Volume 19 • Issue 18 | September 15 - 21, 2006

Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel

President Bush and the first lady bow their heads in prayer at the Pitt St. firehouse on Monday morning.

Bush, Grannies, families find their way to mark 9/11

By Lincoln Anderson

President Bush standing solemnly outside the Pitt St. firehouse next to a fire engine door battered at ground zero as subway trains rumble by on the Williamsburg Bridge. Antiwar protesters carrying a flag-draped coffin chanting “Bring them home alive now!” A community board member wanting to pay her respects at ground zero — but finding it all too depressing. New fears over lung damage from the toxic brew of 9/11’s fallout. Firefighters, widowers and widows of loved ones lost in the attack finding the strength to carry on.

Spanning the spectrum from solemnly reverent to completely irreverent, these were just some of the images and events of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 in Lower Manhattan.

Bush was at “Fort Pitt” — home of Engine 5, Ladder 18 and the Seventh Police Precinct — which does resemble a fort, early Monday morning. While 18 Truck was crushed in the collapse on 9/11, the ladder company’s men survived. But the firehouse lost one member in the attack, Battalion Chief Matthew Ryan.

Bush and First Lady Laura Bush stood silently to the side of the former Ladder 18 truck’s scuffed door, flanked by police, fire and Port Authority brass. Scanning the area with binoculars, rifle-toting snipers were perched atop the stationhouse, a van on the Williamsburg Bridge and the rooftop of one of the Grand St. Guild Houses towers.

A Jewish chaplain from the Fire Department, a Catholic chaplain from the Port Authority and a Protestant chaplain from the Police Department read scriptural passages. Bagpipers played patriotic tunes. Twice — 17 minutes apart — the bells of St. Mary’s Church on Grand St. peeled in the crisp morning air, marking the times when the two hijacked jets hit the towers.

Before the ceremony, Bush had joined the firefighters and officers for breakfast inside the firehouse. He thanked Police Officer Brian Little, 35, of the Seventh Precinct, who recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, where he led Iraqi police units.

“He approached me and extended his hand and thanked me for serving,” Little said. “We are fortunate to have leadership to stand up to make sure that what happened won’t happen again.” Asked how he felt about criticism of the Iraq war, Little said, “I think they should remember how they felt in 2001. They should find the resolve to step up and finish the mission.” Asked if he thought Iraq was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, he said he thought he’d already answered that. A police spokesperson standing nearby added the questions were getting “political.”

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the Fire Department chaplain, said the Torah he read from during the service had been read in Iraq for Jewish soldiers — in the former palaces of Saddam Hussein.

Raging grannies

The day before, the tone had been defiant at an antiwar protest in which 150 to 200 marchers, including the Grandmothers Against the War, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall for a rally, the same day the Bushes laid a wreath at the site. Carrying black balloons with “Bring Our Troops Home Now” written on them, the protesters then wended their way to the Trade Center site, where they met up with 9/11 Truth members, a group that believes the attacks were an “inside job.”

An Iraq war veteran, Michael Harmon, came with his 85-year-old grandmother, Ann Landri.

“I’m not the same person,” Harmon said of life after his 13-month stint as a medic in the war zone.

Marie Runyon, a former state assemblymember and, at 91, the oldest of the Grannies, rose from a wheelchair to criticize money spent on the Iraq conflict.

“Let’s bring those trillions home and help the people here,” she said to cheers.

Over the course of the afternoon several protesters were approached by people who blasted them for their antiwar message. At one point, a large man in sunglasses began yelling at one of the protesters, Laurie Arbeiter of Park Slope. After several minutes of their yelling at each other, Port Authority police interceded and separated the two. The man walked away. Police asked Arbeiter to leave. She declined, choosing instead to read aloud the First Amendment. She was arrested for disorderly conduct.

As the afternoon wore on, the Grannies stood in a semicircle, reading the names of people killed in the war.

Joining the antiwar protesters were Councilmembers Rosie Mendez, Gale Brewer and Melissa Mark Viverito.

Four of the Grannies — Betty Brassell, Lois Schlessinger, Vinnie Burrows and Lucille Carasquero — live in Mendez’s Lower East Side district. Two were arrested at a protest at the Times Square recruiting station last October.

“Through the years, each one of them and I have worked together,” Mendez said on Sept. 11. “Sunday was Grandparents Day. And today is 9/11. What many of the Grannies have been saying — and it’s true — is there’s no correlation between 9/11 and Iraq and it’s time to bring the troops home. It just brings it home: Five years later, we’re still there, so many kids are dying. And it has nothing to do with 9/11…. And Osama bin Laden is still there.”

Firehouse gatherings

At the Houston St. firehouse of Engine 24 and Ladder 5, firefighters welcomed the families of the 11 firefighters who were lost on 9/11 for a breakfast, followed by a Mass at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott St., and a lunch back at the firehouse. However, the firefighters ended up missing the Mass when they had to respond to a two-alarm fire at 26th St. and Fifth Ave. On Sept. 11, 2001, all nine men in the ladder company who responded perished when they were helping a woman down the stairs on the 34th floor of the North Tower and it collapsed.

“Five years went awful quick,” said Firefighter Mike Simon, an eight-year veteran of the firehouse. “It’s hard to believe. I think it was yesterday. It doesn’t get any easier. It actually gets harder. We lost a lot of great guys.”

For the firehouse, Sept. 14 is as important a date as Sept. 11.

“It took us four days to find them,” Simon said. “They were in the pile of the North Tower.”

Although a new Mt. Sinai study reports a high percentage of first responders at the World Trade Center suffered lung problems, Simon said he’s been all right. He didn’t wear a breathing apparatus on 9/11 because he was off duty and there were only enough for those on duty. He grabbed his gear at the firehouse and went down without a mask to help put out the fires.

“I feel that we could lose more people than we did on that day, from illnesses,” he said. “I’ve been good so far.”

Family members of the lost 11 — most of them smiling at the warmth and friendship they felt from the firefighters — were trickling out of the firehouse as Simon spoke.

“They’re great people,” said Simon. “They’re strong people. And they helped us get through it.”

Bumpy ‘Path to 9/11’

Bob Kerrey, president of New School University, also weighed in on “The Path to 9/11,” criticizing Tom Kean, chairperson of the federal 9/11 Commission, for consulting on the project, which Kerrey slammed for its revisionist history of the commission’s 9/11 Report. A former commission member and senator, Kerrey was head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, during most of the period covered in the film.

“I think the world of Tom Kean, but I think he made a mistake,” said Kerrey. “Even though they put a disclaimer at the beginning [of the film], you can’t put a three-hour documentary based on the 9/11 Report and call it fiction. It’s an entertaining story, but I don’t think it’s a balanced story — because I don’t think it adequately describes the congressional situation at the time. There was Democratic support for a censure [of President Clinton]. But instead we spent four months going through a trial…. It was a congressional decision to impeach…. But overall, they’re right that the federal government from Clinton through Bush wasn’t aware enough of what was going on.”

Cough returns

Although there was a plethora of 9/11 remembrance events, memorials, concerts and readings, many observed the day on their own. Carol Yankay, a member of Community Board 2, had the urge to head to Ground Zero on Monday, but it didn’t quite work out. She rode the bus down, got out and walked a few blocks, but didn’t stay and quickly caught another bus back home to the Village. New fears over the toxic air from 9/11 may have affected her decision. She noticed she was starting to cough as she neared “the pit,” and recalled how on the evening of 9/11 she and the late C.B. 2 district manager, Arty Strickler, had attended a board meeting on Houston St.

“It must be psychological that I go down there and I start to cough,” Yankay said. “It was just too sad.

“Walking back on 9/11, we were under some kind of black cloud, and Arty said, ‘What are we doing?’ ” she recalled. “You know there had to be something with the buildings gone like that.”

Others joined together through religion to deal with the enduring impact of 9/11, and to renew hopes for peace. At Middle Collegiate Church on Second Ave. and E. Seventh St., models of the Twin Towers were incorporated into the service on the eve of 9/11. They were made of black cloth, with spotlights illuminating them from inside.

Reverend Jacqueline Lewis, the church’s pastor, read a text from Mark that she admitted was “hard” in which Jesus, a Jew, insults a Syrophoenician woman.

“Racial, ethnic and religious conflict is as old as time…. A gentile woman gets dissed by Jesus, and she changes his mind,” Lewis explained. “It doesn’t sound pretty — but even Jesus, the humanity part of him, was bound by his own ethnicity and religion. And how many bombs have been dropped and fingernails pulled out in the name of religion?”

Anti-war protestors at the W.T.C. Sunday

Laughing again

Charles Wolf, who lost his wife in the attack, said the victims’ family members and loved ones are indeed pulling through, and — at least from what he’s observed — starting to emerge at last from their grief.

“The mood — I checked with other family members — the mood was a little lighter this year,” he said. “There was laughter. The balm of time is helping to heal. I’ve met several women who have boyfriends now. They’re happy. So this is happening.”
Often people are scared off when dating a partner of one of the victims, though, and can’t deal with it, he said.

“It’s tough being a 9/11 widow or widower,” he noted.

Wolf’s wife, Katherine, was working at Marsh & McLennan on the 97th floor of Tower 1 when the plane struck. On Monday, Wolf attended several memorials, one for British victims with Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, the former Duchess of York — since Katherine was Welsh — and another for Marsh & McLennan family members.

He was also down at the W.T.C. site on Sunday and said he was awed by a huge contingent of motorcycle clubs from Harlem who showed up to honor the memory of 9/11.

“They came in two by two. They were cool to show their respect,” Wolf said. “I’m proud to be a member of this damned exclusive club. But I think I’ve learned this year that this is bigger than just us families or the companies that were affected. We have been in one of the biggest things that has happened to this country in the last 100 years. And we are in the middle of it, and yet our lives carry on.”

With reporting by Jefferson Siegel


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