NEW YORK — A decade later, images from Sept. 11, 2001, remain vivid in the minds of most Americans. Plane crashes. Collapsing skyscrapers. Staggering people covered in dust. Horror. Shock. Confusion. Fear. Heroism.
And those once-random numbers, now forever conjoined by tragedy — 9/11. They trigger poignant memories and stand as a mile-marker in millions of lives, especially in New York. There, the unthinkable was witnessed first-hand, not through TV news clips. Two-thousand, seven-hundred fifty-three people died in the attacks on New York, according to the city’s official count. The plot, carried out on a sunny Tuesday morning by teams of suicidal hijackers aboard four commercial airliners, killed another 184 people at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and 40 more in a grassy field near Shanksville, Pa., but the wounds inflicted upon New York tend to symbolize 9/11.
Steven Chelsen wears his own reminder.
On a steamy afternoon earlier this summer, the 44-year-old Staten Island man stood at the corner of Church and Vesey streets in the financial district of Lower Manhattan. The sound of heavy construction, carried out daily by nearly 3,000 workers, filled the hot July air. Concrete trucks churned.
Cranes hoisted steel beams. Street cops cleared pedestrians from the path of dump trucks heading into the site of what once was the original World Trade Center, and what will be the new World Trade Center — also known as “ground zero.” Chelsen works there as a mechanic for Local 1 of the International Union of Elevator Constructors.
With a hard-hat tucked under his left arm, Chelsen extended his right arm to reveal an intricate tattoo. It features a portrait of a New York City firefighter, Roy W. Chelsen, his brother, “a fighter” and “bigger than life,” as Steven put it. The “28” on the helmet represents Roy’s firehouse, Engine Company 28, on the Lower East Side, where he’d served since 1985. At the bottom are three sets of numbers, all containing a sadly ironic similarity — 11/9/59 (Roy’s birth date), 9/11/01 (the day that changed Roy’s future), and 1/9/11 (the day Roy died).
On Sept. 11, 2001, Roy led Engine Company 28 to the World Trade Center. Al-Qaida hijackers had steered fuel-laden commercial airliners into the iconic Twin Towers. On a rescue mission, Roy and the Engine 28 crew were inside the lobby of the burning North Tower, which got hit first by American Airlines Flight 11 at 8:46 a.m. The South Tower had already crumbled, just 56 minutes after being struck by United Airlines Flight 175. Sensing the North Tower was about to go, too, Roy guided his cohorts and others out of the shuddering, flaming structure and under a bridge moments before the massive 110-story building imploded, according to oral histories compiled by the New York Times in 2005. Those with Roy survived, but 343 other New York firefighters perished that day.
Duty brought Roy back to the site, day after day, through the following spring, combing the rubble in search of the lost and enduring the constant smoke and fumes.
“My brother took it hard,” Steven Chelsen said of 9/11. “He really had a hard time, after the fact, losing his friends. It was a difficult time for everyone. He spent nine months digging in that pit, in a recovery effort, because they knew then there were no more survivors.
“And then, four years later,” Steven added, “he got diagnosed with multiple myeloma.”
Roy’s battle with that form of cancer ended Jan. 9. Steven began his construction job at the WTC site four days before his brother died.
“Sometimes,” Steven said, “it’s hard for me to come here in the morning.”
‘So much more’ than 9/11
Indelible as they are, some marks left by 9/11 on New York and the people who live, work and visit it aren’t as visible as Steven Chelsen’s tattoo. The financial district itself carries scars, and yet has soldiered on, stronger than before in some ways.
A visitor in July to the World Financial Center — a gleaming, multi-corporation complex that overlooks the World Trade Center construction site — could see a blues trio serenading a lunchtime crowd of brokers, lawyers, bankers and analysts milling around a sun-baked outdoor plaza. Men in pressed shirts and ties, and women in business skirts and heels waited in line as vendors grilled their sandwiches, and then ate at tables shaded by umbrellas. Joggers dodged pedestrians. In the distance, boats gave tourists a view of the Big Apple skyline from the Hudson River.
“It’s a resilient city,” said Robert Anello, a 56-year-old Manhattan attorney, standing atop the steps of the plaza overlooking the famed waterway.
Five blocks away, Father Kevin Madigan — pastor at St. Peter’s Church — explained that New York “is so much more” than the most horrific chapter in its history. That includes the financial district, where St. Peter’s sits at 22 Barclay St. and faces the World Trade Center. “This neighborhood, which was the most severely impacted, is now a flourishing neighborhood,” Madigan said.
Thirtysomething newcomers pay high rent, the priest explained, but enjoy the proximity to their jobs and peaceful evenings and weekends, when offices are closed. “You can walk to work during the week, and then you have the weekends,” Madigan said. “It’s relatively quiet while other parts of Manhattan are relatively busy through the week. So it’s one of the most desirable places to live now. And mostly, it’s newly married couples. Most of our baptisms are first-borns here.”
Indeed, the number of residents has more than doubled since 9/11, growing to 56,000 from 24,000, according to the Alliance for Downtown New York Inc. Eighteen hotels operate in the district now, compared to just six in 2001. A total of 309,500 people work there, down by 15,000 from a decade ago. (It should be noted that the new World Trade Center structures — four skyscrapers replacing the original seven — are not due to be completed until 2013, 2013, 2015 and 2016, respectively.) Tourism, though, is booming. Last year, more than 9 million people visited the heartland of capitalism, where Wall Street is a real place, stretching from Broadway to FDR Drive and the East River.
“This is the most visited spot in New York City now,” Madigan said. Yet, “there is so much more about New York, that I don’t think people would just associate 9/11 with New York.”
Likewise, Madigan keeps that day in perspective personally, though he literally walked through its darkness. “I live across the street from the World Trade Center [site], so I see it every day. I can’t forget it,” he said, “but I don’t have dreams or nightmares.”
Forgetting became all but impossible for some.
Marlon Drummond won’t forget the continual spray from fire hoses at ground zero for nearly a year afterward.
The 46-year-old works at Royal Bank of Canada in the 1 Liberty Plaza building, a 54-story skyscraper across the street from the World Trade Center. The implosion of the Twin Towers burst the windows of Liberty Plaza, leaving the interior walls impaled with huge panes of glass. Drummond was driving to work when he heard the news of the attacks on the radio, turned around and went back home. He and other Liberty Plaza employees couldn’t return to their jobs for nine months, while the soot-filled structure was gutted and renovated. The fires, still burning, greeted them.
“It sort of signifies not only how devastating [9/11 was], but how much it took from us,” Drummond said, while walking past the site in July. “And that was something you just can’t forget. Every day you’d come to work, and they were trying to put out the fire — for a whole year. That was incredible. And then the cleanup — it took three or four years to clean it up. It was incredible.”
The dousing and hauling of the rubble, Drummond said, “was a constant reminder.”
Today, the World Trade Center site continues to be the most visible sign of 9/11. Once the rebuilding project is complete, the 16-acre site will contain the shimmering 1 World Trade Center (formerly called the Freedom Tower), three slightly smaller skyscrapers, the WTC Transit Hub, and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The memorial will be unveiled Sunday, on the 10th anniversary, and features a plaza and two square pools of cascading water, labeled “Reflecting Absence,” which were created in the footprints of the original Twin Towers. An interactive museum will open next year, underground.
Any plan to memorialize those lost through 9/11 and create new structures on those grounds was bound to stir controversy. It did. Plans changed. Names changed. Designs changed. Developers changed. So did the pricetag, now at $11 billion. Grumbling hasn’t disappeared. Many in the city, though, are simply relieved to see something getting done.
“It’s nice. I’m glad it’s happening,” Steven Chelsen said. “It should’ve been done a while ago.”
Besides its cost, the new WTC features many distinctive elements. The centerpiece, 1 World Trade Center, will be 102 stories tall, eight shy of the old Twin Towers, but promises to become the planet’s tallest building. A 300-foot spire will stretch it to a symbolic height of 1,776 feet. In the “Reflecting Absence” 9/11 Memorial, water will perpetually fall 30 feet from ground level into the basins. Bordering the pools will be gradually sloping walls, bearing the 2,983 names of 9/11 victims at New York, Washington and Shanksville, as well as the six people killed in a 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. The museum will document the details, display well-known remnants of the devastation, and tell the stories behind the lives lost — bond traders, dishwashers and corporate executives. Some surviving infrastructure of the original World Trade Center was kept and built into the museum’s design. That’s why its underground, Cliff Chanin, director of education for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, explained in an instructional video created for teachers nationwide.
The site has won over Nobile Basile, a surveyor who has worked there.
Initially, Basile disliked the concept, particularly the below-ground design of the memorial pools and museum. He favored rebuilding the Twin Towers east of their original location, and placing the broken facade — a dominant piece of the debris — as a permanent fixture.
“But, you know what? Now that I see what’s actually there, I’m pretty impressed,” Basile said, while talking with friends at O’Hara’s Restaurant and Pub, a popular spot near the Trade Center site. “… The reflecting pools — they’re amazing. I didn’t think they would be, but they are. They’ve got all the names all the way around there.”
Those names form the nucleus of a network of sagas that connect the present-day lives of New York residents, workers and visitors with 9/11.
‘The worst that could happen’
Basile, a 41-year-old from New Jersey, watched the first breaking television news reports of the terrorist attacks at the Engine 1 Ladder Company 24 firehouse, where several of his friends worked as firefighters. “I was there when they pulled the truck out,” Basile recalled, shaking his head, eyes down. Three never came back, as well as FDNY chaplain Father Mychal Judge, whose church is across the street from that station.
The Catholic priest became the first officially recorded casualty of 9/11 while responding to the attacks, praying over victims and attending to the injured. Falling rubble struck Judge on the head, killing him instantly. The now-famous photograph of fellow firefighters carrying their chaplain’s lifeless, dusty body came to exemplify New York’s heartache. The firefighters took him to St. Peter’s, laid him in front of the altar. That church, founded in 1785 and the oldest Catholic parish in the state of New York, served as a makeshift morgue for more than two dozen bodies, said Madigan, the St. Peter’s pastor.
Madigan, himself, narrowly escaped death that morning.
The 64-year-old, lifelong New Yorker became St. Peter’s pastor just two years earlier. On Sept. 11, 2001, he’d finished saying Mass and hearing confessions when the church secretary told him a plane had struck one of the towers. Like millions around the world, Madigan at first figured it was an accident, perhaps a small plane. “And then I went outside and realized this was something much more serious,” said Madigan, sitting in the hushed church lobby, calmly retelling the story in a fast-paced, NYC accent.
“I was standing underneath the first tower, just watching the building burn, and I figured this was the worst that could happen,” he continued. “And then, all of a sudden, a second plane hit the other tower, and pieces of debris went flying over our heads. And I remember seeing a wheel from one of the planes flying over my head.” (That detached landing gear from UA Flight 175 punctured the church roof.) “Then I just rushed away. Then I was just going about, from place to place, trying to see where I could be of help with the injured or those who were dying."
As Madigan, another priest and some police officers hustled toward an emergency aid station on the opposite side of the World Trade Center, they overheard firefighters say that one, or both, of the towers were in danger of collapsing. He thought such a scenario was unlikely, but looked for escape routes as he and the others moved along together. Madigan spotted the subway entrance, which extended to another entry several blocks beyond the WTC site. At that moment, he felt a “dull rumble.”
“I saw in the distance the tower beginning to implode,” he said. “But I didn’t know if it was going to implode, or fall, in our direction or what. So I yelled to the police officers who were with me and the other priest, ‘Down here!’ And we all ran down the stairs to the entrance of the subway station and just huddled against the walls there, not knowing if that [subway tunnel] was going to collapse on top of us, or whatever. Thank God, fortunately it didn’t.”
Powdery gray and beige dust filled the corridor. Madigan and the others began choking. “But then it just subsided,” he said. Struggling to see, they linked arms and began walking along the subway platform, guided by one of the officers’ flashlights, eventually emerging from an exit a few blocks away, just as Madigan had envisioned.
As the church and its neighborhood slowly recovered, one vestige of the catastrophe stood beside St. Peter’s.
A steel beam, still bolted to a sheared-off crossbar, was uncovered in the rubble two days after 9/11. It resembled a cross, and became a source of inspiration for workers searching for victims. In 2006, the “Ground Zero Cross” was placed in front of St. Peter’s wall along Church Street, causing passers-by to often stop for photographs. It remained there until July 23, when it was moved to the new WTC site and lowered by crane into the 9/11 Museum, along with other relics of the damage, such as a fire engine, ambulance, subway car, and a staircase from one of the towers.
The church has commissioned an artist to craft another cross, Madigan said, using metal recovered from old towers, to stand in place of the Ground Zero Cross.
Like the steel cross, businesses that survived suffered wounds.
The pall cast by the attacks pervaded the city in those tense days, weeks and months afterward.
Resolute New Yorkers urged each other to keep frequenting restaurants and pubs, even as tourism dipped. Amy Smith and Barry Lewtas visited New York for the first time in December 2001 as 20-year-old tourists from Liverpool, England. Now 30, Smith and Lewtas returned in July to get married. They found an obvious change in atmosphere a decade later.
“Everywhere we went [in 2001], in the windows of restaurants and bars, there were posters saying, ‘Eat out, fight back,’ because I think people were scared and the economy suffered. So everybody was staying home,” Smith said, standing outside the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site, catacorner from Ground Zero. “But it seems totally different now. Quite positive, I think.”
The staff of O’Hara’s Restaurant & Pub remembers when “everybody was staying home.” Today, it’s lively, with “a mixed crowd. Just bankers, brokers, construction workers,” said bartender Brian McCabe, while serving two of the latter. “All walks of life come in here. [But] very few construction workers, ’cause we’re a little high-class for that.” He and the two construction workers, sipping a Heineken and a Michelob Ultra, laughed loudly at his quip.
But 10 years ago, the prime source of O’Hara’s clientele — the Twin Towers, where an estimated 50,000 people worked and visited daily — had instantly been reduced to a smoldering, grief-filled abyss. Some regulars no longer had a place to work. Some regulars died on 9/11. “I lost a good 40 to 50 people I knew,” said bartender Brian McCabe.
The 70-year-old Irishman from the Bronx wears eyeglasses low on his nose. His gray hair is short-cropped, and his accent thick. He’s poured drinks, told stories and dispensed advice at O’Hara’s for 40 years. Those following the terrorist strikes were unlike any others. “There was no business here for two years afterward,” McCabe said, folding his arms and leaning on the shiny, dark wood of the bar. “It was terrible.” By 6 o’clock on a Saturday night, in “the city that never sleeps,” O’Hara’s was often empty.
“I don’t know how we stayed in business,” McCabe said.
‘I’m a little shook up’
Mike Keane started working at O’Hara’s in 1983, bought it with a business partner in 1987, and took over sole ownership after 9/11. On that day, Keane thought the bar might be destroyed.
He turned on a bar TV at 8:30 a.m. to watch the news, and within minutes the smoke billowing from the North Tower was on the screen. He and others climbed to the roof above O’Hara’s at 120 Cedar St., just around the corner from the towers. They saw the tower burning more than 90 stories overhead. Tattered, loose papers covered the roof. Keane and the others climbed back down. Seventeen minutes after the first hit, the second plane struck the South Tower.
“We knew something was going on,” Keane said. “We got everybody out. We went back up to check the roof one more time. There were about six of us [here] when [the South Tower] fell. I thought this place was going to come down.
“We stayed here for a while,” he added, “just to put out a bunch of papers that were on fire.”
Keane finally left before the second tower fell. “Then up at the corner here, the cop gets me and says, ‘Oh, good. Help me look for survivors,’” Keane recounted. “And I’m thinking, ‘Huh?’ I’m a little shook up.” They searched for a half-hour. “It was pitch black. We had a flashlight, and we were looking for people. And then the next [tower] came down, and we took off.”
Asked if everyone in the bar that morning survived, he said, “Yeah. Everybody that was here.” Some of his other friends died that day.
As Keane retold the scenario, he paused a few times. He pulled out a scrapbook kept behind the bar.
The book’s cover bears a collage of patches from the NYPD, FDNY and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, labeled “Fallen Heroes.” Similar patches, donated by fire and police departments from around the country, border the walls throughout the restaurant. One scrapbook page contains a photo of the bar immediately after the attack. The “O’Hara’s” sign hangs loose. A chunk of metal sits embedded into the pavement of the street. That road is otherwise vacant. Another picture shows Keane wearing a hard hat and a grim expression, standing in front of a pile of twisted metal, broken glass and shattered boards. Other pages contain photographs of gatherings on the subsequent anniversaries of 9/11. Those milestone days leave Keane uneasy.
“Every year around 9/11, you get this same sick feeling in your stomach,” he said. “It’s just …”
‘He’s not coming back’
Jerry Gogliormella trekked past that World Trade Center destruction daily after 9/11 on his way to work at the nearby World Financial Center. Those recovery crews found his younger brother’s remains six months later, in February 2002.
Michael Gogliormella, a 43-year-old from New Jersey was working as a computer analyst on the 103rd floor of the North Tower. He’d just landed the job in the corporate headquarters of Cantor Fitzgerald — a global financial services firm — three weeks earlier. Two months earlier, Michael and his wife had adopted a baby girl.
“He had left home [for work] that morning with a friend of his,” Jerry explained. “The friend stopped in Hoboken to pick up a newspaper. My brother kept going. And his friend made it home, and [Michael] never came back.”
The hijacker piloting Flight 11 drove the plane directly into the North Tower, hitting between the 93rd and 99th floors. No one trapped above the impact zone survived. Six-hundred and 53 Cantor Fitzgerald staff members died, nearly twice that of any other employer.
Jerry was working on the engineering staff at 2 World Financial Center, just blocks away. That 44-story building lost its southeast corner from damage caused by the thunderous collapses of the Twin Towers down the street and was ordered to be evacuated. Jerry and his engineering co-workers were the last ones out, walking into the opaque air, “that big mushroom cloud that you see on TV,” he recalled. “You couldn’t see anything.” But one thing soon became clear.
“In all honesty, the day it happened, I had a feeling my brother wasn’t coming back, because I called his house and nobody had heard from him,” he said. “And a day or two later, you just realize he’s not coming back anymore.”
On Sept. 13, Jerry returned to his job. “Working here kind of helped me, because you’re involved with it every day,” he said in a deep Jersey voice, sitting in the shade on the plaza outside his workplace. “So it kind of eases the pain a little bit.”
He still works at the World Financial Center, after 15 years. He still proudly wears a silver bracelet honoring his brother and, without hesitation, pulls it off to show a stranger its inscription: “IN LOVING MEMORY MICHAEL GOGLIORMELLA SEP 11TH, 2001 WTC.” And Jerry still remembers their last conversation, on the phone, a week before the attacks. “Just, ‘How you doin’? How you been?’ He had just adopted the baby girl, and we hadn’t had the chance to meet her yet,” Jerry said, glancing into the distance. “Probably the happiest time of his life.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.