a third of the East River is not the answer. The key is that we need to be prepared.”
Ms. Brewer then asked Ms. Regal, “what have you learned?”
She answered, “the biggest thing I learned is that recovery is about coming to terms with what you experience and what happened to you, which you cannot change — accepting all of it in its entirety, with its awfulness and sadness and how scary it was, and seeing yourself as a survivor.”
“The word ‘victim’ is tricky,” she reflected. “When something out of your control hurts you, that is what being a victim is about. But as a survivor, how do you transition from being a victim? Teenagers will act out to self-soothe and escape, doing reckless things like drinking and drugs. Some of my classmates took to riding motorcycles at high speed in the rain. All of these behaviors are ways of setting themselves up to be re-traumatized.”
“It took me a lot of years of therapy to find a way to go forward. The question is, ‘how can I live in the moment and make the best of it in a world where bad things happen all the time?’ It takes work. The crazy idea is that getting help is weakness or has a stigma attached to it. Things like this are going to happen, but there are skills and tools to help you feel okay.”
When Ms. Brewer asked Mr. Vince to recall his observations of trauma, he remembered that, “in the emergency room, one patient asked how he got there. All he remembered looking out his window and seeing a plane, then somebody grabbing him, and later waking up in the hospital.”
Bob Townley addresses the community in the days after 9/11
photo: Robert Simko
“I met a firefighter from Ladder 118,” he added. “I knew that unit, because my family lives near their fire house, in Brooklyn. He had no equipment and only part of his uniform. I asked him what had happened, and he said with a blank gaze, ‘they’re all gone.'” (All six firefighters aboard the Ladder 118 truck were killed after racing across the Brooklyn Bridge, and attempting to rescue people from the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel, which was located between the Twin Towers.) “I walked him around corner to Beekman Street firehouse.”
Ms. Brewer returned to memories of Hurricane Sandy, asking Mr. Townley, “did you see an improvement in response by the time of Sandy?”
He replied, “the answer to a lot of our problems is to be kinder and more empathetic. That is what gets you through the night. But I found Sandy to be more difficult. I had built this community center and it was destroyed. This community had been the September 11 poster child, but we were not the Sandy poster child. We were alone.”
“September 11 was about terror, and man’s inhumanity to man,” he continued. “Sandy was about nature. And those who love nature have never lived it in. So for me, it was totally different.”
Mr. Townley, who led a successful, years-long campaign to rebuild and reopen the Downtown Community Center after the 2012 storm, added, “if another Hurricane Sandy comes, they’ll have to find somebody else to rebuild the Community Center again.”
“You say that, but you already told us that you’re project-oriented,” Ms. Brewer chided him.
“I am project-oriented, but I’m also going to be 65 years old,” he said, eliciting a round of appreciative chuckles.