By Steve Coleman, Media Relations Staff
Twenty-five years after the first major terrorist attack at the World Trade Center site, the horrific memories of that snowy winter day are still vivid to Alan Reiss and Lillian Valenti.
Reiss, employed as the Port Authority’s lead electrical engineer for the World Trade Center towers at the time, was on the B-2 level of 1 World Trade Center at 12:18 p.m. on February 26, 1993 when terrorists detonated a bomb inside a Ryder rental truck parked nearby. Immediately, he saw a big piece of steel fly behind him, but it took a few minutes for him to process the fact that a bomb just exploded.
After first helping Port Authority colleagues and others evacuate the area, Reiss returned to the basement area where the blast occurred and saw complete devastation: cars flipped over, water pipes broken, a huge crater left from the impact. Electrical circuits were arching and a heavy thick black smoke filled the area, migrating upwards into the massive office towers. Six people died in the attack, and more than 1,000 were injured.
“It was like a scene out of Dante’s Inferno,” said Reiss, who became Director of the Port Authority’s World Trade Department in 1998 and today serves as the agency’s Director of World Trade Center Construction.
Valenti, currently the agency’s Chief Procurement Officer, was a Senior Human Resources Specialist and on the 61st floor of 1 World Trade Center that day. She and her colleagues had no idea what happened, but thought initially it was caused by a Con Ed transformer. Soon realizing it was a more serious event, she moved quickly to begin evacuations, paying particular attention to the disabled, those suffering from asthma or women who were pregnant. A triage center was established on the 43th floor, and groups were sent down the stairwells to safety up until 6:10 p.m.
This Monday, Reiss and Valenti will attend their 25th Memorial Mass at St. Peter’s Church near the WTC, along with colleagues and the families of the victims. The annual commemoration event helps keep the memories of that day, and the efforts to restore the towers to normal operation, fresh in both of their minds
“It was a herculean effort to get the towers reopened,” Valenti recalled. “Every step of the way, we never lost sight of those who lost their lives, and they were the source of our energy and resilience.”
Hours after the 1993 attack, when the incident scene stabilized, Reiss was finally able to call home and speak to his wife and son. During that conversation, he told them: “You won’t see me for a couple of months because I have to rebuild this place.” His words turned out to be prophetic. Valenti also called her husband that night from a hospital, where she had accompanied a pregnant staff member, to say she was fine.
“There was a building and people who needed my help and I probably would need to be at my ‘home away from home’ for some time,” she said.
In the weeks and months that followed, Reiss spent many sleepless nights restoring key electrical and HVAC systems to the towers and shoring up the building structure where the bomb had exploded. “This was my home, my building,” he said. “We were ready to do whatever had to be done to get it back opened.”During that same time, Valenti organized a staffing operation on the first floor of what was then the Alexander’s Department Store space to accommodate displaced agency staff and third-party vendors. It was a 24/7 operation to deploy field, operations and management staff in an organized manner. On March 19, 1993, the first tenant – New York Gov. Mario Cuomo – moved back into the towers. In the following months, all but one tenant, a law firm, returned to the towers.
All these years later, Reiss believes that day changed the way Americans looked at terrorism. “Before this attack, I don’t think this country ever thought about this type of terrorist attack before,” he said.