Everyday People, Extraordinary Day

By Andrea Gabor

The New York Times
October 31, 2001

There were heros who had jobs to do that day and did them, whatever the cost. And there were other, unsung heros who did not have the jobs they knew had to be done and did them anyway.

Paul Amico, a construction supervisor with NY Waterway, was working at the dock in Weehawken, N.J., across the Hudson River from Manhattan, when he saw the smoke billowing from the World Trade Center. Without consulting his boss, he grabbed a two-way marine radio and hopped a ferry bound for Lower Manhattan. When the World Financial Center dock, the main loading barge for NY Waterway, became engulfed in debris, Mr. Amico, communicating by radio with the incoming ferries, helped direct traffic to a seawall at Battery Park, a few hundred yards north. And when gas leaks near the new location forced the ferries to move yet again, he sent the vessels to Pier 26 in TriBeCa.

For the previous three years, Mr. Amico had been running kayaking trips from a recreational club on the pier, and he knew the water there was nine-feet deep, just enough to allow ferries to dock and pick up passengers fleeing the disaster site.

The trouble was, a chain-link fence blocked their way. So he let himself into the boathouse with a key that is given to all members, found an acetylene torch and cut an opening in the fence. For the next two and a half hours, NY Waterway ferried passengers, many of them injured, to safety in Jersey City. Altogether, the company estimates it evacuated 48,000 people from Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11.

Mr. Amico’s job is to build docks, not transport people. “But I know the water,” he said. “I knew they would need help. It freed up managers to go elsewhere.”

Throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, untold thousands of people like Mr. Amico, in jobs ranging from hospital clerk to grade-school administrative assistant, brought skills and initiative far outside their job descriptions to help. And that, workplace specialists say, is a typical response by employees to an emergency.

“The kind of behavior we see during crises points to the fact that the instincts of people closer to the action are more developed than you might think,” says David R. Bliss, vice chairman of Mercer Delta Consulting in New York. “The crisis creates an event larger than themselves, than their daily tasks.”

For people working in the World Trade Center or nearby, the reaction often required making split-second decisions and taking risks. At Verizon’s 32-story office building on West Street, which was evacuated after steel girders from 7 World Trade Center crashed into it, six elevator mechanics and building engineers stayed behind.

To protect sensitive equipment, they shut the air-conditioning systems and nonessential backup power supplies. Three hours after the towers’ collapse, water began flooding Verizon’s five subbasements from a broken water main, endangering tens of millions of dollars of switching equipment.

Wading through shin-deep water, the team used two-by-fours to slam off the switching equipment so that when the electricity was turned back on, a power surge would not destroy it. “Verizon had written this building off,” said George Famulare, Verizon’s manager for real estate operations, who joined the Sept. 11 rescue operation. “Five days later, we had phone service to some degree.”

The terrorist attack also catapulted Michael Morroni, whose boss was killed at the Cantor Fitzgerald offices in 1 World Trade Center, into a new managerial role. Until Sept. 11, Mr. Morroni, 23, a recent college graduate, had coordinated the company’s Web sites, overseeing smaller advertising and marketing projects.

Mr. Morroni, who says that the days after Sept. 11 are still “a blur,” filled the vacuum left by his boss and took over many of the marketing responsibilities for Cantor’s Web operations. These include CantorUSA, the disaster Web site for Cantor families that was up and running the day after the attack, and eSpeed.com, an electronic training subsidiary.

Mr. Morroni is now responsible for the content on all of Cantor’s corporate Web sites. “No one at his age has taken on this level of responsibility,” said Amy Nauiokas, a senior vice president at Cantor Fitzgerald and eSpeed.

Kathy Sussell also earned a promotion of a sort. Ms. Sussell was an administrative assistant at an elementary school a few blocks from the World Trade Center who ran from the building with her 11-year-old daughter as debris rained down on them. She persuaded the school principal to let her set up a transportation system to take the students to a new location 2.5 miles away.

“There have been no glitches, which is no small achievement,” said Anna Switzer, the principal of P.S. 234. “Kathy has handled the job with total aplomb and with total calm.” As a result, she said, she is recommending her for a scholarship for a new graduate program at Hunter College that trains school administrators.

Even employees far removed from ground zero were inspired to seize new roles. Consider Theresa Coleman, an emergency room clerk at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn whose main duty was registering patients and entering the data into the hospital’s computer system.

A quick drive over the Williamsburg Bridge from Lower Manhattan, Woodhull’s emergency room began filling up with victims of the attack. Ms. Coleman, who had been with the hospital for 14 years, rushed outside to help with the logistics of setting up the triage center on the ramp outside the emergency room.

Ms. Coleman also took it upon herself to explain emergency procedures to an X-ray clerk who had balked at accepting victims who had not been entered into the hospital’s computer system. Then she stayed late to make sure the data was recorded, all the while keeping tabs by phone on a co-worker whose husband and brothers were missing.

“Theresa showed that she could manage people well,” said Michael Thomas, an emergency room supervisor. “I felt some of it before, but not to the degree that I did during the disaster. When promotions come up, she will be looked at strongly.”

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company