The rain exploded into a downpour on Sept. 7, just as four Department of Public Works employees picked up a three-foot-long piece of steel that had once been part of the World Trade Center and made their way towards the front doors of City Hall and the waiting flat bed truck parked on the street.
The piece of metal had been stored between filing cabinets and copy paper boxes for several weeks, waiting for this journey to its final resting place at Harbor View Park, to become a third piece in a tribute to the victims of the terrorists’ attacks in New York and elsewhere – attacks that left 13 Bayonne residents dead, and countless others heart broken.
The workers talked about that day a decade ago as they secured the beam to the flatbed and carefully draped an American flag across it. They spoke about how clear it was that day 10 years ago, and how shocked they felt when they saw the plane pass over, and later the towers fall.
“I couldn’t believe it, I still can’t.” -- Gary Chmielewski
Their boss, Director Gary Chmielewski, said he was working on the roof of City Hall when the second plane passed over head to eventually strike the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
“I couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t,” he said. “Right after that, the mayor called us down into City Hall.”
The city immediately responded
Once the emergency was declared 10 years ago, the Bayonne police and fire departments recalled all its off duty people, assigning them to duties throughout the city and beyond. Some police officers patrolled the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, others guarded MOTBY and the Coast Guard base there. Others went to guard the entrance of the Holland Tunnel, while still others went across the Hudson River to help in rescue operations at Ground Zero.
While not as many as originally thought, refugees from lower Manhattan made their way to Bayonne via ferry, and were housed in four shelters. So were the numerous motorists who got stranded with the closing of the Bayonne Bridge and the New Jersey Turnpike.
The fire department, meanwhile, began a massive support effort.
“At first we thought we were going to have a lot of injured,” said Fire Chief Greg Rogers, who was part of the MOTBY mobilization effort. “When it was clear that we weren’t seeing a lot of injured people, our role became one of support.”
Bayonne Medical Center saw about 58 patients.
Four Bayonne firefighters went to New York to help in the search and rescue. One of these was Jason O’Donnell, who has since become the city’s Public Safety Director.
“I had just started on the department when the attack happened in 1993. So I wasn’t completely aware of what it meant,” he said. “But on Sept. 11, there was no doubt. But it was very odd. We saw some bodies and body parts, but almost nothing else except for steel, concrete, and dust. With all those floors full of office equipment and paper, you would think we would see all of that, too. But it all seemed to have vanished. It was the most eerie thing I ever saw.”
Even the Bayonne Fire Canteen – a volunteer group that aids fire victims and firefighters on the scene – was called into action, going first to the Staten Island ferry terminal, and then later to the south side of Ground Zero. When unstable buildings put them at risk, they were assigned to relief efforts at Fresh Kills Landfill.
Nacirema, a Bayonne demolition company, was one of the first to send equipment and staff to Ground Zero to help clear the debris.
Perrucci said he was in Jersey City at the County Court House on Newark Avenue when he heard about the first plane strike at the World Trade Center. He saw the second plane and the ball of flames that resulted when it struck.
Photographer Steve Mack, who frequently took pictures of the World Trade Center, said he felt the loss of the Twin Towers.
A city responds
Over the next days and weeks that followed, Bayonne people, businesses, and organizations came out in force to support the rescue and cleanup effort – donating supplies and services.
MOTBY became the official storage facility for FEMA, and eventually the flood of goods was so overwhelming from Bayonne and around the nation that FEMA didn’t need any more.
In the days following the attack, the Bayonne police department set up a special bureau to help people find those missing. When it became clear that some would not be found, many people began to reflect on those lost – not just in the World Trade Center, but also the two Bayonne residents lost on Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.
Erica Daughtrey and several other people remembered Jane C. Folger, who, along with Patricia Cushing, perished in the plane.
“She was the sweetest person you’ll ever meet,” Daughtrey said.
Paul Ulichny, who grew up near Folger, also recalled her as a great person.
Bringing it all back home
As the piece of steel from the World Trade Center made its way through the rainy Bayonne streets last week, people stopped, looking puzzled at the passing procession of two police cars, three motorcycles, and several private vehicles. Some pedestrians lifted their tattered umbrellas for a better look. This could have been a motorcade for a president, but in some ways served as Bayonne’s version of a funeral procession for all those who perished as a result of terrorists’ attacks.
The motorcade made its way down 30th Street, passed the Bayonne Medical Center, over the rail bridge to Route 440, and through the gates that police had guarded during the days and weeks that followed the attack. It was a route that victims fleeing the terror in Manhattan had taken that clear day 10 years ago.
Even Port Authority workers working on the MOTBY paused to watch as the vehicles passed the park from which on a clear day the place where the towers stood was once visible – but not on this day.
A veil of mist and rain separated Harbor View Park from Manhattan, as if over the intervening years the smoke and dust had spread out from Ground Zero to encompass the harbor, leaving only the Statue of Liberty and Bayonne’s monument to 9/11 clearly visible.
No politician or other dignitary greeted the arrival of the piece of steel, only a handful of people and several members of the press.
Tom Buchanan, Mike Wilson, and George Lavelle Sr. of American Legion Post 19, who had escorted on motorcycles the piece of steel, unfurled their flags and in a ceremony that made up with intensity of emotion for its lack of size, walked slowly ahead of the DPW workers until the steel was laid to rest.
Perrucci stood nearby, head lowered as if in prayer.
“This is it,” he said. “This is the final piece.”