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Veteran DC 37 Staffers Remember 9/11 Turmoil Like It Was Yesterday

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A few of our stories and columns are now in front of the paywall. We at The Chief-Leader remain committed to independent reporting on labor and civil service. It's been our mission since 1897. You can have a hand in ensuring that our reporting remains relevant in the decades to come. Consider supporting The Chief, which you can do for as little as $2.25 a month.

“It was 20 years ago, but it was yesterday,” Jimmy Tucciarelli, former president of District Council 37’s Local 1320, said while reflecting on the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the weeks that followed in which he helped the union get back into operation.

On that day, Mr. Tucciarelli watched in horror from Staten Island—where he was coordinating the union's get-out-the-vote effort for its choice in the Democratic primary, Peter F. Vallone Sr.—as the World Trade Center's Twin Towers collapsed.

A Low-Flying Plane

Even before the first hijacked plane hit the Trade Center’s North Tower at 8:46 a.m., there was a sign in the sky that something was off, he said.

“This woman was pushing a baby stroller and she said, ‘Look at that plane, there’s something very wrong,’ because it was so low,” he remembered. “Then a car comes up and jumped the curb and this guy says, ‘Did you hear what happened?’ Next thing you know, all hell broke loose.”

After seeing the first tower collapse, “My mind was in a thousand places at that time,” Mr. Tucciarelli said.

DC 37's headquarters at 125 Barclay St. was just one block north of the Trade Center. Because it was Primary Day, the 10-story building had fewer occupants than usual, but there were still hundreds of staffers present at the time the first plane hit.

One of them staffers was Wiandy Santiago, an administrative assistant in the union’s executive office. She was in an office with her husband, Building Superintendent Al Locasio, when they experienced “the loudest noise we’d ever heard.”

A Slow-Motion Collapse

“One of his employees came and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center building. We went outside and crossed the street and saw what was happening,” she said. “We saw the foot of the plane and this black smoke. The building’s windows were coming down. It felt like everything was in slow motion.”

A colleague mentioned to her that people were jumping out of the tower.

“I said ‘I can’t look. because if I do, I’m going to live with that for the rest of my life,’” Ms. Santiago recalled.

It was after the second plane hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. that DC 37 Research and Negotiations Director Dennis Sullivan told staffers to get out of their headquarters.

“I was the most-senior person in the building, so I made the decision to evacuate everyone,” he said.

A Timely Lateness

Mr. Sullivan was supposed to be on the 39th Floor of the North Tower for a meeting with the Cultural Institution Retirement System because he was a board member, but he happened to be running late.

“The first building was hit as I was walking out the door,” he said. He immediately decided call the police desk at City Hall to find out what was going on, because had been present for the Feb. 26, 1993 bombing of World Trade Center.

“I met with the Captain of the Police Department who was coordinating the situation. We were in the lobby making sure people got away from the building,” Mr. Sullivan said.

He told staff to pair up as they evacuated. About 50 retirees who had been in the building to hear a political candidate speak collected their bagels and coffee and waited for their Access-a-Ride to come.

Although nobody knew at the time that there had been a terrorist attack, Mr. Sullivan sensed that something serious had happened.

Scream Pierced the Calm

“I tried to manage the situation—I said to myself ‘You have to keep people calm.’ And as I was saying that a guy comes into the lobby screaming ‘We’re under attack!’” he said.

Ms. Santiago said that after the second plane hit and the evacuation orders were given, “that’s when the panic set in.”

“I went to the Park Place side of the building and saw people running,” she said. “I was not ever thinking that these buildings were going to collapse. All of a sudden I hear this rumbling sound and all I see is cops telling people to run uptown.”

Mr. Sullivan said that although he had seen the first plane hit the North Tower, he did not realize both towers had collapsed until he saw it on television after walking to his sister’s house on the Upper West Side.

“You couldn’t tell what was going on while you were there,” he said.

Ms. Santiago and her husband made their way to Borough of Manhattan Community College on Chambers St.

'Couldn't See Anything'

“You couldn’t see anything, it was just gray,” she said. “I remember breathing in and feeling my throat burning.”

The couple’s car was still parked at DC 37’s loading dock, and they begged a car-rental place to reopen so they could get back to their home and baby in Staten Island, which ended up being a 15-hour trip because so many roadways were closed.

The sound of the towers collapsing haunted Ms. Santiago long after the attacks.

“I live near a highway, and there’s a sound that trucks make that sounds similar to that and it terrorized me,” she said. “I didn’t eat; I lost about 20 pounds.”

Four DC 37 members died in the towers: Father Mychal Judge, a Fire Department Chaplain, Paramedics Ricardo Quinn and Carlos Lillo, and Chet Louie, an Off-Track Betting Clerk who had a second job at the Trade Center.  

Although many buildings in the area faced major damage, District Council 37’s headquarters remained in tact.

'Verizon Building Saved Us'

“The thing that saved us was that the Verizon building right behind us took the brunt of it,” Mr. Tucciarelli said of the 32-story building at 140 West St.

But the building had lost power, and the basement had filled with about two feet of water, he recalled.

Jose Sierra, director of DC 37’s Blue Collar Division, said IDs and other objects from surrounding buildings had landed on DC 37’s roof.

“At one point we found what we thought were human bones but we called the Police Department and it turned out to be food,” he said.

The union faced the monumental task of restoring operations with its headquarters out of commission.

At the time, DC 37 was under administratorship after a corruption scandal, with Lee Saunders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees at the helm. Mr. Sierra, Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Tucciarelli were among those who helped retrieve records, computers and other necessities so that the union could begin serving its members again.

'Started From Scratch'

“We really had to start up the union from scratch,” Mr. Sullivan said. Three days after the attacks, he met with then- Labor Commissioner James F. Hanley and made arrangements with the NYPD to get access to the building.

Mr. Sierra and Mr. Sullivan each described climbing the 10 flights of stairs guided by flashlights to get hard drives and health-insurance documents.

The union set up satellite offices across the five boroughs; the first one was in Long Island City, which opened a week after the attacks.

Mr. Tucciarelli assisted in retrieving people’s belongings and escorted Mr. Saunders to and from Barclay St. to assess the damage to the building. The Police Department also began using the first floor of 125 Barclay St. as a logistical headquarters, which was a relief because there were concerns about vandalism in the area, Mr. Sierra recalled.

As first responders worked on the rescue and recovery effort, “Our main objective was to make sure our members had the proper personal protective equipment. No one knew at that time what could be in the air,” Mr. Sierra said.

He described being in the area as “a little surreal.”

'That Mountain of Rubble'

“There was that mountain of rubble. Our members gave us Vicks VapoRub to put under our noses so we couldn’t smell,” he said.

Mr. Tucciarelli said that it “looked like somebody had dropped a bomb on the area.”

“It was so eerie going through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and just seeing the mangled façade of the towers and the smoke,” he said. “Seeing all of the firetrucks that were burned down and knowing that they were still looking for people—it was just totally overwhelming.”

Mr. Sierra added, “It was every day for weeks, until it got to the point where you didn’t want to go home. I know what I was doing was important but it never felt like it was enough.”

Then there was the question of whether the air posed any health hazards. Less than a week after the attack, then-U.S. Environmental Protection Administrator Christine Todd Whitman declared that the air at the World Trade Center site was safe.

Reason for Skepticism

“Right across the street from us was the decontamination area” for vehicles entering and exiting the site, Mr. Tucciarelli recalled. “And I’m saying to myself, ‘We’re breathing all of this dust and they’re saying everything’s fine.’ After about a week and a half, Lee Clarke, who was the union’s director of health and safety, provided me with a respirator, but by that time I had been exposed already.”

Mr. Tucciarelli, who retired more than two years ago, has been dealing with health problems for 13 years and was diagnosed with leukemia several years ago. He was encouraged by Ms. Clarke to enroll in Mount Sinai’s World Trade Center Health Program.

The emotional toll of the attacks sunk in a few years later.

“I’m a traditionally blue collar guy—we just do what we have to and later go ‘Jesus Christ,’ ” Mr. Tucciarelli said. “But it’s not about me. I’m alive and I’m still with my family.  Even with the leukemia, I’m blessed.”

A Scary Uncertainty

The union’s Barclay St. headquarters reopened after six months. “We were happy to be back in the building but outside of the building was a very different story,” Ms. Santiago said. “I used to shop in the area and eat in the restaurants. That was very sad and it was very scary because you never knew if it was going to happen again.”

Ms. Santiago, who retired three years ago, said she now has a better understanding of how those who suddenly lost loved ones in the attacks must have felt, because her brother died during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020.

“I can understand their pain, because they never got to say goodbye and they never got to have a funeral,” she said.

Mr. Sierra, who retired in 2015, said that each year on the anniversary of 9/11 he tries to be outdoors.

“There’s a specific time when the bells start. That’s when I say a prayer for those who were killed and I give thanks,” he said.

Unity the One Positive

But there was one positive thing that came out of the attacks, Mr. Sullivan believed.

During the days and weeks after 9/11, “There was an incredible joining of the city,” he said. “People just loved each other. It was a bright spot. I try to think about that. If we could just harness that and bottle it.”


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