By DIANE S. WILLIAMS
This Sept. 11 marks the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93.
District Council 37 remembers that horrific day and what New York’s public employees did to save thousands of lives.
The union also recounts what its leaders did to protect staff members at 125 Barclay St., and provide uninterrupted services for members and retirees.
Dennis Sullivan, the union’s lead negotiator, arrived at 125 Barclay early that morning. “I was scheduled for a 9 a.m. meeting on the 39th floor of the North Tower, Building 1,” he said. “I saw the first plane hit. I was around for the 1993 bombing. I came back to 125 and called the mayor and the police.”
About 200 MELS staff were in the union building. Some 150 retirees were waiting to hear City Council Speaker Peter Vallone in Room 1. It was Primary Day and most staff were on field assignments across the city.
“As the only administrator on premises, I made an executive decision to evacuate the union headquarters,” Sullivan said. Building Superintendent Al Locasio calmly made the announcement.
Sullivan spoke with police and offered use of the union hall as a staging area. The NYPD Emergency Response Unit took over DC 37’s first floor. Later the FBI would base operations there, too. Outside, horror began to unfold.
“Calls started flooding in,” said Monique Brown, a Police Communications Technician at the Metro Tech 911 Call Center in Brooklyn. “It sounded unbelievable. Then our alarms alerted us that something very serious was happening.”
“We heard a very loud noise, that’s when the first plane hit. Smoke and flames rose from the tower. We watched on a small TV,” said Wiandy Santiago, a union staff member.
Witnesses said the crash sounded like a truck driving over metal plates. “Then a second plane circled around and flew directly into the other tower. I froze,” Santiago said.
Chaos erupted. Santiago heard loud thuds. People were jumping from the burning buildings. Stunned crowds stared up in disbelief. Others took photographs.
A hijacked Boeing 767 rammed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Eighteen minutes later, a second Boeing 767 struck the South Tower. “The buildings had not fallen yet. We had to get out of there,” Sullivan said. In less than two hours, the Twin Towers collapsed.
Nearby schools in Tribeca and Battery City were evacuated. People called 911 looking for their children. Brown said, “As a parent, I had to act so I radioed police officers and made a list of schools and where the students were sent.”
Tower 2 collapsed first. People ran for their lives as billowing clouds of thick, grey smoke chased behind them. Local 983 PEP Officers in Battery City Park evacuated people by ferry to safety across the Hudson River. Hundreds of DC 37 Paramedics rushed toward the Towers along with firefighters and police.
At the 911 Call Center, Local 1549 members took a record 3,000 emergency calls from police and civilians. That high call volume was surpassed only in 2020 as PCTs took thousands of 911 calls each day during the peak months of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Local 1549’s Alma Roper.
E911 Techs answered calls and dispatchers fed information to police officers. They had to remain calm; many lives were in their hands. “Our system was inundated. Six officers I talked to were trapped. Many were counting on us to lead them out—and we couldn’t,” Brown said.
“‘I am not going to live. Can you call my wife?’ asked one man trapped in the World Trade Center. Hundreds of victims asked us to call their families and say their last goodbyes,” Brown said. Her sister, a, NYPD Officer in Harlem, was missing.
“We worked from 7 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. nonstop,” said Brown, a PCT since 1989. “The next day, I was back at work at 7 a.m. We had no time to absorb our reality or worry about our own families. We sat in our seats and did a hell of a job. It’s what we signed up for.”
Brown’s sister was later found alive, but she was injured and at Brooklyn’s Woodhull Hospital.
Masses of people, some shoeless and covered in dust, walked across the century-old Brooklyn Bridge to safety. Highways were shuttered.
Local 1320 President Jim Tucciarelli housed about 50 DC 37 staff overnight who were stranded on Staten Island. “In typical union fashion, everyone rolled up their sleeves to help,” he said. The next day, TBTA gave Tucciarelli clearance and a convoy of union staff crossed the shuttered Verrazano Bridge headed for home.
Armed military and the National Guard were on every street in Lower Manhattan and at bridge and tunnel crossings. Manhattan was closed below Canal Street. Blue collar workers from DOT, DEP, and NYPD tow-pounds removed vehicles. City water trucks washed streets covered in dust as deep as blizzard snow.
Jose Sierra, then-Blue Collar division director, had keys to DC 37. “I went into the dark building and climbed to the 10th floor to retrieve the backup data reels from Health and Security and other critical documents that we needed so union services and benefits could continue. Otherwise, DC 37’s entire operations would be gone,” he said. “No traffic was allowed past Canal Street, so I walked everything in and out of the zone to our staff at GHI. I searched for the beneficiary card for Mychal Judge.”
Judge, a Local 299 City Chaplain, died on Sept. 11 along with three other DC 37 members: Paramedic Carlos Lillo, Local 2507; EMS Lieutenant Ricardo Quinn, Local 3621; and Chet Louie, an OTB Betting Clerk in Local 2021.
Contacts at DOT issued credentials to Sierra, and union leaders Bill Fenty, David Catala, and Tucciarelli. They spent months at Ground Zero assessing damage to 125 Barclay.
“Dennis Sullivan and Lee Saunders negotiated with the NYPD to allow use of our first floor. In exchange, we got power, phone lines and a head start on cleaning up and getting back into the building. It put us months ahead to reopen,” Tucciarelli explained.
Blue collar workers, parks workers, construction and laborers, firefighters and police hoped to find the missing. Local 376 members taught them how to cut through steel and concrete to search for any survivors. Work stopped whenever they found a body or remains.
Then-AFSCME President Gerald McEntee and Secretary Lee Saunders, who was the DC 37 administrator, visited Ground Zero to thank union members for their hard work. “Someone handed us Vicks to put under our noses to mask the smell of death,” Tucciarelli said.
A DC 37 member who lost his brother at the WTC refused to leave the site until he was found. He was one of many who would not give up. Eventually finding no survivors, the mission became one of recovery. The piles burned for about 100 days.
NYPD Criminologists, Health Department and Office of Chief Medical Examiner workers helped identify many victims and provided closure for their families. The forensic scientists used new DNA technology they developed in the WTC recovery process. Still, many missing people were never found.
For months, Local 372 school cooks prepared thousands of meals at nearby Stuyvesant High School to feed tired Ground Zero workers.
Public employees were critical to New York City’s recovery. The city’s engineers, inspectors, and surveyors painstakingly rebuilt lower Manhattan. They shored up the concrete walls barricading the Hudson River when the World Trade Center basin threatened to collapse and flood the area.
DC 37 met resistance at every turn. The union fought then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to give private contractor Bechtel Corp. a no-bid $27 billion contract to clean up and rebuild the 16-acre site. In a victory against privatization, DC 37 members continued the arduous cleanup, redesign, and rebuild of the WTC site and its subway stations, finishing ahead of schedule and under budget.
Department of Design and Construction employee Charles E. Kaczorowski spent 10 months on the midnight shift cleaning up Ground Zero. He designed the World Trade Center Living Memorial. Architect and former Local 375 member Michael Arad designed the Reflecting Absence memorial at the World Trade Center site.
The union battled to protect the health and safety of its members. Saunders, and DC 37’s Lee Clarke, Charles Ensley, and Eddie Rodriguez fought for members working at agencies located in Lower Manhattan that were contaminated by WTC dust and debris.
Clarke and then-DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts, along with then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and U.S. Congress member Carolyn Maloney, won an important victory for Ground Zero workers when Congress passed the Zadroga Act in 2010 that monitors New Yorkers sickened by residual WTC toxins. President Obama signed the lifetime health coverage bill into law in 2011.
The union won another important victory in 2018 when Mayor Bill de Blasio, DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido, and local leaders Vincent Variale and Oren Barzilay announced that the city would provide unlimited 9/11 sick leave to about 2,000 EMS and City workers who participated in the WTC rescue, recovery, and cleanup operations, and contracted a 9/11-related illness.
“Dedicated public employees sacrificed profoundly at Ground Zero,” Garrido said. “Our members worked to rebuild our city at great personal sacrifice. They keep New York running. In crises great and small, they are counted on to protect and provide for New Yorkers come what may.”