Horror, Then A Helping Hand

Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attack. Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attack. Michael Foran/Wikimedia Commons

In New York, federal employees fled for their lives, then pitched in to help.

T he Census Bureau offices on the 37th floor of 26 Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan slowly filled up as usual on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11. Employees got coffee, buttered bagels, greeted co-workers, made their way to their desks and generally went about their morning rituals preparing for the new workday.

Then, at 8:45 a.m., came the deafening explosion. The building shimmied as word quickly spread among Census employees that an airplane-later identified as American Airlines Flight 11-had crashed into one of the 110-story twin towers of the World Trade Center complex just blocks away. Just minutes later, as employees stood gaping in disbelief at the smoke and destruction outside their windows, a second airliner swept across the sky and slammed purposefully into the second tower, hurling a fireball into the sky. It was just past 9 a.m.

Across the country, Tony Farthing, director of the Census Bureau's New York Region, learned of the first crash and turned on the television in his hotel room in Albuquerque, N.M., to get details. Instead, he saw the second plane-United Airlines Flight 175-make its deadly attack. Initially stunned, Farthing quickly recovered and grabbed the phone, ordering his employees out of the Federal Plaza building as fast as they could move, hoping that none of his staffers were on subway trains beneath the World Trade Center.

"Some of them do come through the World Trade Center to come to work," explains Farthing, who had stopped in New Mexico en route to an agency conference in San Francisco when the attacks took place. "I was calling back frantically, making sure they were able to account for folks." Then his thoughts turned to the television images of debris flying and hunks of the burning towers falling into the streets, and he began to worry that his employees might not be safe outside, either. Farthing continued trying to call his colleagues, rapidly dialing both his cell phone and the phone in his room.

The news would only get worse. At 9:43 a.m., American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Minutes later, at 10:05 a.m., the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, followed by the north tower just 23 minutes later. Meanwhile, Farthing learned of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. "I knew we had staff on it, and I was just sort of frantic," he says, his voice strained. Two longtime New York Census employees, Marion Britton and Waleska Martinez, were scheduled to fly to San Francisco to join Farthing at the conference.

Later, Farthing would learn the two women died in the crash, the last of four terrorist strikes that day.

"They were friends, and our office is like a family," says Farthing. "We're all taking it very, very hard."

Accounting for Employees

More than 2,800 employees worked in offices leased by the General Services Administration in Buildings 6 and 7 at the World Trade Center complex. Both buildings were also destroyed as a result of the attack. Another 25,000 employees were evacuated from four other nearby office buildings-26 Federal Plaza, 290 Broadway, 40 Centre Street and 500 Pearl Street.

In the hours following the attacks, officials from the agencies in those buildings worked feverishly to locate employees. But the scope of destruction in lower Manhattan made it difficult to get a firm count of employees who may have been hurt or killed in the attack, says Beatrice Disman, chair of the New York Federal Executive Board, which helps coordinate federal activities and programs in the area. But as of Sept. 20, all of the agencies had accounted for their employees, with the exception of the FBI, which listed one employee as missing.

About 1,000 IRS employees worked in lower Manhattan on the day of the attacks-180 of them in Buildings 6 and 7 at the World Trade Center, and about 800 in the federal building at 290 Broadway. About a dozen IRS auditors were in the twin towers at the time of the attacks, conducting audits at private firms.

The destruction of the telephone infrastructure operated by Verizon in lower Manhattan cut off communication between IRS officials in Washington and executives in New York until Tuesday night. Spotty phone service made it difficult for IRS executives to track down their employees. Managers called around for two days before everyone was finally accounted for on Wednesday. A Boston IRS employee on assignment in New York was critically injured and remained in serious condition a week later.

Building 6 was home to offices of the Customs Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Export-Import Bank, the Foreign Commercial Service of the Commerce Department and the Labor Department's Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration.

"I got into work a little after 8 o'clock," says Michael Mabee, a discrimination investigator at the OSHA office. "Sometime after a quarter to nine the lights flickered. Then I heard a sonic boom. Everybody looked confused because it was an unusual thing to hear." OSHA's offices emptied quickly. Once everyone was on the street, Mabee and his peers saw the World Trade Center's north tower engulfed in flames, though it still wasn't clear what had happened. Overhead, an airplane made a beeline for the complex. Mabee watched as it exploded into the south tower. OSHA's employees fled the scene, trying to escape the dust and debris, making their way to the agency's regional office farther north in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan. After learning that all of his colleagues had made it out safely, Mabee told his supervisor he was going back to the crash site.

"If I didn't try to help, I don't think I could have been able to live with myself," says the former paramedic and police officer. "A lot of the firemen had already been killed. I knew that was where I was needed." Mabee helped set up a field hospital several blocks from the crash site.

Mabee knew that the rescue workers needed to get their eyes flushed to clear away bits of debris. So he and others grabbed their supplies and headed toward ground zero. "Every time we ran into a group of firefighters, we would sit them down and flush their eyes out."

Out of the Rubble

The General Services Administration, which provided office space for many of the federal agencies in New York, hit the ground running in the aftermath of the attacks. Officers from GSA's Federal Protective Service jumped into the rubble of the collapsed twin towers to grab people and carry them to safety. As one FPS officer helped evacuate one of the towers, he was struck by falling debris that broke his arm and killed a man next to him. A short time later, his arm set, the officer was back on the job.

While GSA employees pitched in with rescue efforts, officials began managing the crisis and finding alternate space for thousands of displaced federal workers.

GSA set up a New York command center within two hours of the first plane's collision with the north tower. Employees set up phones and computers and tried to make contact with the agencies affected by the attack to ask what supplies they needed.

GSA notified its Burlington, Vt., supply depot to go on a 24-hour work schedule to meet agencies' needs for furniture, office supplies and all the necessities agencies take for granted, such as pens, pencils and staplers. GSA's Federal Technology Service made 500 computers available to agencies within two days of the attacks. Many vendors offered to divert their resources to assist in the government's recovery. GSA also set to work leasing office space.

The Grieving Begins

In the week after the attacks, life slowly started returning to normal in most of New York. Along Canal Street in lower Manhattan, grayish-black smoke from the destroyed buildings curled toward the sky, but local commerce was thriving. Farther north, throngs of volunteers swarmed the Jacob Javits Convention Center at 34th Street and 11th Avenue, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency had set up operations. Along the sidewalk, grills sizzled with hamburgers and hot dogs for volunteers, as a continuous stream of people dropped off sandwiches, bottled water, Gatorade and other items. By Sunday, Sept. 15, FEMA was turning volunteers away. At 201 Varick Street, where the departments of State and Veterans Affairs share offices, security was so tight on the Monday following the attacks that passersby weren't allowed on the sidewalk. People were turned away as they tried to access services provided by employees in the building.

A week after the tragedy, Census Bureau staffers in the New York office began the day with a moment of silence for Britton, a 21-year bureau veteran, and Martinez, who had served 13 years. Both had been recipients of the bronze medal, the highest honor bestowed by the agency.

"We still have more grieving to do," Farthing says quietly. "We'll take it one day at a time."

Photo by Michael Foran [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. This article was originally published Oct. 1, 2001, in Government Executive magazine, with a different photo.

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