SEPTEMBER 11: A time to forget?
Everybody remembers where they were on September 11, 2001, when two hijacked Boeing 767 jet airliners carrying 157 terrified passengers struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City within minutes of each other, killing 2,763 innocent people, including 343 firefighters and paramedics as well as 60 police officers who participated in the desperate rescue operations that ensued.
Englewood’s JoAnn Siciliano certainly remembers, because she was there. And for her, it’s a merciful day even now when she can repress her memories of that fateful event.
JoAnn was a Brooklyn gal, one of three children raised in the borough by Louis and Rose Carnemolla, her dad an immigrant from Sicily who worked in a tile factory and her mom a housewife. Their circumstances were modest, and things got more difficult when Rose became partly disabled by polio and Louis died suddenly of a heart attack while at work. JoAnn was still young at the time. She made it through school at St. Agnes Elementary School and John Jay High School in Brooklyn, but college was not in her future. “I had no desire to go to college, and we didn’t have the means to afford it,” she says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, other than to work and make money.” So four months after graduating from John Jay in 1978, she got a job at a then nonprofit organization, the Insurance Services Office (ISO). It was a large operation, headquartered in the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, with offices in Towers 1, 2 and 7.
The World Trade Center actually consisted of seven buildings. The Twin Towers, buildings 1 and 2, were the two tallest buildings in the Western Hemisphere at the time, each with 110 floors. Building 7 was across the street and had 47 floors. Beneath the WTC complex there was an underground garage and shopping mall. There were connections to the city’s subway system and the Port Authority’s Trans-Hudson (PATH) trains, which provided mass transit to and from northern New Jersey. The WTC was one of the main attractions of New York City, along with the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. On a typical weekday, about 50,000 people worked there, and it hosted some 200,000 visitors in the course of a year.
For her job in marketing support for ISO, JoAnn traveled by subway from Brooklyn to the WTC complex, usually arriving around 7:30 or 8 a.m. She’d have breakfast there and then head for the ISO offices, which occupied space on three or four floors in Building 2 and floors 14 through 18 in Building 7. “Working in those buildings, and using the subways, being in New York, I always had this fear in the back of my mind that some catastrophe could happen,” JoAnn says. “I always had that fear in life, after losing my father and all. I didn’t think of it every day, but it was in the back of my mind that something could happen.”
On the morning of February 26, 1993 something did happen. Three terrorists in a rented van carrying home-made bombs parked their vehicle in the B-2 level of the public parking garage below Building 1 and triggered the timing mechanism. It detonated 12 minutes later, killing 6 people and injuring 1042 others, causing extensive damage to the lower floors and creating a power outage that affected large parts of the city. “I was married at the time,” JoAnn recalls, “and I was sitting at my desk in Building 2. All I remember is that I felt this vibration, and I got up, along with everybody else. We thought maybe it was an earthquake, until my mother called me and told me, ‘Get out of the building! Get out of the building! They’re bombing!’ So we all just left. We didn’t look for permission. My mother didn’t know the full story, just that a bomb had gone off. I ran out and then walked to the Brooklyn Bridge. They weren’t letting anyone into the city, so I met my husband at the bridge and we went home.” It turned out that the bombing was only partly successful, and after a couple of days the authorities let people at the WTC go back to work. The perpetrators were eventually caught and jailed.
But the bombing did initiate a substantial tightening of security there: coded ID badges to get into the buildings, more security guards, turnstiles in Building 7. “That’s when they implemented disaster recovery plans,” JoAnn remembers. Fire drills. Verbal and written protocols for all employees, and a training program. “I was supposed to be one of the safety captains. They gave me a vest and a flashlight. We walked around and made sure everyone left. I would check the ladies’ room where men couldn’t go. And they had drills every quarter or every half-year. We actually walked down the stairwells and would proceed for two blocks to the parking lot. They really took it to the extreme.”
In May of 2001, just four months before the 9/11 attack, the fates conspired to save JoAnn’s life: ISO moved several of its offices across the Hudson to Jersey City. “They wanted to consolidate,” she says. “They were scattered around at 27 Cliff Street, 160 Water Street, a couple of floors in Pearl River, several buildings at the World Trade Center.” A number of employees didn’t want to work in Jersey City and stayed on at the WTC. It cost some of them their lives four months later. But JoAnn survived because she didn’t mind the extra commute from Brooklyn. “I would still go to the Trade Center, because the PATH station was there. I’d get my breakfast there and then go to the PATH station to go over the river to Jersey City.”
On September 11, 2001 JoAnn just happened to go to work a little earlier than usual. “All I know is I started to work very early, and I was lucky I did that day,” she says. She went to the WTC for breakfast and took the PATH train to her newly appointed offices in Jersey City. “My desk faced the Trade Center” across the Hudson, she recalls. She and her office colleagues had a clear view of what happened next that day.
According to news reports, at 8:46 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11, hijacked by terrorists, crashed into the northern face of the North Tower, Building 1. It struck between the 93rd and 99th floors. This was followed 17 minutes later by the crash of United Airlines Flight 175 into the southern face of the South Tower, Building 2, between the 77th and 86th floors. The reports indicated that “the damage caused to the North Tower by Flight 11 destroyed any means of escape from above the impact zone, trapping 1,344 people. Flight 175 had a much more off-centered impact compared to Flight 11, and a single stairwell was left intact; however, only a few people managed to descend successfully before the tower collapsed. Although the South Tower was struck lower than the North Tower, thus affecting more floors, a smaller number, fewer than 700, were killed instantly or trapped.
“At 9:59 a.m., the South Tower collapsed after burning for approximately 56 minutes. The fire caused steel structural elements, already weakened from the plane’s impact, to fail. The North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m., after burning for approximately 102 minutes. At 5:20 p.m. World Trade Center 7 began to collapse with the crumbling of the east penthouse; it collapsed completely at 5:21 p.m.”
“We saw an explosion and a ball of fire at the Trade Center,” JoAnn says. “We thought it was a transformer. I didn’t see the plane. We were too far away to hear any noise. Everybody congregated around my desk, and we were staring at the building. We had no clue. Then we saw this plane coming into view. It looked huge and out of place, because you just don’t see a plane that low. It looked like something out of King Kong. No one spoke until it hit the building.” At that point all the security protocols and training flew out of their heads. “The gal next to me fainted, and I just ran. I ran out of the building, because my focus was on my son. I was a single mom then, and my son Nick lived with me. I just had this super, overprotective fear about my son. He was my life, he was all I had. That’s why my first instinct was to run.” Nick was 11 at the time, and he was in school in Brooklyn. “He was sure to be seeing or hearing about this, and he didn’t know I wasn’t working at the Trade Center. We had only moved out four months earlier, and I hadn’t mentioned the move to him.
“I knew I had to take a different way home. I couldn’t take the PATH back to the Trade Center like I normally did, so I took the PATH to Manhattan and got off at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue.” That turned out to be the last train PATH ran into Manhattan that day. “When I got outside, the Trade Center was pretty far away, but there was so much smoke. And small flakes of ash were coming down. I had this sense of devastation. The news reports were talking about the Capitol in Washington and a crash in Pennsylvania. People didn’t know what was going on. I had to get to my son.
“When I got on the subway to Brooklyn, everyone was talking to each other. People were crying, people were scared, people were guessing what was happening, people were sharing their stories. Everybody just wanted to go home to their loved ones. No one wanted to be at work. One person said, ‘I wish the subways would end … close down.’ And sure enough, a short time later the subways did close down. Some people had to walk over the bridges, and they walked for miles and miles. I consider myself lucky that I was able to get one of the last subway rides out of Manhattan.
“When I finally made it to my son Nick’s school, he was just beyond himself to see that I was okay. I just grabbed his hand, and he said, ‘Mom, Mom what’s going on? Is this the end of the world?’ Being just over the Brooklyn Bridge, we were pretty close to the city. There was smoke in the air, ashes and even charred bits of paper. We couldn’t turn on the air conditioners in our windows, because that would bring the smoke in. People were concerned about toxic chemicals in the smoke. It did seem like the end of the world.”
In the days that followed, chaos reigned. “It was like a battlefield,” JoAnn remembers. “Everybody was looking for people. There were posters all over the place, asking if anyone had seen this person or that person. We didn’t assume that everybody in those buildings was dead, and people still had hope that their loved ones would be found. People in the street would be looking at each other, hoping their missing friends or relatives would show up. They looked in hospitals, churches, everywhere to find their loved ones.”
Actually, of all the people who were still in the towers when they collapsed, only 20 were pulled out alive. JoAnn recalls that “a girlfriend of mine lost her niece, who had stayed on. She was a chef at the restaurant, Windows on the World. One of my bosses died. There was someone I grew up with whose brother worked in the firehouse. He died. My girlfriend and colleague Tina, her father went back to help someone and he died.”
The battle isn’t over yet for JoAnn. She finished 40 years with ISO and retired in 2018, moving down here to Englewood. Every year when September 11 rolls around, she watches the news reports and memorials on TV. “And I cry,” she says. “I have this thing on my refrigerator that says, ‘Never forget.’ And what is it, 18 years now, and it’s still so fresh in my mind.”
But there is one positive note that rings out from the clamor of that disaster. It brought New Yorkers together. “Strangers crying and embracing each other,” JoAnn remembers. “People offering to share their homes with others in need. Stores were just giving people drinks when they were walking by, because there were no cars, there were no subways, and the bridges were closing. Many women were walking the streets in their high heels, and there were people giving out flip-flops. Talk about people coming together. It made me proud, it really did. People say New Yorkers are cold, and maybe that’s so, but during this time they all came together.”
Indeed, in the aftermath of the disaster, Americans everywhere came together. In the following year and longer, there was an aura of patriotism, seen in the flag ceremonies at sports stadiums, in the news reporting, TV shows, and in the way we Americans treated each other. JoAnn was right to be proud.
And Englewood residents have a right to be proud of JoAnn Siciliano for facing the pain and heartbreak she felt all over again in sharing her eyewitness experience with all of us.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person's background.