Perspectives on September 11

A MEMORY FOR THE WORKERS OF WINDOWS ON THE WORLD

For the year I worked as the union representative for the 300 people who cut lettuce, baked tarts, broiled salmon, mixed drinks, washed dishes, waited tables, and set up banquets on the top two floors of the World Trade Center, they were my comrades and friends in a struggle to make this a better world for all.

The workers at Windows on the World came from Bangladesh, Syria, Iran, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Cuba, Algeria, Ivory Coast, the United States. These are just a few of the countries that I can remember. I imagine that many of them were at work at 9 am this morning. I used to visit the night shift as they left and the day shift as they arrived between 7 and 8.

This group of people taught me what it means to listen, to care, and to struggle. I will not forget the day a dishwasher named Robert Williams hugged me with watery eyes and shouted, "We did it!" after 120 of his co-workers defended his job and stopped the abuse of a mean-spirited supervisor.

To my sisters and brothers at Windows: thank you for teaching me much about myself and about the world we live in. May our country have the courage to look at ourselves and our wrongs before we point the finger at others.

Tony Perlstein
Former Organizer
HERE Local 100

AMID THE SMOKE, PHONE WORKERS RESTORE SERVICE

I usually work evenings but my whole shift got an emergency call to come in Tuesday morning after the first plane hit. I walked downtown to get to work as thousands of people were streaming uptown, some crying and caked with soot (and probably asbestos); I saw the Trade Center in flames. We can see the smoke from work and often smell it, still.

People who were at work when the planes hit saw people jumping out of windows and the buildings collapsing. I happened to be looking out the window when 7 World Trade collapsed...an enormous rolling cloud of smoke covered the area, and apparently that was nothing compared to the earlier collapses of the twin towers.

The skyline looks so empty and lonely...we've been looking at the twin towers for so many years (our only windows are in the hallway so that's the break...go look at the skyline). I once saw lightning hit the antenna on top of the tower and it was just awesome.

Besides the rescue workers, the army, and the police, the only people allowed into the downtown business area have been essential services like phone workers. The building I work in was evacuated Tuesday, except for my group, the network operations center, as we are the group responsible for maintaining all the telephone switches in Manhattan (a switch is a giant computer that connects phone calls). Some people left but many others worked straight through from Tuesday morning to Wednesday evening.

Now we're on 12 hours a day 7 days a week mandatory until further notice. Mostly what we are doing is re-routing essential services like 911, police, and the mayor's office, and getting the businesses in the area functioning again.

Today I spent a few hours working in another phone building that's much closer to the disaster area and the smoke smell was quite strong. Everyone's joking about combat pay...they've already been evacuated twice. I think we're all going to get very fat as there's an almost endless supply of free food (the first two days food was a major undertaking. I never knew bologna and Wonder bread could taste so good).

Verizon has a major phone building right in the heart of the Trade Center area. It sustained major damage. Parts of 7 World Trade are sticking into it and there are giant holes on two sides. Friday a co-worker and I walked over to see it. I thought I was prepared, from seeing all the pictures, but when you see the scale of the destruction it's just devastating. Even days later there's giant sections of buildings all over and just nothing but smoke where the twin towers were. It just breaks your heart; I can't imagine how anyone could still be alive.

Today some of my co-workers went into the damaged building to try to restore some phone lines. I volunteered but had to unvolunteer when I realized I wasn't up to the physical requirements. They were fitted with asbestos respirators and asbestos suits, hard hats, and cell phones, and told to stay 60 feet away from the outside walls of the building and get out quickly if they heard the signal to evacuate.

Walls are cracking. They said at one point they opened the door to a storeroom and found themselves looking out into nothing. They hope it will be only one more day.

First reports were that the damaged building would probably have to be condemned, and we are going to start installing replacement equipment in the building I work in. Very upsetting to us "old time" phone workers, as it is a beautiful landmarked old building, and I think it symbolized the "old" phone company when we thought our jobs and our world were secure. Now it may be saved; they aren't sure.

But we're very lucky. As far as we know all members of my local are ok. So thanks to all for your concerns. I'm exhausted, but as I keep saying to people at work when they get crabby (not often): we're indoors, we have water and bathrooms, and everyone working at the disaster site has it a lot worse.

Ilene Winkler
Steward
CWA Local 1101

A PLACE WHERE WE WORKED TOGETHER

For two years I delivered to the World Trade Center each Tuesday morning from 7 am to 9 am. On August 31 my employer shut down, so my truck and I were not there on September 11. As I watched the second suicide plane crash into the tower, it took me a while to realize that I would have been there, but for "bad" luck.

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Later that day, on a subway to retrieve my son stranded at his school across the river in Queens, I found myself recalling the people I had dealt with each Tuesday morning. I found myself thinking I would go back there to see if they were ok, but of course there was no "there" anymore.

New York is famous for anonymity maybe a little less for a transplanted Iowan like me. But after the 1993 bombing of the Trade Center, security was stepped up. All drivers went through three checkpoints each time they delivered. It slowed the routine so that the security guard noticed when I'd been gone and asked if I'd had a good vacation or been sick. We all wore name tags.

It slowed our famous New York fast pace enough that we could get to know each other some.

Looking back it was nice. The inconvenience of the security checks brought us together some. Gave us time to chat and say hello.

They'd been rebuilding the loading dock piece by piece for a year. Drivers had to wait, and building personnel had to help us find a place. As we were unloading, it was crowded. If someone was pushing a heavy load you let them by. If they were pushing it up a ramp you gave a hand, because someone had given you a hand before.

Going to the lower levels, drivers and the people moving recycled paper shared an elevator whose door could upset our carts or hand trucks. We shared in cursing it and helping each other out.

Most of the people I knew should have been near exits and able to get out. But I worry some chose or were required to stay and help others get out.

Despite the horror, I remember the World Trade Center as a place we worked together.

Steve Kindred
Teamsters Local 805

A VOLUNTEER'S STORY

The media reports of New Yorkers coming together are certainly true, and in some ways this has been a really inspirational time. I was lucky enough to volunteer both Wednesday and Thursday nights.

After a friend and I waited on line for over an hour at the Javitz Center on Thursday, we arrived at the volunteer registration table just as my declaration of "good communication and people skills" came in handy. (I'd been so regretting that I couldn't put a check mark next to "welder" or "medic.")

They needed a shift change in the registration ranks, and so we spent the next few hours signing in people as they came in from around the city, around the country, as they poured in to try and help.

I'll never forget it. In two hours I registered maybe a hundred people, all wanting desperately to help. Many, many, too many to count, were construction workers from New Jersey and Connecticut. Huge busloads of hardhats came in while we were waiting on line outside the Center, and the thousands of folks on line cheered and cheered for them.

As part of registering new volunteers, I had to ask for photo ID, and I've never seen so many union cards in my life! Others were particularly inspirational too--Canadians who'd hopped a bus down, a Mexican national with a Mexican ID. (My crisis Spanish kicked into overdrive, or else maybe he's still wandering the streets, trying to follow my halting directions!)

At one point a firefighter handed me his driver's license from North Carolina. He'd hopped in his car and driven up, knowing he had to be back at work the next day. His hands were trembling as he gave me his papers. So was the voice of the New Yorker who came in after him, saying, "That firefighter from North Carolina, where'd he go? I want to tell him he can sleep at my house tonight."

Other guys were in tears. I successfully held back my own, though certain folks nearly had me bawling--the Arab Americans who came in, and the guy whose only form of ID was his parole paper.

Some had lost co-workers in the rubble; most were just moved by what they saw on TV.

It was really extraordinary, and I feel so lucky to have had the chance to help out, and feel restored and nurtured in the process of helping. But, of course, I don't think that this amazing resiliency and compassion for strangers are unique to New Yorkers or Americans or anyone. I'm just so grateful that concern for others, and determination to carry on, seem as much a part of the human condition as hatred and distrust.

Jo Cagan
National Writers Union
UAW Local 1981