Frank Sasso, Hoboken’s health officer, had not fully recovered his health when the terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.
Although he prided himself with working out every day, he was unprepared for the series of disasters that led him to the edge of death early in 2001, from which only emergency surgery had saved him. This was the result of an infection caused by previous surgery.
He was still recuperating when news reached him on the morning of Sept. 11 and he was expected to handle the flood of refugees due to return to the Hoboken, Weehawken and Jersey City piers by ferry and other vessels.
For duty in helping to handle mercury contamination and other issues in Hoboken, Sasso had become one of the most highly honored health officers in the state. But he knew the minute he saw the first smoldering tower of the World Trade Center that he was going to be faced his greatest challenge.
He did not, in fact, know the half of it as he moved to set up the command center from which he would direct operations – which would draw upon the resources of Hoboken, the county, the state, and ultimately the nation.
“We knew that thousands of people would be coming back across the Hudson River,” he said, “and we knew we had to be ready for them when they did.”
Because Sasso had worked previously with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New Jersey State Police, he was one of the few men in the state, and certainly, the only man in Hudson County considered an expert on weapons of mass destruction.
“Once I learned that this was a terrorists’ attack, I knew there was a possibility that we could be facing chemical or biological contamination,” he said.
Weak as he was, Sasso began calling for the equipment he needed to decontaminate people coming from the area of the Twin Towers.
“This meant people had to be washed down as soon as they god off the boat,” he said.
M3eanwhile, others who belonged to the Hudson Regional Health Commission swarmed into the reception areas along the water from with air monitors, checking the air quality. Even if there was no biological weapons or chemical agents in the attack, health officers knew that the burning and eventually collapsing Twin Towers poses a risk.
Sasso, who later received even more accolades for his activities on the water front, remembers his struggling to find strength for the 48 hours that followed in the aftermath of the attack.
He and his staff handled about 10,000 people on the waterfront, and this included 2,200 medical triages and 469 patients send to area hospitals.
“And I’m proud to say that not one life was lost,” he said.