Beyond Words: A 9/11 Remembrance

Floating Lanterns, 9-11-2010, NYC.jpg

On September 7, 2001, a Friday, the communications staff of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani gathered to plan for the week ahead. I had joined the Giuliani administration the previous April as a speechwriter, one of three on the mayor’s staff.

The biggest event on the schedule was the primary election on Tuesday, September 11, when New Yorkers would choose each party’s nominee to succeed Giuliani. The mayor would be casting his own ballot at Public School 66 on East 88th Street at 7 a.m., followed by a fairly routine round of staff meetings.

In the evening, he was scheduled to give remarks at the black-tie opening night performance of the New York City Opera, which was to debut its season at Lincoln Center with Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Concurrently, there would be an election-night party at the Dylan Hotel on East 41st Street. The mayor might drop in on either of these events, or both of them, or so we all assumed on September 7.

Four mornings later, I got off the subway at the Brooklyn Bridge station. Looking up, the sky was a bright blue, with one exception: running across it, like a ribbon stretched taut, was a thin but dense cloud of grey. This surprised me a bit, because no one had predicted a storm.

Up on the sidewalk I kept my eyes on the pavement, lost in my own thoughts. Finally, after a good 70 yards or so, it occurred to me that the street was different today. There were countless people out, as always, but instead of rushing around in their usual morning bustle, they were standing still. Something about this felt weird, displaced, transfixed. It momentarily reminded me of children huddled outside a school during a fire alarm.

Then I looked up. Ahead and to the right, four blocks to the southwest, the Twin Towers were burning. Keeping symmetry even now, each tower had a gash of yellow flame from which black smoke blew upward in tight veils.

City Hall was a whirl of confused, frightened activity. The mayor was not in the building. He had gone to the towers. In the frenzied buzz, reports and rumors flew. Someone said a hijacked plane had hit the State Department; someone else added that another plane had struck the Pentagon; another jet, its intentions unknown, was said to be heading for New York.

Then speculation stopped, and there was only sound.

It penetrated like the blast of close thunder, but it was not instant. This was a terrible unfurling of sound, a prolonged cascading roar with a shrieking undertone of metal. Then, an ashen cloud – a swirl of chalk-white, grey and brown – hit the glass front doors of City Hall like a wave. Shadows appeared in the cloud, and hands thrust out from the billows, grasping at the doors.

“Let them in! Let them in!” someone shouted. But a security guard had raced across the rotunda floor and held the doors shut. The ash cloud covered the front of City Hall like a curtain, blinding us to the world outside.

After a few minutes, we learned that the building was being evacuated. Someone handed me a paper respiratory mask as we went out the front doors. The air was hazy, and the plaza in front of the building was coated in white ash, as if snow had fallen.

We boarded a city bus that had been detailed to get us out of Lower Manhattan. But then we saw police officers and firefighters in full bunker gear running up the street toward us, as if in flight from something. Because the pall at the World Trade Center was still so thick, we couldn’t see what was going on back there. We just scrambled off the bus and ran. As we did, there was another terrible roar.

After a few dozen yards, we stopped running. We joined the hundreds of other people walking uptown. We soon came to a scene from another era: A throng of New Yorkers huddled around a radio on the sidewalk, listening for news from the front. It was there that I first learned that the Twin Towers had been completely destroyed, dissolved, along with anyone still inside them. This was an astonishing fact to absorb, a vast and sudden elision of prior understandings. There was nothing to do but keep walking uptown.

So we did. Almost everybody seemed calm, orderly, reasonable. There were exceptions. One woman in the middle of the sidewalk wasn’t walking anywhere. She was just standing there, facing uptown and then downtown, screaming the same thing over and over again: “This is Jesus’s will!”

We tried to determine where the scattered members of the mayor’s staff were reassembling. At Union Square, which had a subterranean police station, we learned that the mayor and his team were gathering at the police academy on East 20th Street between Second and Third avenues.

The police academy served as mayoral headquarters for a few days following September 11. Then operations moved to Pier 92, a shipping terminal on the Hudson River at 52nd Street.

This huge interior space housed not only the mayor’s office, but also the operations of many city, state and federal agencies. At the end of the terminal was the river. On the banks, soldiers in green camouflage stood at sandbagged gun turrets, as armed patrol boats worked the currents.

Mayor Giuliani conducted meetings on the rescue and recovery effort in a small conference room upstairs from the main floor of the makeshift command center. This room, really just a small, rectangular space set off with partitions, was where the mayor brought together the heads of the relevant agencies to talk about every aspect of the city’s response to 9/11.

At a large table, the mayor sat in the middle, typically with Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen and Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik close by. Other officials – a shifting cast that included New York Governor George Pataki and visiting national politicians – would also attend, with aides taking up chairs along the wall or standing near the doorway.

I valued the opportunity to sit in on these meetings. It was heartening to see a roomful of public officials address an acute challenge with civility and seriousness. In the meetings I witnessed, grandstanding was at a minimum – no small feat, considering that the individuals around the table were accustomed to supremacy within their administrative domains.

One day, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry walked into the conference room. Giuliani interrupted the meeting to welcome the Democratic senator, and graciously invited him to sit at the table. Kerry just as graciously declined, and remained standing near the doorway as the meeting continued. It was a nice interaction, instructive in its way, though much of what it represented would soon pass.

In the spring and summer months leading up to 9/11, Mayor Giuliani’s speech schedule had stuck to the standard big-city ceremonial fare: ribbon cuttings, ethnic festivals, the occasional policy address. Only once during this period did anything jar the normal rhythms and knock all other priorities off the board.

On June 17, Father’s Day, a Queens hardware-store fire killed three firefighters – John Downing, Brian Fahey and Harry Ford, all fathers themselves. For the next week, researching and preparing the funeral speeches was more or less the sole focus of our office.

The message was clear: When a firefighter or police officer dies in the line of duty, giving his life in service to the city, all other demands on a mayor’s attention come second. That the mayor would personally attend the funeral – upending any prior commitments, no matter how important – went without saying.

The sheer scale of the September 11 attacks meant that the process of civic bereavement would have to be handled differently: 343 firefighters were dead, along with 23 New York City police officers and 37 members of the Port Authority Police Department (PAPD).

There was no way the mayor could attend each uniformed service member’s funeral. Several would be taking place at once: a dozen were on the schedule for Friday, September 28; there were 21 listed for the following day. The funerals would be held in all five boroughs, the Long Island suburbs, New Jersey, and southerly “upstate” New York counties like Dutchess and Orange.

The mayor would attend as many services as he could, but some other senior municipal official – typically a deputy mayor or the head of a major department – would be representing the city at most of them. This arrangement satisfied no one, including the mayor, but it was the only way to proceed under the circumstances.

The mayor’s speechwriters wrote for any official who spoke for the administration at the funerals. There were four of us now – John Avlon, Owen Rounds, Matt Lockwood and myself. The directive remained the same as it had been after the Father’s Day fire: Recognize the uniqueness of each firefighter or police officer who had died.

If anything, this rule was especially important now, since many surviving service members and civilians would be attending multiple funerals and hearing a lot of eulogies. We did not want these speeches to seem in any way rote or impersonal. Some repetition of certain general sentiments from one eulogy to another was unavoidable, but we tried to individualize the speeches as much as possible.

This involved learning all we could about the lives of those now dead. We did not contact the families, but relied instead upon the public-information staffs of the FDNY, NYPD and PAPD, who were generally thorough, timely and gracious in providing necessary biographical details. The daily work of gathering these details and writing the eulogies gave us an ongoing introduction to a community of men and women who had all been taken from this world prematurely, brutally, and more or less simultaneously.

FDNY Battalion Chief John Moran, who had directed rescue efforts at the Father’s Day fire, was among the dead on September 11. So was First Deputy Fire Commissioner William Feehan. He had been the first person in the history of the fire department to hold every possible rank, and it was said that he knew the location of every hydrant in the city.

Gone now, too, was Lieutenant Joseph Leavey, who was laid to rest on what should have been his 46th birthday. Like many firefighters, Lieutenant Leavey had an esoteric field of interest. He was an avid student of New York architecture, and had a fascination with the Twin Towers, taking numerous photographs of them.

NYPD Sergeant Timothy Roy, 36 years old, had served in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He earned praise for his efforts to ease tensions between blacks and Jews following the 1991 riots in that neighborhood. Sergeant Roy was last seen alive in the main concourse of the 5 World Trade Center building, helping someone who had suffered severe burns.

I was drawn to a particular group of the fallen, the officers of the Port Authority Police Department. For many Americans, the abbreviations FDNY and NYPD were synonymous with the lost rescuers of 9/11. Those totemic letters were everywhere in the months following the attacks – t-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, even the flanks of missiles in Afghanistan. There were few such references to the PAPD, despite that department’s grievous losses and the bravery of its officers.

In a way, this was in keeping with the nature of the PAPD’s mission, which involves patrolling airports, bridges, tunnels and harbors in New York and New Jersey, as well as the Port Authority’s namesake bus terminal on Eighth Avenue. This is essential, life-protecting work, but not quite the stuff of television dramas.

September 11 was a many-layered tragedy for the Port Authority. This was the agency, after all, that had built the World Trade Center in the first place, as a 1970’s downtown-renewal project. Its headquarters were there. Soon after the planes hit on 9/11, PAPD officers from both sides of the Hudson River sped toward the Twin Towers. At least one, Officer Kenneth Tietjen, commandeered a taxicab to reach them. PAPD Captain Kathy Mazza, a former operating-room nurse, assisted the evacuation of Tower One by shooting out glass walls in the mezzanine.

Officer Tietjen and Captain Mazza were among the PAPD officers killed at the World Trade Center, as was the department’s police superintendent, Fred Morrone. In addition to the heavy toll on its police force, the Port Authority lost 47 civilian employees, including its executive director, Neil Levin. The agency’s role in the rescue effort was both noble and underappreciated, and I sought to write the eulogies for its members whenever I could.

Just as the number of casualties on 9/11 altered the city’s official mourning process, so too did the nature of the violence. The steel-buckling forces of fire and gravity that drove two skyscrapers into the earth made the recovery and identification of the dead especially difficult. As of early October, for example, only five PAPD officers were confirmed dead, with 32 still officially counted as missing.

Recognizing the inevitable, relatives of the missing began to hold memorial services. As the recovery team at Ground Zero gradually found more remains, several families had second ceremonies to mark their return. The funerals would take place through the end of the year, as the recovery team continued its work.

Researching and writing the eulogies was a daily reminder that the September 11 attack was the murder of thousands of individual human beings. It is easy to remember that day as a collision of mass forces, of crashing planes and clashing civilizations. Yet 9/11 was not just the death of an era, or of our innocence, or of a relatively quiescent phase in geopolitics.

It was also the death of Officer Antonio Rodrigues, 35, husband of Cristina; father of Sara and Adam; son of Jose and Cecilia; brother of Marisa; four years with the NYPD; one with the PAPD; a landscape artist and trained aeronautical engineer; a native of Portugal.

One man, gone a decade now. To pause on a single life lost is – as it was then – to consider the numberless possibilities of stolen years, and to fail in the attempt to multiply the unknowable by thousands.

The author was a senior speechwriter for Rudolph Giuliani from April to December of 2001. He returned to his hometown of St. Louis, where he worked for Mayor Francis Slay as a speechwriter and crime-policy aide, and then joined the Progressive Policy Institute as director of policy development. He is now the senior communications advisor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon.

Photo by Ennuipoet * FreeVerse Photography (David Bledsoe): 9/11 Memorial; September 11, 2010, Floating Lanterns. At Pier 40, New Yorkers gathered for an interfaith memorial, including floating paper lanterns with messages from New Yorkers written on them.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

its very useful

Hi, I really appreciate your blog.
fathers day 2014



The biggest event on the

The biggest event on the schedule was the primary election on Tuesday, September 11, when New Yorkers would choose each party’s nominee to succeed Giuliani.

A Fitting Remembrance and Tribute

This is one of the most effective personal accounts of the 911 attacks I have read. Ribbing masterfully weaves in vignettes of his personal experience with testaments to fallen first-responders. Through his eyes we feel the horror of the day and the call to service this inspired as we recall how these attacks moved us past our parochical, often selfish selves to appreciate all that others give to our lives.

Bravo! May we hear much more from you in the near future!