By Port Authority Staff
Thousands listened as the bells tolled and the names of those lost on 9/11 were read aloud during the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Heroes and heroines, sung and unsung, tourists and natives spilled into the surrounding streets to share in the collective reflection of a singularly deadly and unimaginable day.
Dignitaries, past and present mayors, governors, Port Authority leaders and board members, federal officials, and even the major party presidential candidates stood in a cordon. There were other less recognizable faces too: the Port Authority calls them its “pillars,” people like Alan Reiss and Lillian Valenti upon whom the agency relied to help take care of its people after 9/11 and bring everything back. Recently Reiss received the agency’s Pillar of the Port Authority Award.
Reiss is a modest man, self-effacing to the point that you’d never suspect he’s a boss. That he supervises hundreds of people and thousands of contractors on what once was described as the most complicated construction site on the planet. Reiss, director of World Trade Center Construction, simply counts himself fortunate and honored to have played a role in the transformation of the WTC site.
For the past nine years, Reiss has served as the liaison between the Port Authority and the developer of the World Trade Center site, Silverstein Properties. He’s considered an expert at managing every aspect of construction – money, schedule, liability and above all else, people, especially the members of his team. He is a survivor of 9/11 and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center before that. Rather than succumbing to grief and sadness, he grew stronger.
“Rebuilding One WTC was not the same to me as the memorial plaza and the pools,” said Reiss, who admits easily that the families who lost loved ones were always more important to him. Reiss mentions other Port Authority people who tended to the families – people like Ernesto Butcher, Lillian Valenti, Mike Massiah. Butcher, who died a few years back, used to call Reiss and Valenti compassion officers, which today makes them something akin to the Port Authority’s CCOs – Chief Compassion Officers.
On 9/11, Reiss was the Director of the World Trade Department, which operated the World Trade Center. That day, he lost 18 civilian members of his staff. “It was so important to me personally having dealt with my 18 families and the other Port Authority families. We needed to build the memorial plaza so that the families had a place to visit anytime they wanted, not just on 9/11. It could be a wedding anniversary or a birthday. So many families did not get anything back, and visiting a gravesite is an important part of the healing process.”
But his training as an engineer left him unprepared for the staggering task of meeting grieving families who’d lost loved ones. In family living rooms and across kitchen tables, Reiss and Valenti engaged in desperately sad discussions about human remains. Valenti says “they’ve been tied at the hip ever since.”
It was Reiss who went to the morgue to recover the personal effects of Monica Rodriguez Smith, the pregnant woman who died in the 1993 bombing with her seven-month unborn child. Reiss would later face down opposition to inscribing “unborn child” on the 9/11 Memorial on panel-73, with the rest of the names of the thousands lost on 9/11.
“Most people aren’t fully aware of the extent to which Reiss worked behind the scenes to take care of the 9/11 families and the children who had lost parents,” said Valenti. Reiss expedited death certificates. He worked with Agency executives to ensure that 12 WTC operations personnel, who had been assigned emergency duties on 9/11, received assistance from the Twin Towers Fund, which was reserved for uniformed first responders.
One hundred eleven children of the Port Authority lost a parent on 9/11. Reiss was the mastermind behind a plan to make sure they had a Christmas in 2001. At his behest, a call was made by Ron Shiftan, then Port Authority acting executive director, on behalf of the children to the CEO of Toys R Us, who sent a $100 gift certificate for every child.
On the morning of 9/11 when the terrorists struck, Reiss was on the World Trade Center concourse with a Port Authority detective when the South Tower collapsed. “On that day I thought I died twice. I was engulfed in a cloud of black smoke for three minutes and couldn’t see anything. I was with Captain Whitaker of the WTC command. I actually tapped him on the shoulder to ask if we were still alive. It was the blackest black you can imagine.”
Today, with so much accomplished at the World Trade Center, he feels a sense of closure, but he has no plans to retire anytime soon. Fifteen years later, the sprawling site mostly is back. At the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, the PATH platforms are open and the retail shops are bustling .
Alan Reiss is gratified that life has been restored to the site. He’s still a 24/7 guy, who sleeps less and eats less if it means he can solve a problem and improve something at the Port Authority. He continues to work to sustain the visions of colleagues that passed away. “This is my family. I’m happy. I want to get things done. It’s what I’m destined to do,” he said.