By Marisel Morales
On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I have decided to fully recount & share my personal 9/11 experience for the first time. Although I was not in lower Manhattan on that fateful morning, I was supposed to be. And as part of God’s Plan my life will be forever linked, both personally and professionally to that horrific September day that changed our Nation, our lives and the world forever.
My story begins in earnest on a crisp fall day in 2000 when I was the Chief of Staff to the 1st Deputy Sheriff of the City of New York. Our main offices were located just a couple of blocks north of the World Trade Center and around the corner from 26 Federal Plaza, the Federal Building in Manhattan.
The phone rang; it was the Sheriff’s secretary on the other end telling me there were a couple of gentlemen waiting to see me. I was not expecting anyone or had meetings scheduled that day, so I could not begin to guess who my visitors were. Three men awaited me – all federal law enforcement agents from the Federal Protective Service (FPS) in charge of security at 26 Federal Plaza. After exchanging pleasantries, they stated the purpose of their visit.
Some details of what they shared, I already knew: law enforcement authorities in New York City, more specifically the federal law enforcement community were bracing and ramping up security for the upcoming Embassy trials scheduled to begin in Federal Court in New York City in January 2001. Four men were to be tried on charges related to the August 7, 1998 simultaneous bombings of the two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people and wounded thousands. Foley Square, the location of the federal court was directly across the street from both our offices.
The feds explained that years before as part of emergency planning resulting from the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, they had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the then-Sheriff of NYC to use our offices as an evacuation site for the children attending the day care center located in the federal building in the event of an emergency. In light of the upcoming, high-profile Embassy trials they were looking to dust off the plan.
Although none of us could locate the actual original MOU, there was never any doubt that the NYC Sheriff’s Office would fully comply with the federal request. We got to working on redrafting the document, updating the plan and putting it actively in place. Then a fly in the ointment almost derailed the whole thing.
The New York City Sheriff’s Office is part of the NYC Department of Finance (DOF); at the time the DOF Commissioner was Andrew S. Eristoff. He is currently (at least for the moment) Treasurer of the State of New Jersey, appointed to the post by Governor Christie in 2010. Back in 2000, then-DOF Commissioner Eristoff was informed of the conversations between our Office and FPS and he thought it would be a fantastic idea to publish the details of the proposed evacuation plan and the MOU on the Department’s intranet and the online newsletter.
I did not believe, personally or professionally that what Eristoff proposed was either prudent or smart for multiple and obvious reasons, including the fact the project was the result of a request from a federal law enforcement agency, this was not a civilian project. My professional disagreement set off quite a back and forth between Commissioner Eristoff and me; he was intransigent in his ill-conceived & ill-advised position of advertising confidential public safety plans. I knew putting this information out to the public could have disastrous consequences and potentially endanger innocent lives needlessly. So, I became a whistleblower of sorts whispering in the right external stakeholders’ ears what was about to happen. The Commissioner never got his way, law enforcement prevailed. The plan remained as it should have – confidential. NOTE: The main NYC Sheriff’s Office is no longer located in Manhattan, so the aforementioned arrangements with FPS have been null and void for several years.
After the potential Eristoff debacle was averted, we continued with the business at hand – evacuation drills were conducted, both announced and quasi-surprise; the plan seemed to work like clockwork. I requested one more drill right before the trials, one that only the Sheriff, the Supervisory FPS agent & I knew about. My rationale for the request: if we ever needed to implement the plan for real, the scenario would almost certainly involve near-chaotic circumstances where the evacuees would most likely receive no assistance from law enforcement personnel – anyone in uniform would probably be called to the incident site as first responders. The Supervisory Agent concurred and the surprise drill went off without a hitch and in an impressively timely fashion. The January 2001 embassy trials came and went without incident and to everyone involved our little exercise was just that — an exercise that we could safely put back on a shelf and forget about.
By now it was late July 2001 and summer in the City was in full swing. Earlier in the spring, I had been approached by Washington about an appointment with the new Bush Administration and was going through the process. Other than that, there was nothing unusual, stressful or unexpected going on in my life. No indication whatsoever that in a few weeks life was about to change in the most abrupt, dramatic and horrific manner.
As summer 2001 progressed, I found myself feeling extremely sad for no particular reason. I constantly experienced an indescribable feeling of heaviness around me. Although I carried on business as usual, I could not shake what I can only call an inexplicable foreshadowing of doom. The worst part was not knowing what was causing this odd sensation.
My son and I had moved to Manhattan from New Jersey in 1997 when I accepted the position in the Sheriff’s Office since the job had a NYC residency requirement. Prior to the summer of 2001, I never thought twice of running to New Jersey for a quick lunchtime errand on the PATH while my son remained in the city. But something about that summer became drastically different for me, and although I said nothing to anyone, I stopped the practice altogether. Why? Because I did not want to be on the wrong side of the Hudson and leave my only child alone in NYC should Manhattan be sealed off in the event of an emergency. I had no logical reason for even thinking that scenario was plausible or imaginable, I just knew that it was going to happen but not why or how it would. All I knew was that when it did, I needed to be on the New York side of the Hudson River with my son.
It was now August 2001, and my ever-increasing eerie feeling of sadness was now manifesting itself physically. To this day, I find it difficult to explain the emotional and/or physical sensations; I had never experienced anything like it before and pray that I never experience it again. The Sheriff walked into my office one day and saw me sitting there doing my work with tears streaming down my face. I was not actually crying, just tears flowing, I could neither stop them nor figure out what was causing them. He asked if I was OK or wanted to go home. I responded I was fine and that it may sound strange but I did not know why the tears were streaming. He asked if I was in pain, I was not and I finally convinced him that it would pass and I would be back to normal in a short while.
What I did not tell him was that I also had a very strange feeling under the skin of my arms –not a pain, itch, trembling, twitching, or any other sort of medical condition one would want to describe to a doctor. Just a very odd sensation as if the skin on my arms did not belong there. All I wanted to do was pull on it and hope the sensation would go away. It did not, as a matter of fact as the days passed the discomfort became increasingly worse and almost non-stop.
In mid-August I received an invitation to a wonderful event at the NJ home of a former boss and good friend. He had decided to bring together his senior staff from his days as a New Jersey Commissioner, his years in corporate America and his newest role at the time: President of the National Baseball League. The dinner was scheduled for Thursday, September 6, 2001. Under normal circumstances I would have been thrilled to be invited, it was a chance to relax in the company of people I cared about, many of whom I had not seen in over 15 years. As it turned out the invite presented a dilemma instead.
Thursday, September 6th was my son’s first day back to school in Manhattan. The logistics of the day translated into him having to stay alone in New York City while I was across the river in New Jersey at the dinner. I mentioned the invitation to my mother, who still lives in New Jersey, and told her I was declining it because I did not feel comfortable leaving my son alone in NYC. She thought that was a bit odd, especially since I worked for a law enforcement agency and in the event of a major emergency someone could purportedly reach him and get him to safety. Mom told me I should definitely go to the dinner, that she would check on my son by phone throughout the evening and that he would be fine. I replied that if something happened in Manhattan and the island found itself cut off with no one allowed in or out, I needed to be on the same side of the Hudson as him when it happened so he would not be all alone to deal with the problem. She told me I was thinking too much, to go to the dinner and enjoy myself.
I eventually accepted the dinner invite, but only after receiving a phone call from my boss a couple of days prior to the dinner. It seemed I was the only person not going. On September 5, 2001, a friend from NJ called me and asked if I finally had decided to go, I responded yes, but that I was still reluctant to attend because “if Manhattan is sealed off, I want to be in the City with my son when it happens and not across the Hudson River.” Her response: “It’s 2001, what in the world could possibly happen that would seal Manhattan off from the rest of the world? If there is any kind of emergency, rest assured we can get to him either by car, train, ferry or walking if we have to. Go and have a good time, nothing is going to happen.”
My son, being a typical teenage boy took offense to my reluctance to attend the party believing it stemmed from lack of trust in him. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but there was no convincing him.
I attended the dinner on Sept. 6th and it was absolutely divine complete with world class entertainment. Although it was a splendid evening filled with old friends and colleagues, I had an awful time. All night, all I could think of was my son alone in Manhattan and me miles away in a different state. I must have called him at least 10 times while I was out, poor kid, every time he got into a TV show, there was Mom on the phone again…and grandma…and my friend. Although I had nothing tangible to base it on, I unequivocally knew that danger was lurking and I needed to know he was safe.
As the evening progressed, my sadness and anxiety increased. It was not until the NJ Transit train pulled into the New York side of the Hudson River rail tunnel that I felt a sense of relief. I was back home in Manhattan and ready to protect my son from what I intuitively knew awaited us just around the corner. I did not know what the pending evil was, just that it was coming and it was bad.
The weekend was uneventful. Monday, September 10th was a very stormy day so I decided not to pick up a text book I had ordered for my son from the Border’s book store located at 5 World Trade Center. I would pick it up Tuesday morning on my way to work.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was a stunningly beautiful day, Primary Day in New York City. I decided to go vote before going to work, stopping by my apartment in the Upper East Side after casting my ballot to pick up my briefcase. I turned on the TV to check the weather one more time before leaving for the office, there was a reporter from the local Fox station reporting on the election from the front of City Hall, it was 8:45 a.m. They were cutting back to the studio, when all of a sudden a loud boom was heard followed by the reporter yelling: “Cut back to me! Cut back to me! A commuter plane just hit the Trade Center.”
As the camera panned up towards the World Trade Center, I saw the gaping hole and the raging flames and immediately & intuitively knew that it was no commuter plane. I went into auto pilot, picked up the phone, called my mother in NJ and told her: “There has been a terrorist attack, a jet liner has just crashed into the World Trade Center, and I am going to go get Chris from school.” She responded: “There is nothing in the news, I have 1010 WINS (the local all-news station) on and they have said nothing.” And how do you know it’s a terrorist attack?” My response: “It is restricted air space, that was no accident, and it is not a commuter plane as they are reporting, it is probably a 747. A commuter plane would have disintegrated as it hit the tower. Turn on Channel 5 and do whatever you have to, we are under attack, I gotta go now.”
I made one more phone call before walking out, a call to the Sheriff to let him know a plane had struck the World Trade Center and our agency would be activated as part of the NYC’s Office of Emergency Management team. Before I could get the words out, he yelled into the phone “Marisel, you are not going to believe this, I was standing by the side door of our building and a jet just went into the World Trade Center!” I responded, “I know I was calling to tell you we are going to be activated, I am on my way to pick up my son at school.”
What I did not tell either my mother or the Sheriff was that as I watched TV with horror and disbelief the events unfolding just a couple of miles from my house; something was going on with me. The odd, eerie sadness and heaviness, that awful feeling under my skin that I had been feeling for months, began to disappear. I could feel something cold and dark slowly drain from my body, starting from my head all the way down to my toes. The sadness was replaced by an incredible sense of paralyzing fear. I intuitively knew in an instant what the reason for the doom I had been feeling for weeks prior was: it was playing out on live TV in lower Manhattan for the whole world to see….And the second plane had not hit yet.
Shortly after, I heard on the radio the words everyone told me would or could never be uttered: “Manhattan is sealed off by order of the FBI. No one is allowed in or out of the borough. All the Hudson River and East River crossings, bridges and tunnels are sealed; there is no way to get on or off the island. All traffic in Manhattan, commuter trains & mass transit in general in NYC is immediately suspended. — There has been a terrorist attack.”
I made it to my son’s school shortly after the second plane hit, but well before the first tower fell. When I reached him, I said, “This is why I did not want to go to that party, they’ve sealed the city and if I had been in NJ, you would now be alone with no one to turn to on a horrible day like this.” He just looked at me and said nothing; I think he was in shock.
Telephone service – including cell phones in Manhattan was severely disrupted shortly after I spoke to the Sheriff and my mother. When I was able to get through to my office again I asked about the children from the federal day care center and was informed they had been successfully evacuated exactly as practiced and were safe and sound. Our little evacuation exercise of earlier in the year was neither little nor an exercise anymore; it was now a fully implemented successful plan that saved lives. The event that ultimately brought the youngsters to the safety of the Sheriff’s Office was not the one we initially planned for, it was in fact a far worse scenario than we could possibly imagine.
As for my friend, the one who said nothing could ever happen to seal Manhattan off, she would not be able to reach me for days since the phone lines into Manhattan were disrupted for weeks. When she was finally able to get through, all she said was: “How did you know?” I had no answer, still don’t. I cannot even explain it to myself.
As Chief of Staff in the NYC Sheriff’s Office, on the days, weeks and months following the attacks I worked tirelessly to restore systems, ensure we had the necessary resources & to keep our men and women in uniform safe. As part of the City’s Office of Emergency Management our deputies were front and center in the WTC rescue & recovery operations. It was my job to ensure that they had everything they needed and communication flowed as seamlessly as possible.
They say that in life there are no coincidences, I believe that. The first attack against the World Trade Center was on February 26, 1993, my birthday. The federal government position I had been approached about in early 2001: Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development for Region II, (1 of 10 in the country) with offices at 26 Federal Plaza. As fate would have it, I pretty much knew around September 6, 2001 that the job was mine and would officially be offered it sometime later in the month. As a result of the 9/11 attacks, the NY/NJ HUD Regional Director job changed on September 11th and the appointment delayed. In addition to responsibility for the regular $3.5B agency budget and programs it now also included accountability for the federal funding coming in for rebuilding lower Manhattan.
I was sworn in as Regional Director by then-HUD Secretary Mel Martinez on December 17, 2001 in Washington, D.C. During the next three years I would go on to play a key role in the rebuilding of Ground Zero and lower Manhattan. As Regional Director, I was responsible for the oversight of the $3.7B congressional appropriation and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, routinely dealing with the likes of Larry Silverstein, NY City government officials, the governors of NY and NJ, and the Port Authority. I was also a key member of the Federal, State & Local Task Force created shortly after the 9/11 attacks to streamline processes, put appropriate controls in place and facilitate federal funding requests. And what about the Federal Protective Service supervisor who came to meet with me in the Sheriff’s Office in the fall of 2000 about an evacuation plan and an MOU? We went on to become colleagues and federal agency head counterparts working in the same building, reminded every day of how and why we first met.
As for my son, that fateful September day 13 years ago changed him too. He shelved his budding acting career and went on to respectfully decline his acceptance and scholarships to several Ivy League and other top-notch universities two years later. He traded it all in for an appointment to the United States Naval Academy, graduating in 2007 and taking his place in a long line of courageous men and women who choose to define history rather than be defined by it. He, along with friends and classmates took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution and subsequently participated in Operation Enduring Freedom.
September 11, 2001 – a day forever etched in the history and heart of our country. The saddest day in the history of the New York City Fire Department and the New York City Police Department. September 11, 2001, the day America’s heart was broken in 2,977 pieces by way of New York City, Shanksville, PA and the Pentagon. It is hard to believe 13 years have passed, for me it feels like it happened just yesterday.
We must never forget; we will never forget. I will always remember that fateful September day in New York City. A day that started out as a beautiful morning that quickly dissolved into 102 minutes terrifying minutes that forever changed the heart and soul of the United States of America. May God always bless those who lost their lives that day, our first responders, our military, and everyone who keeps us safe. And may God always bless the United States of America.
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