Sunday, September 4, 2011

Introduction: 911

The Jersey Side: Sept. 11, 2001

FOREWARD: Mayor Dave Roberts

One year after the attack on the World Trade Center, Hoboken Mayor Dave Roberts walked out onto Pier A, joining one thousand others who had come to mourn Hoboken's 53 residents who had perished in the Twin Towers.
It was a sad crowd, thick with family members, police officers, firefighters, veterans and residents -- all seeking to find in this spot some measure of spiritual healing.
The occasion and the events, which all so vividly recalled, had made most of them appreciate the value of life, Roberts said in his short speech.
"Now we are not putting things off until next week," he said. "We have been hugging our children more and telling loved ones more often how important they are to us."
For Hoboken residents and many of the commuters who passed through Hoboken on their way to and from Manhattan, Pier A has become symbolic place for the mingling emotions each felt during and after the disaster, the place to which many flocked to witness the unbelievable horror as it transpired across the Hudson. Pier A, later, became the place to which many flocked to mourn their dead or pray for their missing, to lay flowers at the foot of the rail, to pin up pictures of those they loved or to light candles as some token of hope that somehow, miraculously, some or all might yet have survived. A year later, the melted wax still clung to the cracks between the bricks, a testimony to the tenacity of hope many of these people maintained.
It was to Pier A, the newly elected Mayor Dave Roberts came when hearing the news of the attack for the first time on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I was walking to work on what was a beautiful and clear day when I saw some city workers looking up in the direction of the Trade Center," Roberts later recalled in planning his statements for this book. "They said a plane had just hit one of the towers. Seeing the smoke, I walked over to Pier A to get a better view."
Hoboken, a city with a population just under 40,000 people, has always had a close relationship to Manhattan. Once known as a port city, it thrived on cargo ships and luxury liners, dock workers and sailors, taverns and manufacturing. Much of what came into Hoboken passed quickly across the Hudson River to supply New York City, whether this was silk shipped for the orient or tourists seeking to see the sights. From these docks passed nearly every soldier bound for Europe in World War I, and Hoboken played a vital role in supplying troops in World War II as well. In the late 1970s -- partly due to the train station that connected Hoboken with a large part of the rest of New Jersey and the PATH station that connected it to the heart of New York City -- the character of Hoboken began to change. Jobs in and around the World Trade Center as well as those in midtown Manhattan brought a new upperly mobile population to Hoboken, young professionals taking up residence within view of skyline in which they worked.
By the 1990s, thousands of residents made their living on the other side of the Hudson River and returned to Hoboken each night. Roberts, who had run for mayor in the spring of 2001, had won on the promise of bringing many of this new population into the bosom of local government, making certain his administration better reflected their interests as well as those of the previous more working class population that had previously dominated Hoboken. He could never have predicted when taking office on July 1, 2001, that three months later, he would have to oversee the rescue and recovery from new Hoboken's greatest disaster or that it would fall onto his shoulders to help them heal from the event's psychic wounds.
When Roberts walked out onto Pier A on that morning of Sept. 11, 2001 and saw the smoke billowing from the top of the North Tower, he knew something was wrong.
"Instinctively, I knew this was no accident," he said. "How could an aircraft his the Trade Center on such a clear day? As I gazed at the skyline I saw the second plane flying low over Jersey City, banking as it approached New York Harbor.
"As it headed towards the towers, someone in the crowd commented that it was a tanker plane that would pour water or foam onto the fire. I had my doubts and my stomach turned as it circled and continued to fly low over the water. It was only seconds, but it seemed much longer as I watched in horror as it headed for the second tower. Then there was the impact and the horrific explosion. A friend who witnessed this with me was so shaken that he had to sit down to gain his composure. I immediately turned towards the Empire State Building not knowing if that was the next target. I knew immediately that we were at war."
Roberts, mayor of Hoboken for only three months, was suddenly thrust into the middle of modern history, the leader of a community through which thousands would have to pass in seeking safety. With the train terminal and the ferry docks, Hoboken was at the center of a mass evacuation from the world's largest city, an unprecedented circumstance for which no leader no matter how experience could be totally prepared. Roberts acted quickly and decisively.
"I notified the police department that I was declaring a state of emergency," Roberts said. "A command post was established in my conference room, which looks out directly at the Trade Center site. This became the base of operations manned by myself and my staff, Port Authority and Hoboken police, and state, county and local officials. We even had a crew from CNN, who had no way to get back to New York City."
Few places on the planet over the next twelve hours were so in touch with the disaster as Hoboken was, save for Ground Zero itself and Liberty State Park down river in Jersey City -- to which many of the injured police and firefighters were brought.
"There was a sense of urgency, fear and anger," Roberts recalled, "deep-rooted anger at those who did this, but we had a job to do."
Roberts was quick to caution the public about seeking out scapegoats. In a speech given shortly after the attack, he said, "As the initial shock of this terrible tragedy begins to sink in, many people's feelings will understandably turn away from grief to anger. We should be angry at these acts of terrorism. But we must take care against misdirecting that anger at people just because they are of the Islamic faith. That's not what America is about."
Robert had campaigned for inclusion and maintained this stand even in the face of a national tragedy, even as the tragedy grew more intense.
"There were reports of additional planes in the air," he said later, "as we heard reports of crashes into the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania. We were all under great pressure, trying to maintain order while following the news."
Like the hundreds that flooded Pier A before its evacuation, Roberts witnessed first-hand the horror of the collapsing towers.
My heart sank as I saw the first tower fall," he said. "I held out hope that the second tower would stand, but I knew instinctively it, too, would collapse. I kept thinking of the people in the building and on the planes, of their suffering and that many knew of their victims' fate."
Hoboken shortly felt the shock waves of that very human disaster crossing the Hudson River as waves of people flooded through the ferry terminal in their effort to flee.
"Survivors were brought to Hoboken all morning and afternoon," Roberts said. "There was a tremendous response from public safety personnel and Saint Mary's Hospital. We had a responsibility to evacuate and treat the hundreds brought here by ferry. Most were in shock and confused. Many had never set foot in Hoboken before. We did our best to provide comfort, information and transportation back home."
But Hoboken was not merely a destination for those leaving New York. It also became a port of hope to which loved ones flocked from elsewhere seeking news of the lost and the missing. One woman from Pennsylvania drove east with her two kids to find her husband only to get caught up in the massive traffic jams that clogged highways in and out of Hudson County. Rescue workers recovered her from her vehicle and eventually reunited her husband in Hoboken.
"As the day wore on into early evening, it became evident of the magnitude of the day's events with a growing sense of the devastating death toll," Roberts said. "As the fires raged and the damaged buildings continued to crumble, I was still processing all that had happened. The city was numb. Most stores, offices and restaurants had closed earlier and the streets had an eerie silence on that crisp September evening."
A year later, at a ceremony held at the exact moment when the first plane struck, mourners combated a more internal silence with prayer, patriotic and religious songs -- offering up their hearts to those who had perished in the disaster.
"Our hearts are now bursting," Roberts told them as they dedicated a memorial to the dead, but he also made note that the nature of Hoboken had changed for the positive as well. "We have gun to become more tolerant as a community."
People, who had passed each other on the street without notice before Sept. 11, 2001, took less for granted after the disaster. Hoboken -- and for that matter, the nation and the world -- had changed forever, and because of the outpouring of pride, the community had changed for the better despite the worst efforts of the terrorists.

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