Saturday, September 10, 2011

Who’s to blame?

February 1, 2002

A cold drizzle blankets the Hackensack River and even from the parking lot of Secaucus High School on one shore, I cannot see the other shore which is lost in the mists.
The weather fits my melancholy mood, and despite the hopeful joy at the office over the possible demise of our competition, the Jersey Journal, I still mourn my mother.
Her death happened a month ago, part of a series of escalating tragedies that has left me feeling wounded: the terrorists attack on Sept. 11, 2001, the death of my hero George Harrison, and then the death of my mother.
The last is a wound that has grown deeper and more painful with the passing of days, a throbbing inside of me I can’t rid myself of.
I keep tying her death to the other public events, the World Trade Center, the resignation of the Hudson County Executive, the death of one of the Beatles, and now, the possible closing of a 135 year old newspaper.
My mother like many people around the New York area witnesses the attack on the World Trade Center, looking down across the gap of trees and the swirling lanes of the Lincoln Tunnel helix to see the ball of flame from the second strike, the smoldering from both towers and the eventual collapse.
Mentally ill from what I was an infant; she could not make sense of the tragedy.
“I can’t help thinking that it’s somehow connected to me,” she told me a few weeks after the attack when I visited her at the nursing home.
She also blamed herself for the legal trouble my former boss Joe Barry is suffering – she really liked the man – and she seemed to think the FBI arrested him because he gave her a low cost apartment in one of his buildings before she moved here.
“I’m to blame, I’m sure I am,” she said.
If she found any connection to George Harrison, it was only to sympathize with me since she knew how much I cared for him, and how much I ached over his passing until her death a month later gave me someone even more significant to mourn over.
My mother hated the Jersey Journal from some event that happened when she still lived in Hoboken. She seemed to believe that the sales staff had deceived her at one point. When I told her that I had once applied for a job at the place, she said I was lucky nothing had come of it.
Nothing had. The paper never made me an offer.
But that’s no reason to want to see it vanish, and all the tragedies swirl around in my head, as if I am to blame, even for my mother’s death – me not calling her that New Years’ weekend, when she died, my out-of-alignment back no excuse. What about the World Trade Center? Or George Harrison?
I used to sit on the stone benches outside Boarders with my notebook, jotting down critical descriptions of the capitalists I saw coming out of the building each night, mocking them for their greed and the society that bred them, and now, I feel their loss as if we are all caught up in the same whirlpool of pain, me, missing their faces, their memory haunting me just the way the twin towers haunted my mother – the same question boiling up inside of me: am I somehow connected?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Jets don’t turn to butterflies in the sky

October 8. 2001

While Joni Mitchell might have once dreamed of jet planes turning into Butterflies in the sky, people in Afghanistan do not as a fleet of 40 bombers accompanied by God knows how many cruise missiles made their first blistering forte into terrorist and other strong holds.
Police cars here in Camp May prowl the water front in a show of force we’d not seen before, land sharks seeking to protect our shores from further, if not now nearly an impossible, attack now that President Bush has put the nation on its highest alert.
For nearly a month, many Americans waited for Washington to make a response, and the fact that the attack comes while we are here in Cape May is significant since we were also here during our first strip when Bush’s father decided to invade Iraq and the build up to the invasion more or less tainted my honeymoon with political flag waving.
This is one of the most conservative places on the state, a hawkish world of would-be patriots far enough for the problems of our urban home that they can afford to wave flags.
I wore my peace sign during our whole trip back in 1990, and people here clearly hated me for it, as if the one small metal object around my neck was capable of undoing the thousands of flags unfurled night and day to support Bush’s war.
This year, I brought no peace sign although my opinion of this Bush is no better than it was of the last, one war leading us into another, which will continue on from president to president until some president some day has the guts enough to say “no more.”
I simply put away the peace sign I put on after this Bush’s war-mongering speech last month because I could not in good conscience wear some a symbol of protest and still look any firefighter or police officer in the eye, knowing inside of me that the first time in my life I truly encountered honest, uncompromising heroism in the acts they performed in New York City on the day America was attacked.
I vowed to honor them by removing the peace signs I first posted, restricting my outrage against Bush to the absence of a flag on me, my home or my car.
Yet arriving here this time, I see far fewer flags than we saw during Gulf War our first year here – a strange thing considering that they have much more justification for flag waving now than they did back then.
Perhaps the sobering notion has finally settled into many of these people that we cannot fight wars from a distance, and that over the next few years, our sons and – yes our daughters – will put their lives at risk, real war, not the video game wars we have been subjected to as training exercises since Reagan took office.
Perhaps, too, the attack on the WTC made people aware of what real bombs can do to real people.
Over breakfast as George’s, I hear far less of the macho talk we heard back then, and it is pain, not patriotism I see on the faces I see along the walkway or in the mall. Many realize for the first time since the German U-Boats attacks in World War II, war has reached our shores, not sinking ships off the coast, but knocking down towers from the sky. And our troops head not to Iraq this time, but to the much more torturous and complicated mountain world of Afghanistan, which has a history of defying world powers.
Maybe people here finally get it, that war is more than just waving flags and jets don't turn to butterflies in the sky.

Mirror images

October 5, 2001

Until the city opened the walkways between Pier A and the Sinatra Park area, I hadn’t known about the second, larger memorial, one that was in many ways, much more touching than the one I clung to at the end of Pier A.
I heard about the opening of the walkway from the Hoboken reporter and when I went to the Pier A wall where I usually writer, I made a point of checking out the opened walk, looking forwards to the day when the whole water front from Fort Lee to Bayonne was open to the public.
Over my shoulder, the ghost of the World Trade Center towers hung – no smoke now, just a heaviness that only death brings. I had felt such weight as the scenes of some great historic battles like Gettysburg and Bull Run, as if those who had died there increased the mass with each passing day, becoming an emotional black hole into which other, living souls case their own spirits.
The piers of Hoboken were largely a faction, the Port authority, which was charged with maintaining them during the 1980s, had let them rot, an issue that remained undiscovered until after voters rejected the PA’s plan to build large buildings on them. While many of the PA workers died in the WTC disaster, their presents on Hoboken streets had the feeling of an occupying army, their pick up trucks roving the local streets oblivions to all local traffic ordinances.
In the city’s efforts to save the piers, it was forced to demolish some of the few remaining waterfront buildings once reserved to become a mall – now destined to mirror Battery Park City across the river with similar buildings.
As I walked north along the water, I watched the steam shovels and back hoes working from barges, removing the last debris from a dock that had already been reduced to water level – almost imitating another, more dreadful function already underway across the river at Ground Zero, the bones of the sacred past sacrificed to progress.
Then, I crossed over to the area commonly called Stevens Pier, which the city had plans to name Sinatra Park, and to the section where a ball field had been installed, surrounded by a walkway made up of paver stones, and where the walked turned and a long rail looked out over the Hudson towards the site of the World Trade Center, the large monument loomed, filled with flowers, candles and posters of the missing, although the real heart break for me were the slowly fading messages to lost loved ones written on many of the pavers in black markets, names and personal wishes never meant for me to read, scratched out in desperation and pain at a point in Hoboken from which the disaster had been most obvious, where apparently hundreds had gathered on Sept. 11 to watch and weep, and to which the survivors returned, weeping again, as work men on the sunken piers continued their precarious balancing act, unaware of the sad irony they presented, digging up Hoboken’s past here, as workers at Ground Zero dug up loved ones there, not merely dismantling an old doc, but a way of live, not seeking to recover bodies, but removing all signs of the working class world this place had once been.

Monday, September 5, 2011

more post 9/11 shots

shots from after 911

various 9/11 shots

Bill Clinton at the Bayonne 9/11 memorial

Secaucus ceremony September 2001

Candle Light vigil in Bayonne

pictures in the months and years after

various post 9/11 memorial photos

16 – Two men remembered

A year after the Sept. 11 attacks, John Reinke – better known to his friends as “Jack,” still couldn’t stop talking about two men.
Reinke, a retired Port Authority police office at the time of the attacked had worked in various capacities over the years, ending his career at the ship yards in Port Newark.
His many years on the PA allowed him to meet many of the key people there, and these two men most impressed him: Rev. Mychal F. Judge and PA office David Lemagne.
Judge, 68, when he died inside the collapsing towers would have been a legend without 9/11. He was one of the first religious leaders in the nation to embrace victims of AIDS in the early 1980s, and like St. Francis of Assisi, of whose order he belonged, Judge had an affinity for the poor.
“When flight 800 blew up a few years ago, Father Judge was the first to go and comfort the families,” Reinke recalled.
Judge, who served as chaplain to the fire units that responded to the 9/11 attack, became even larger than life when rescue workers carried out his body whole from the wreckage of the fallen tables, the man slumped over a chair in what some have come to call a contemporary Pieta – a picture of it still hangs in fire houses and police stations through the United States. Many have petitioned the Pope to name him a saint.
Raised in Brooklyn, Judge served in several parishes in New Jersey before becoming the official Chaplain to the New York City Fire Department. But he often came in contact with Port Authority police officers and others in the public safety community, all of whom he won over with his compassion and his charm.
“He was quite a man,” Reinke said, the same awe in his voice for Judge as the legions of younger officers had for him, most of whom turned out to mourn the priest and continued to miss him long after the headlines faded, someone who had become part of New York City’s mythology.
Lemagne was different, younger, still waiting to live up to his potential as a mythological character. He was a local whose name was frequently associated with another local legend, Robert Circi, because the two shared so many common interests and often worked together in volunteer services as medical technicians.
A native of Weehawken, Lemagne attended Catholic schools in Union City, before attending Essex County College and later Kean University.
He dreamed of helping people from very young and did so through his explorer post and volunteer work that allowed him to rub shoulders with local police and fire people. As soon as he could he became a certified EMT, and later volunteered for local ambulance corps – eventually getting work at the Jersey City Medical Center. He was frequently seen bringing food and clothing to victims of fires. He joined the Port Authority in August, 2000, and was assigned to Exchange Pace in Jersey City.
He was having breakfast there when he saw the first plane strike the World Trade Center, and he insisted on crossing the river to the New York side to help. He has been credited with rescuing one woman from an elevator shaft, and aiding several others, actually bringing them out to the street only to rush back in search of others he could help – only to die there.
Rescue personnel found his body in the lobby of the Marriot Hotel not far from one of the triage centers.

15 – Woman of the Year

A year after the attack on the World Trade Center, a relatively unknown hero of 9/11 was named woman of the year by the Women’s Transportation Seminar, a national organization dedicated to promoting women in transportation.
Vicky Kelly, a resident of West Caldwell, was deputy director of the Port Authority’s PATH system on Sept. 11, 2001. Her quick reaction, officials say, saved as many as 5,000 people on that day.
She was at a breakfast meeting in the North Tower when the first plane struck, and she immediately realized something very serious had occurred. She called the PATH control center and had all service rerouted away from the World Trade Center.
She didn’t even have all the details of the attack at the time, but knew that on a normal day as many as 120,000 people used the PATH as a jumping off point to jobs elsewhere in lower Manhattan, and many of them were on their way to the World Trade Center at that very moment.
She called Richard Morgan, then the train master and told him to keep all passengers from being discharged in the PATH station at the bottom of the World Trade Center towers
Two trains were at that moment pulling into the station, both from Hoboken.
These passengers – estimated at about 3,000 – were quickly escorted out of the building and into the streets. One of the two trains headed back to the Jersey side helping to evacuate some of the PA personnel. A third train approached and the engineer was ordered to keep the doors closed and the train was sent back to New Jersey, eventually ending up at Exchange Place in Jersey City.
Kelly then ordered all other trains halted from making the crossing – five to six trains – and Kelly remained at the station until the trains were empty or set back, and the station closed.

14 -- a group of friends

A year after the second attack on the World Trade Center, Phyllis Colon could not go back to work.
As an employee for the Port Authority, she was on the 65th floor of the North Tower when the first plane struck. Unlike 75 of her fellow PA workers, she survived.
She didn’t need her boss or anyone else to tell her that the total loss of PA suffered that day remained unequalled for a single day by any single department in U.S. history.
Few horrors equaled that morning in her memory as when at 8:48 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, the whole building began to shake – shake so violently in face that some witness near to the event mistook the event for an earthquake.
Debris fell outside the window. Many people on her floor rushed to the elevators only to discover these no longer worked. They then faced the grim task of descending 65 floors via the stairs.
They had not gone far when smoke billowed down the stairwell from the floors above. To remedy this, people around her clutched handkerchiefs around their mouths, struggling to breathe. Other people, good Samaritans, handed out wet napkins.
Not long later, dirty water tricked down the stairs soaking their feet and telling the fleeing masses of survivors that fire fighters and sprinkler systems battled the blaze high above their heads.
In the confusion, some peered down at the water still not making sense of what went on.
On the 65th flood which Colon and the others had abandoned, a fire fighter radioed to his commander some unsettling news. The floor had collapsed due to the extreme heat.
No one yet realized that this would within a short time cause the concrete blocks upon which each floor was built to begin falling down on the one below in a chain reaction that would cause the inevitable collapse of the tower.
“Dealing with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks at my place of employment has taken its toll not only on me but the rest of the world,” Colon recalled a year after the event.
The Port Authority counted 84 people among the dead including Executive Director Neil Levin, as a result the attacks. More 700 staff members required counseling later. Some like Colon just could not get over the memory to go back to work a year later.
Nancy Perez and Arlene Babakitis, Colon’s fellow workers at the PA, had not survived. Babakitis, according to her missing persons poster was last seen on the 25th flood, but according to her sister, Karen Reoch – who investigated the situation later, Babakitis may have made it to the ground level only to have the building collapse on top of her.
“There were conflicting reports,” Reoch said.
Babakitis and Perez apparently came down from the PA offices together. One report said they were seen on the 25th flood, another on the 20th, a third had them spotted on ground level.
Perez, who lived in Union City, had been in the World Trade Center during the 1993 attack. Friends said she never recovered from the fear of the earlier attack. Following the 1993 attack, she appealed for a transfer to the Jersey City offices where she remained for a long time. A recent promotion, however, had sent her back to New York.
Reoch said Perez and Babakitis were close friends, and Babakitis had moved to New Jersey only just prior to the attack on the recommendation of Perez.
Babakitis grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where most of her family lived until after 9/11. She worked for the PA for more than 30 years. Her last position dealt with bridges and tunnels, although she also help coordinate the East Pass program.
Reoch searched for her sister for weeks after the attack, putting up posters everywhere within eye sight of the towers. She did not give up hope in finding her sister, and if there was a vacant place she could put up a poster she did, on the off chance someone might have seen her somewhere and could report it.
Reoch started looking even before the smoke of the falling building had blown away, walking to every possible place in the city where her sister might have gone.
A year later, when it was clear her sister was among the dead, Reoch is bitter, holding the airport and other authorities accountable, saying they simply failed to do their job.
“The terrorists didn’t just get on those places. They had to pass through security and if security had been adequate, none of this would have happened,” she said.