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Edward Devereux Sheffe, III, known as “Ro,” was a sophomore in college when he was drafted because of the Vietnam War. He did not believe it was ethically justified for the United States to be in that war, but felt it was his duty to serve. As a non-commissioned officer in the Navy, he was trained as a meteorologist and then stationed in Spain. Subsequently, he worked for the U.S. Information Agency, living in Morocco for two and a half years before returning to the United States to finish college with a double major in journalism and English. He has been the editor-in-chief of several magazines and for the last 20 years, has been the owner of a firm specializing in business and marketing communications. Since 1993, he has lived in a landmark building in the Financial District that is two blocks from the World Trade Center. He is chairman of Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee.
Do you speak Arabic?
A little. I’ve forgotten most of it. I made the mistake of trying to learn French and Arabic at the same time. Plus I have the world’s worst French pronunciation, so I concentrated on Arabic. My pronunciation in Arabic wasn’t that bad. People would look at me and say, ‘You’re from Palestine! I know that accent!’”
What do you remember about 9/11?
I was in the shower when the phone rang. A friend of mine who lives in Brooklyn said a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. I got dressed. Then I heard a loud noise. I didn’t see the second plane hit. I saw a fireball — not lights like you see on the Fourth of July. It was all paper. I realized that was paper from the desks of people who had just died. I grabbed my 70-pound bulldog, Mister Hudson, and went down in the elevator. There were a couple of residents in the lobby. About that time, the earthquake happened from the Trade Center collapsing. We had glass doors in the lobby. People were staring because they could see people jumping. I could probably see 40 or 50 people. Suddenly they all screamed and ran. About a second after that, the sky went black. It was total blackness, like charcoal punctuated by things flying through the air. We were just stunned. The whole building shook. We stood there in shocked silence. Were we buried in rubble? I pushed the door open and stuck my arm out. I couldn’t see my hand. We had no idea what was going on. We had no cellphone service. No one had a radio. We didn’t know whether to flee or stay. As we were debating, the door banged open and a firefighter rushed in and said, “Water! Water!” We got him water and asked him, “What should we do?” The man couldn’t answer us. He burst into tears. He was shaking and sobbing. The dark cloud had softened to charcoal grey. Then the other tower collapsed. We stuck it out as long as we could. Then we bolted and ran. There were around 20 of us. We ran over the Brooklyn Bridge.
When did you return?
I came back two or three days later and was told by National Guard troops to go away. After three or four weeks, they had not gotten around to inspecting my building, so I moved back in.
Did your health suffer?
Every year, I get horrible bronchitis. It lasts for around six weeks. In October 2009, I got pneumonia. The doctor said it was the worst case he’d ever seen in his life. They’re still in the dark about what was in that cloud. I’ve read that some things in that cloud never existed before.
What led to your Community Board 1 service?
It wasn’t so much the attack as the aftermath. What I saw happening after the attack was worse than the attack in terms of its impact on the neighborhood — all these politicians and developers enthusiastically taking advantage [of the situation] for their own benefit. That drove me nuts. [City Council Member] Alan Gerson appointed me to the Community Board late in 2002 and I was approved by the Borough President’s office in April 2003.
What are you proudest of in your Community Board service?
Park51. I and the committee and Community Board 1 took no position at all as to the religious component of Park51. What we expressed an opinion on was a community center — with a swimming pool, a library, a gym, an art gallery. Our community needs those things. What I’m proudest of is being one of the people who stood up against bigotry and hatred. Somebody has to do it.
When you stood in front of the Community Board 1 full board meeting in May 2010 to explain the Financial District Committee’s position on Park51 — then called Cordoba House — you were confronted with a room packed with hostile people. Did your experiences during the Vietnam War prepare you for what happened that night?
Nothing in my life prepared me for that. The most frightening thing on the planet are ignorant, impassioned people. They’re completely unpredictable. You have no idea what’s going to happen or how they will respond to anything. While I was standing up there doing my thing, [community board member] Bill Love was somewhere in the audience and overheard people talking about when they would storm the stage and take over the microphone. He thought that probably would have happened if the cops had not been present. It was a totally unpredictable situation. It was in equal parts disgusting and frightening. I had absolutely no idea the depth of the hatred of some of these people.
Are you still receiving death threats?
I’m no longer receiving death threats. That started after the Financial District Committee vote on May 5, 2010 and went on for four or five months and then slowly trickled down. Of the hundreds I received, most did not identify where they were writing from, but of those who identified themselves, not one came from New York City or New York State. People from all over the country and all over the world wrote to tell us how we should run our community.
- Terese Loeb Kreuzer