Today’s BMCC students were youngsters on September 11, 2001—but those attending a new semester that fall, saw their college mobilize and recover from the tragedy in one of the most significant lessons they’d learn that year.
Ed Sullivan, BMCC’s Director of Operations, Planning and Construction was in charge of the renovation of BMCC’s original Fiterman Hall, when terrorists hijacked two commercial jets and crashed into the World Trade Center Towers, a block away.
“I was in my office on the 15th floor having coffee with Carmine [Gaultieri, Chief Engineer, TriMaintenance Services], and some of the other people in the building,” he says, “when the first plane hit. We looked out the window, looked up and saw what looked like graffiti coming down, which was really the skin of the building.”
Gianchand Paray, another engineer on Sullivan’s team, quickly got to work in the basement, shutting down the electricity, as well as air conditioning units and fans for the building. “You always shut off the air,” he says. “You don’t want the air to get contaminated.”
Meanwhile, says Sullivan, “the police from 7 World Trade Center showed up and wanted to know if we had any places with phones—and we did. Continuing Ed had a whole bank of phones that they used for training job seekers, and so they used that.”
Like a tornado
What no one saw coming, is that BMCC’s quiet Tribeca neighborhood was about to become a war zone—windows were blown out of buildings near Fiterman Hall when the first Tower was hit, and beams, pieces of metal and other objects hit the streets.
“We felt the power of the explosion,” says Gaultieri. “You could actually feel heat on the ground.”
“People were injured from the debris from 75 Park Place,” says Sullivan, “and we helped get them into ambulances.”
Next, as Gaultieri remembers it, “People came running from Barclay Street yelling, ‘The building’s coming down, the building’s coming down’, and all of a sudden we heard what sounded like an earthquake, and the building collapsed.”
Fiterman Hall was in the final stages of an extensive renovation at that time, and the first-floor windows had not yet been installed.
“The debris, the smoke and everything came right in the building,” says Gaultieri. “You couldn’t see, not even a foot in front of you…there were no windows on the ground level; so the wind, the dust and everything came in like a tornado.”
The most disturbing part, he says, “the part we didn’t talk about, was that before it fell, we saw people jumping out. It was horrible…people flying off the building, hitting the scaffolding on the Verizon building across the street. You didn’t see anything but just a pile of water; no bones, nothing—and then we saw two people jump holding hands. It was very, very bad.”
Triage in the gym
In the ensuing chaos, police tried to keep Sullivan from returning to Fiterman Hall, “but I was able to get around them,” he says, and soon after, he received a radio call from the Port Authority Department, which had begun to set up a camp in the gymnasium on BMCC’s main campus at 199 Chambers Street, a few blocks away.
Sullivan was concerned that gas mains had been broken, and there was risk of explosions—“So I told them, ‘You’ve got to get out of 199, I need 199 evacuated’,”—then a Port Authority Chief got on the line and assured him the gas lines were intact, but they needed to speak right away.
Sullivan headed out to meet the Chief at the main campus, he says, “and he was covered in white, I was covered in white, because we both had been down there…and he says to me, ‘I need your gym. We need to set-up a triage’.”
As it turns out, Sullivan says, BMCC President Antonio Pérez, Vice President Scott Anderson and others were already on that page—the College’s main facility had been made available, and people from all departments of the College were on hand to assist, any way they could.
Using first aid kits and other supplies from the school’s nursing department, says Sullivan, “we set up the gymnasium as a triage area, and some other nurses came, and doctors, and more police, firemen—we were all there but nobody came. A couple people got their eyes washed, but that was it, because as everybody knows, there were not too many people coming out alive.”
BMCC Buildings and Grounds workers, safety staff, administrators, volunteers and others worked tirelessly to secure the facility and put systems in place. “I was there for 19 days without going home, then I went home for one day, and was back for 18,” Sullivan says.
“We stayed in 199, we slept on cots,” says Gaultieri. “Every day we worked, 24 hours. They made that the Command Center for the Port Authority. We were hooking up generators, running power, whatever was needed.”
A commitment to reopen
Truckloads of supplies came to the college through the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, and local businesses sent vast deliveries of shoes, bottled water, batteries, towels and other supplies.
All the while, President Pérez’s public commitment—he appeared on CBS News, with reporter Lou Young—to quickly reopen BMCC provided hope for students whose educations and very life course, it seemed, had been violently interrupted.
Administrators, staff, faculty and alumni joined in an effort to personally call over 10,000 students and let them know they could return to school.
“We built 23 classrooms and moved eight trailers—two classrooms each—out along the street,” says Sullivan. “We built in any space we could, including the cafeteria. And we opened October 1.”
At that summer’s graduation ceremony, President Pérez acknowledged the magnitude of what the graduates had experienced.
“We at BMCC have witnessed first hand the destructive power of terrorism,” he told the class of 2002. “Terrorism breeds on hatred, and hatred is the child of ignorance. Hatred is overcome only by understanding, by knowledge, and by human compassion—all of which are the best fruits of education.”
Getting through the semester
Nicholas Daddazio was an adjunct professor at BMCC, teaching a morning speech class in Fiterman Hall, when American Airlines flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
“I was in my classroom, with 14 or 15 students,” he says, “and I felt a thud. I thought that was pretty strange. I went over to the window and looked out, and people were pointing in the direction of the Towers—I instinctively dismissed my classroom then and there.”
Daddazio directed his students to take the stairs, not the elevators. “And when you get to the ground floor,” he remembers telling them, “just leave the area.” Daddazio did the same, heading for his apartment in the West Village, about a 20-minute walk away.
“When I looked over my shoulder,” he says, “I saw the second plane hit the Tower and I thought we were under attack, so I started running.”
Once home, he went straight up to the roof of his apartment building. “I watched the Towers burn and come down,” he says. “The stench of it all drifted up to my apartment for six months, so that was a constant reminder.”
BMCC reopened in October, and Daddazio’s class was relocated from Fiterman Hall, to BMCC’s main campus, overlooking the West Side Highway and Hudson River.
“The students’ mood was very somber,” he says. “We watched the streets getting rinsed down, we watched truckloads of debris being offloaded to barges. Students just wanted to get through the semester.”
When 9/11 hit, Dr. Acte Maldonado was BMCC’s Dean of the Center for Continuing Education and Workforce Development, housed in Fiterman Hall. And when World Trade 7, right across the street, collapsed and fell against Fiterman at 5:20 on the evening of September 11, her department lost all its records, computers, books, offices and classroom space in one disastrous moment.
“For months after 9/11 there was seven stories of debris in front of our building,” says Maldonado.
Nonetheless, she lost no time setting her team’s “phone tree” into motion—not knowing who would be up to the task of regrouping in just ten business days—or risk losing their entire student roster, and jeopardize their funding.
“Many of my staff witnessed first-hand the burning towers and their collapse,” she explains. Tracey Wright, who was Maldonado’s executive assistant says, “My son and I ran for ten blocks trying to outrun the huge cloud…it took us four hours to get home.”
Wright’s colleague, Sandra Baez, stood with her co-workers on the sidewalk next to Fiterman Hall and stared disbelieving at the first damaged Tower. “I saw people throwing themselves off the building, because of the fire,” she says, her voice breaking, ten years later.
Even so, these staff members, along with Ed Sullivan’s crew, shook off their horror to evacuate over a thousand students, staff and faculty from Fiterman Hall, that tragic morning.
“One of the instructors didn’t want to leave,” Baez says, “because they were giving a test, but I told her she needed to get out, that this was the real thing. We pulled people out of the elevators, to make sure they all went down the stairs.”
A week after calling her staff to action, Maldonado says, the department had reconvened in temporary space at 125th Street in the State Building.
“I felt deep down in the pit of my stomach that I would take risks that I never thought I would,” she says, “and that I would ask staff to stretch themselves both physically and emotionally.”
Another BMCC staff person working at Fiterman Hall, Luz Lucas grew up in Lower Manhattan. “I saw the Towers being built, from my house, when I was growing up,” she says. “The hardest part is that we saw them come up and we actually saw them come down.”
Carol Edwards, who was working in BMCC’s Computer Information Systems department at the main campus, a few blocks north of Fiterman Hall, recalls that just as she left the subway that morning, “I heard a massive boom. I thought a truck had a blowout…I saw all the people just staring upward on West Broadway. I turned and saw the biggest hole I have ever seen, in the WTC 1.”
Edwards continued on her way to work, and when she learned that a second plane had hit the Towers, “The world came to a stand still. I was terrified, but knew I had a duty to do. I called Academic Affairs to see if it was time to evacuate the building and we got the ‘okay’. As Fire Warden I made sure everyone was out before me, and walked to the Harrison Street side of the building. We were told to keep walking away from the towers.”
Sidney Eng, BMCC’s Chief Librarian, writes in the BMCC 9/11 Community Blog that just after the first plane hit, “President Pérez ran past me wearing a most serious expression, taking charge like a field general…I felt like a reluctant commander myself. I remember first moving the staff away from the southern back of the library where they congregated to watch the horror in front of them, and later gave the evacuation ‘order’. I also remember promising an older colleague I would not leave until transportation was secured for her. The obvious analogy here is that of a captain who stays with his ship until the last moment.”
Worse than Vietnam
Alumni Gwen Bibins remembers, “I was in my third semester at BMCC when disaster struck. I remember walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, and feeling like we were refugees running from a war. It took me three trains and a bus to get home. While trying to push my way on the bus, whom did I see? My political science professor covered with the powdery substance that was blown about when the Towers fell.”
BMCC student Nikki L., who wasn’t yet attending BMCC in 2001, can still see “a woman wearing a skirt suit with a briefcase in her hand. She was 90% covered with white ash…I will never forget that woman, and I now wonder if she is even still alive. No one knew at the time how toxic all that ash was.”
Sadly, the insidious health risk created by 9/11’s huge volume of dust—tons of pulverized concrete and gypsum settled across the area—would make itself known to many, including those who worked the “bucket lines,” removing debris, and aided in the ongoing search for survivors.
According to Ed Sullivan, it was his colleague, Ed Moss, now BMCC’s Director of Public Safety, who “talked me into going into the monitoring program, and they found out that I had upper respiratory disease; my sinuses were destroyed, and they have now diagnosed me with about a 27% loss in my lung capacity. They’re treating me well and don’t foresee any problems, hopefully, in the future.”
Sullivan was a Special Field Officer in the Army before joining the administration at BMCC, and served in Vietnam, where he survived a mortar attack on a building.
“Everyone was killed but me,” he says. “I was in a coma for three months, and woke up in Japan. I guess I’ve got nine lives, and I’ve used up at least two of them.”
As with many who experienced that brutal war first-hand, it has become his standard by which to measure other cataclysmic events. Describing that sunny Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, he says simply, “It was worse than Vietnam.”
A story of “true leadership”
Despite the hardships of 9/11, Sullivan shows visitors with pride, the commemorative plaque on his office bookshelf presented to him by The Port Authority, and as Acte Maldonado puts it, “This is a story of true leadership— loyalty, courage, grace under pressure, positive thinking, collegial relationships, of crushing workloads and peak performance and above all, perseverance.”
BMCC’s current and upcoming students will be first to attend class in the new Fiterman Hall, scheduled to open in fall 2012—and they are well aware of their school’s historic role in New York City’s response to the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center.
Kimberlee Gonzales didn’t know, in 2001, that she would one day attend BMCC. “I used to work in the World Trade Center; it was my first job out of high school,” she writes in BMCC’s 9/11 Blog. “I worked on the 79th floor, and the view was panoramic and beautiful. I lost many co-workers that day.”
Today, she sees another layer to those historic events.
“I am so proud to be a student of a College that did not only open their door that day to the Tribeca community,” she says, “but truly opened their hearts to the whole island of Manhattan. The love and support that was shown from BMCC to all who were affected by this will never be forgotten.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is dedicated to the 2,977 men and women who lost their lives in the tragic events of September 11, 2001, including the eight men and women who were part of our own BMCC community: Annette Dataram, Jorge Luis Morron Garcia, Keithroy Marcellus Maynard, Shevonne Olicia Mentis, Curtis Terrence Noel, Angela Rosario, Khamladai Khami Singh and Hector Tirado, Jr.
BMCC students, alumni, staff and faculty are welcome to post comments about their experience on or since 9/11, on the BMCC 9/11 Community Blog. Also, readers are invited to view a 27-minute video produced by the BMCC Media Center, Rising from the Ashes.