While Lt. Robert Cirri of the Port Authority Police has been honored elsewhere for his heroics on that terrible day, his role in helping the state maintain a vital communications link has remained a local secret, one more heroic acts for which Cirri deserves credit.
At 6 foot 2 inches tall, Cirri, a North Bergen native, was remembered as a gentle man who worked not only as a police officer for the Port Authority, but also as a paramedic and EMT for the Jersey City Medical Center and a volunteer on the Weehawken Ambulance Corps. Most of those in Secaucus recall this soft-spoken friendly man's intense interest in communications, especially amateur radio.
Vincent Massaro, Sr., coordinator for the Secaucus OEM, dealt closely with Cirri in early 2001. Cirri was in charge of the county's OEM Radio Communication division, and was seeking to fulfill a 1999 mandate from the federal government to install a special radio communication system in Hudson County.
"We got the order to install it about three years ago," Massaro recalled.
Commonly called RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service), the system relied on amateur radio operators throughout the county to provide a backup system to the more official radio communications network should official systems shut down during an emergency.
"If every other radio system goes down for some reason," explained Massaro, "there will always be private citizens with radios."
The RACES system is make up of certified but unpaid radio operators who also have positions in the government, like Cirri, with a deep commitment to amateur radio.
FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Agency), which oversees OEM operations throughout the nation, put the RACES communication network into its national emergency plan and required that all state and local county offices install the system in conjunction with the Federal Communication Commission. The RACES system would act as a backup to connect vital links in the community, county or state such as hospitals, emergency services, emergency shelters and other locations deemed as significant during a major catastrophe. Amateur radio operations using specific amateur radio frequencies designated in each local, county or state plan would be on call in case the main system crashed.
RACES is not a new concept. It was first developed in conjunction with Civil Defense system in 1952, then seemed to lose significance as the Cold War faded.
"While we had a RACES system a long time ago," Massaro said. "We let it lapse. But we still had a lot of the equipment hanging around."
Loved amateur radio
Cirri, a member of the Jersey Coastal Emergency Services radio network - which monitored emergencies - offered to help Secaucus restore its RACES system, volunteering to work with local OEM people. Cirri loved radio and spent a great deal of his limited free time talking on the radio with people around the world. He was the co-founder of the Jersey City Radio Club, which was later renamed after him in his honor.
"The county decided to set up the RACES unit in Secaucus, because we already had a fully operational communication facility," Massaro said.
To help meet a mandate for disaster established after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Secaucus had converted its former museum into an operations center where police, fire, ambulance and public works people could coordinate their activities and direct resources to a variety of locations needed in the case of emergency. Secaucus also had several communication vehicles, including a complete mobile backup command center that had seen action during two train wrecks in 1996.
"Bob [Cirri] volunteered to help set up our RACES system and help fill in the missing pieces," Massaro said. "He was responsible for putting us on the air."
Cirri did this on his own time.
Although born and raised in North Bergen and stationed in Jersey City's Port Authority facilities, Cirri was a resident of Nutley at the time and made his way to Secaucus on evenings and weekends for the project that took months to complete.
"He would call me up at odd times for me to meet him down at the office," Massaro recalled.
Councilman Robert Kickey, who also serves as the assistant director for the County OEM, remembered working side by side with Cirri to install wires and the antenna.
"Bob [Cirri] was afraid of heights," Kickey said. "We would joke about which one of us would go up onto the roof to install the antenna."
The project, Kickey said, took about three months to complete, and was done over the summer of 2001, all at night or on weekends.
"He would call me on a Saturday evening and ask if I was ready to go to work," Kickey recalled. "I said, 'Bob, it's Saturday night!' "
But Cirri seemed to sense some urgency no one else did, pushing himself to get the project done for some imagined deadline only he could visualize. This went on for months as the county and state OEM officials geared up for a communication test on Sept. 18. No one figured that RACES would play a part in that test. Indeed, Massaro said - except for the monthly tests conducted by the state - the RACES system remained largely unused.
There was, however, one glaring exception.
"We had to use it on Sept. 11 to contact the state," Kickey said. "At one point, all the other antennas went down and no one could contact the state for a while. I kept saying, 'Oh, boy, if only Bob could see this, wouldn't he be proud. I wish Bob was here to see this.' It wasn't until later that I learned he was missing after the North Tower collapsed."
A few months later, Cirri's remains were found among a team of Port Authority police officers that had helped evacuate people from the North Tower. His and other officers had thrown their bodies over a woman to apparently protect her from the collapsing building. They were only a few dozen feet from the door when the tower came down upon them.