Edited by Roz Hamlett, Portfolio Editor
For the last 22 years, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has marked the anniversary of the Feb. 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing with a commemorative Mass at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. During the attack, PA employees Robert Kirkpatrick, Stephen Knapp, William Macko and Monica Rodriguez Smith and her unborn child, along with Windows on the World employee Wilfredo Mercado and visitor John DiGiovanni lost their lives in an assault by terrorists that injured more than a 1,000 others.
While that tragic and sad moment in Port Authority history is marked forever in the agency’s collective memory, the heroism that occurred during the ensuing days and weeks is told through astonishing tales of heart, humanity and perseverance.
The following stories are excerpted from Perpetual Motion: The Illustrated History of The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Although most of the PA employees profiled here have retired or since passed on, their experiences on that February afternoon are indelibly etched into the Port Authority’s historical record.
At about the 58th floor, “the elevator stopped,” said Vincent Miller, trapped with seven others in an elevator halted by the blast. “We did not hear an explosion or feel a shock. When smoke began to fill the elevator we realized something was wrong and we had to think fast.” But these were no ordinary passengers. Among them were five Port Authority engineers, including Chief Engineer Eugene Fasullo, all experts in the inner workings of the building.
The group attacked the problem systematically, by first pulling open the elevators doors. Then, using makeshift tools – car and house keys –a few of them attempted to make a hole. Others, looking for another means of escape, opened and removed the cover of the manual-control panel and used it as a hatchet to cut through two-inch-thick gypsum plank. Finally, they cut a one–foot-square hole that opened into an access area with a fresh supply of air.
When the lights went out, they used the night light in their beepers and books of matches to cut through the elevator-shaft wall to escape. After opening a small hole in the gypsum they heard a sound like breaking glass when they hit tile in the women’s bathroom. By continuing to chop away with the control-panel door, they managed to make a hole big enough for the party to escape.
Ed Piccinich, manager of operations of the World Trade Center, and his 12-man team were trapped in an office in the subgrade – the heat of the blast had welded shut one door, while the second was blocked by tons of debris from collapsed cider block walls. Bob Rafferty, a security coordinator, corralled the staff into his office, the only space that offered protection against the enveloping smoke.
Piccinich grabbed the flashlight and crawled forward to determine whether their last chance for escape was still available – the exit to the executive parking lot. Reaching the parking lot, Piccinich saw that the blast had ripped open the bottom portion of the emergency door. With Rafferty’s help, he was able to safely evacuate the employees through the opening.
Building mechanic Fred Ferby, working in the sub-basement, was thrown against a wall by the blast. Buried in the wreckage, he dug his way out. Hearing his co-workers’ cries for help, he found a flashlight and searched for them, pulling two from the wreckage of the collapsed ceiling and leading them to safety.
Port Authority employees assisted their colleagues, many in wheelchairs. Two agency lawyers, Donald Burke and Michael Driscoll, carried fellow attorney Kathleen Collins and her wheelchair down 66 floors.
Paul Iannacone and Richard Pietruszki weren’t where they normally work – the B-3-level stockroom – when the bomb exploded. For Tom Martinez, fate was not so kind. Working in the stockroom when the bomb went off, Martinez was flung beneath a table. He sustained a back injury that would keep him out of work for three months. After co-worker Oliver Brown helped him to safety, Iannacone and Pietruszki conducted a detailed search of the area to determine if anyone else was trapped or injured.
Working with a single flashlight, the two men crawled forward on their hands and knees in the pitch-black and smoke, patting the ground in front of them to make sure that they would not fall into any of the holes that had opened up. They gave up after an hour of searching without finding other survivors. They then sought out the FBI and local police to offer their intricate knowledge of the subgrade levels.
Three days after the bombing, one third of the World Trade Center was open for business. To demonstrate that residents of the region would not be intimidated by terrorism, New York Governor Mario Cuomo and his staff led the return to the World Trade Center’s Tower Two by moving back into their offices two weeks ahead of schedule.
For six weeks following the attack, Port Authority staff and contractors worked around the clock to restore the towers and communications and safety systems, reconstruct damaged floors and supports and clean away mountains of rubble.