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Oral Histories

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Oral Histories

The following oral histories were collected by the Port Washington Public Library’s History Center in 2003 and 2004. These nine interviews focus on the people, places and events of September 11, 2001 in New York City as seen through the eyes of Port Washington residents who were directly affected by the tragedy.

Sensitive Content Warning: Given the subject matter addressed by all of the oral histories, most of them have some content that could be considered sensitive, some containing graphic descriptions of injuries, deaths, and/or human remains.

JoAnn Cohen, December 8, 2003. Photo by Richard J. Halpern

JoAnn Cohen (1947- ) raised her family in Port Washington in the 1970s and 1980s. Her eldest son, John “Pepe” Salvatore Salerno, Jr. was working as a Trader of Foreign Currency at financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald, headquartered between the 101st and 105th floors of One World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001. Every Cantor Fitzgerald employee who reported for work that day, including Pepe, was killed in the attack. In this oral history interview, Ms. Cohen relays memories of her son, describes her experiences searching for him in the weeks following the collapse of the Twin Towers, and her eventual realization of his death. She then discusses the comfort and friendship she went on to find in a support group for mothers who lost their children on September 11, and the ways in which she and her family continue to honor Pepe’s memory.

“I was getting ready for work…And I looked at the television, and I was like, ‘Oh, they must be showing clips of the World Trade of ’93.’ And then I saw ‘LIVE.’ And I ran downstairs. I had one shoe on. I ran downstairs, and I called Pepe immediately and I got no answer. I got no answer at his office. And then I tried him on his cell phone, and I got his recording…I must have called Pepe, in ten minutes, I probably called him ten times, between his office and his cell.”

“And my daughter was like ‘You should go to New Jersey.’ And I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here, because I’m waiting for Pepe to call.’ … And then – and people started coming over. And I was like, I don’t know – I couldn’t understand why everybody was making such a big deal. I really, in my heart, knew – I thought I knew – that Pepe was fine. I couldn’t – I didn’t – how could you believe something like that?”

Click here for the full oral history, available on the New York Heritage digital portal.

Michael C. Karkowski, July 25, 2003. Photo by Richard J. Halpern

Michael C. Karkowski (1964- ) was a New Orleans native living in Port Washington and working as an accountant in Manhattan near the site of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. In this oral history interview, Mr. Karkowski discusses his witnessing the second plane hit Tower Two, his evacuation to Penn Station and train ride home to Port Washington, and his rendezvous with his wife, Yvonne Traynham, who was also working in Manhattan and was also interviewed for this oral history project. He then describes the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, his perception of its effect on New York City, and how he was personally affected by witnessing the event firsthand.

“And I came up on Pine Street, and as soon as I came up out of the subway, the second plane ended up hitting the, the second tower. I remember I was knocked down. I remember just being covered with jet fuel, being that close. And I, I remember I was there for a while. It may have, it seemed a while. But I remember looking down at the ground and seeing a piece of paper with a handwritten note that was stopped in mid-sentence. And, there was general chaos, and all of a sudden I realized what was happening.”

“And I finally got a train to Port Washington, or got on the train. And everybody was holding their breath. The train filled up, and it seemed like for, the tunnel was just miles and miles long, and…people were just not breathing until they were out of the tunnel. Then, you can feel this collective sigh of relief…to be finally out of New York and, you know, on your way home.”

Click here for the full oral history, available on the New York Heritage digital portal.

Robert H. Gass, May 15, 2003. Photo by Richard J. Halpern

Robert H. Gass (1954- ) was a Port Washington resident who was working as an IT Application Manager at Morgan Stanley in Tower Two of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. In this oral history interview, Mr. Gass describes his experience witnessing the planes hit Tower One of the World Trade Center, the evacuation from Tower Two, and the subsequent collapse of both towers. He then discusses the aftermath of 9/11, its effect on himself and his coworkers, and the support system he has found in his family and in the congregation of his synagogue, Temple Beth Israel.

“And we knew we didn’t want to go back upstairs, and I did not feel comfortable standing in the stairwell with all these people, and I said to my friends, ‘I’m going to go see what it looks like.’ So I walked up to the 51st floor, and I was going to open the door…And it was at that point that were I was standing moved four feet to the side, because it was at that point that our building was hit by the second plane…It was as if it was an earthquake.”

“And we were walking, and then they yelled ‘Run!’ So everybody started to run, and we ran towards the escalator…when we came out the escalator, that was where Borders, the book store, was. We walked out onto Church Street, and we looked up. And that’s the first time we saw what was happening, and we saw the top of the building completely engulfed in flames and black, and there was debris all around, some of which was actually parts of the airplane. You could see a jet engine laying on the ground.”

Click here for the full oral history, available on the New York Heritage digital portal.

Miro Kresic, January 2004. Photo by Richard J. Halpern

Miro Kresic (1934- ), a Yugoslavian immigrant who settled in Port Washington with his family in the 1970s, worked as a Naval architect for John J. McMullen Associates on the 15th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. In this oral history interview, Mr. Kresic describes witnessing the planes hitting the Towers, his evacuation from Tower Two, and the collapse of the buildings. He also relays the experiences of his son, a Manhattan paramedic who was a first responder to the area around Ground Zero.

“…I came out on the West side onto the Broadway, and I noted that a lot of debris was falling down from the buildings, so I put my briefcase on my head to protect as much as I could myself…And I was looking up, and I saw what was going on. I saw horrendous fire in our building. And it was really extremely scary to see that. And I noted that a lot of people were standing around, almost below the building and watching what was going on. I felt that this is an extremely bad thing to do, so I was simply…trying to go as far as possible from the building, even though I was convinced that the building would not collapse, because I knew how strong it was made. It was a steel structure, and I – I couldn’t believe that finally the building collapsed.”

“You see, everybody was very quiet [when evacuating Tower Two]…And I’m sure everybody was extremely concerned what was going on. And as soon as we come down to the lower level, you know, I saw these firemen – and that’s what bothers me today – I noticed all these people that didn’t survive, you know. They helped us to come out, but they stayed inside in there in the building…I was – I came out on the right moment, I think. The last second, almost.”

Click here for the full oral history, available on the New York Heritage digital portal.

Barry Meade, May 12, 2003. Photo by Richard J. Halpern

In the early 2000s, Barry Meade was living in Port Washington and working as the Captain of the New York Fire Department Ladder 35. On the morning of September 11, 2001 he was working at a Queens fire department’s medical office at their headquarters building in Brooklyn. After the Towers were hit, he and his fellow firefighters traveled to Ground Zero to help put out the fires burning in other buildings in the World Trade Center complex, clear rubble, and attempt to rescue any survivors. In this oral history interview, Mr. Meade describes the scene near Ground Zero, searching the piles of debris around the collapsed towers, and the rescue of two police officers who were trapped in the rubble of Tower Two. He also describes the aftermath of 9/11 and how the loss of so many firefighters affected the Fire Companies around New York.

“When we got around to Liberty Street, now you could see more [of Tower Two]. It was just shocking that it was, that the pile was so small. It was, I was looking at a pile of rubble that seemed to be five stories high, and I’m thinking, where is this building? … And as I got close – and now I was, in a sense upwind, and the smoke wasn’t around us – I saw that this pile wasn’t all that high. The building had really just come to pieces and was driven into the ground…But I got this chief officer, Chief Bryant…he told me to get masks. He said we had two police officers trapped, that these were the two people that they got out – the only two people, as far as I know, I believe, that were taken out alive.”

“It was kind of like a serpentine, criss-crossed bunch of ladders, just trying to get up over this pile of steel and rubble. And the smoke was really difficult…and eventually, after making some searches – we were looking under, under steel – as we were, there was, there were a lot of men there. But you really couldn’t see much what you were doing. So whenever you came across a piece of steel that you could get under, you’d crawl under it…you’d look underneath, pull some debris aside – whatever you could move. But there were no people. Nothing visible. Just the smoke and this wasteland. A wasteland.”

Click here for the full oral history, available on the New York Heritage digital portal.

Hugh Mettham, May 27, 2003. Photo by Richard J. Halpern

Hugh Mettham was a Port Washington resident working as a New York City firefighter on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001. He and his company were among the first emergency personnel to respond to reports of a plane crash at the World Trade Center and arrived at the site before either tower had collapsed. In this oral history interview, Mr. Mettham describes the devastating scene at Ground Zero directly after the Towers were hit, entering the buildings to help evacuate people from the lower floors, and the collapse of the North Tower. He also discusses the firefighters and emergency personnel who lost their lives during the events of 9/11 and the changes to the fire departments’ training and response procedures in the aftermath.

“So, at this time, we went up to the sixth floor, and we just did a quick search there. And it was at that time we heard this large rumble, or roar. Almost like a freight train that’s right on top of you. And it just continued for ten or fifteen seconds. The North Tower shook just like, just kind of, you almost felt like it was moving a little bit, you know…And we all kind of crouched down…then, at that particular point, the stairwell started to fill up with smoke and dust. And it came very quickly. And we didn’t know if it was coming up or down…And it just came so fast, and it just became dark…it became very unnerving for the people coming down, because they said, they started yelling, ‘We’re trapped. We can’t go down. We can’t go up. We’re trapped!’ So, at this particular point, we said, ‘All right, all right, let’s, we’ve really got to help these people right now. We’ve got to get these people down.’”

“And we looked south…and we realized that something happened south of the north Tower…it looked like just something out of a war scene, out of Dresden or something…I said, ‘Harry, get up now, ‘cause we’ve got to leave right now.’ … And he got up, and we started to run, but we couldn’t run that fast, because we still had our air packs on…And we got maybe a hundred, two hundred yards where Vesey Street meets West Street, and we heard this loud rumble that was behind us and above us…And it was the North Tower just starting to collapse. And, you know, it was just like all right, just, you know, run for our life. And we ran, not very far, ‘cause we realized that you weren’t going to outrun this, and we just dove under one of the fire trucks that were situated near Vesey…I went into a fetal position where I had to just cover my head, put my mask over my face, and cover my ears because it was just so loud.”

Click here for the full oral history, available on the New York Heritage digital portal. Sensitive Content Warning: This material contains graphic descriptions of injuries, deaths, and/or human remains.

 

 

Debi Ryan, July 5, 2003. Photo by Richard J. Halpern

Debi Ryan was a Port Washington resident and volunteer paramedic who was commuting to her job as a Professor of Emergency Medicine at the Borough of Manhattan Community College on the morning of September 11, 2001. Upon witnessing the first plane hit the North Tower from the train, she made the decision to get to the World Trade Center to offer her assistance as an EMT. In this oral history interview, Ms. Ryan describes her traveling by subway to the site of the World Trade Center during the tower collapse, the scene at Ground Zero immediately following the collapse, and her efforts to evacuate and provide emergency medical services to the firefighters, police, and civilians near the scene in the hours following the attack, including participating in the rescue of a Port Authority cop whose legs were pinned under the North Tower antenna at the bottom of a sixty-foot crater in the rubble.

“I did…rapid triage for the next six hours. There were a lot of people that came through. After six hours, what became really eerie is that it stopped. It seemed to all stop. And we were all, at that point, super-prepared, you know. The mindset was, you know, all right, we took care of the walking wounded, you know, now get ready, ‘cause now comes the real stuff. And we waited and waited, and it wasn’t comin’. And so then it became much, much more fright[ening]…we were like, ‘Well where, where are they? How could they not be here? You know, there’s a lot of people in those buildings. Where are they?’”

“…about ten-thirty that night, about then that night is when it started. People started coming to the hospital and asking for people. Saying, you know, ‘Have you seen my…’ you know, or ‘I need this person or that person.’ And you’d go down the list and see whether or not they were on the list or not. And that was probably a very difficult thing to do, especially if you go, ‘Well, all right, well what floor were they on?’ You know, ‘They were on the ninety-second floor.’ So, you know, how do you look at somebody and go, ‘I haven’t had a whole lot of people survive from that floor.’ It was just like, ‘Well, they didn’t come through here. It doesn’t mean they didn’t go somewhere else, but they didn’t come through here,’ you know. ‘And I’m sorry that, you know, I’ll pray for you and keep the search going.’ They kind of knew that if they were up there that it was not there.”

Click here for the full oral history, available on the New York Heritage digital portal. Sensitive Content Warning: This material contains graphic descriptions of injuries, deaths, and/or human remains.

Patricia Ruggiere Scavuzzo, October 14, 2003. Photo by Richard J. Halpern

Patricia Ruggiere Scavuzzo (1940- ) moved to Port Washington in the mid-1960s. Her children, including son Bart J. Ruggiere, were all raised in town. Bart worked as an Energy Trader at Cantor Fitzgerald at One World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Sadly, he was killed in the attack that also claimed the lives of all other Cantor Fitzgerald employees who were in the office that day. In this oral history interview, Ms. Scavuzzo reflects on her memories of Bart and his childhood, describes her experience of 9/11, searching for her son following the collapse of the Twin Towers and her eventual realization of his death. She then goes on to discuss her family’s healing process in the aftermath of their loss, and the myriad of ways in which they continue to honor Bart’s memory.

“And when Bart called her [his wife, Claudia] on the telephone…he said, ‘Would you believe we’ve been hit by a plane? But, you know, we’re on our way out, so we’re going to evacuate now. I just didn’t want you to worry.’ And so, his last words were very optimistic. So that after this had happened, after the building collapsed, the hope, of course, was that somehow he got out. And that was the feeling that we had all had that particular day, that maybe he made it down the stairs. Maybe he’s in a hospital someplace.”

“I feel strongly that my son’s spirit is around me all the time. I know, while we’re sitting here talking, I know he knows it. And I think that – that helps me get through a lot, because I do feel very strongly that he’s around…And I think that Bart’s memory lives on in so many people now. And even in people that he never knew and never touched, because he touched our lives so much, and because he touched our life so much we’ve been able to extend ourselves, and instead of being hateful and miserable in our grief, we’ve taken the challenge of that grief and tried to do good for others with it. And I think that’s all thankful to Bart. Because if Bart wasn’t a good person, we wouldn’t even want to be doing these things.”

Click here for the full oral history, available on the New York Heritage digital portal.

Yvonne Traynham, July 2003. Photo by Richard J. Halpern

Yvonne Traynham was a Florida native living in Port Washington and working at the Kings Point U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on the morning of September 11, 2001. Her husband, Michael Karkowski, who was also interviewed for this oral history project, was on his way to work near the World Trade Center when she witnessed the attack from the roof of the Merchant Marine Academy. In this oral history interview, Ms. Traynham describes witnessing the devastation of the Twin Towers from afar and her worry knowing that her husband may have been nearby during the attack. She also shares memories of her and her husband’s friend Ann, who was killed in the tragedy, and describes her husband’s struggle in the aftermath of 9/11.

“…we could see the Trade Center, the first Trade Center had been hit and we could see that there was a fire. And I got up there, and I went, ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘Mike [her husband] is right across the street from there. I need to go call him.’ …So I tried calling his office, and nobody was answering. And so I, I was still trying to call and somebody came in and said, ‘Well, the second Trade Center has been hit.’ And then we all kind of realized that it wasn’t an accident. So I went back upstairs on the roof…I watched for a little while and then I went back downstairs. I was trying to call him, trying to get anybody in the office, just to make sure everybody was okay. And, and nobody answered the phone…And finally, I got a phone call, and it was, it was my husband. This was quite a while later…But he was very upset, and he told me that he was okay, but he was upset. He kept saying, ‘I was there. I saw the plane. But I’m okay.’ And I said, ‘Mike, where are you?’ and right at that moment, we got cut off.”

“And I…was watching the TV…I was watching actually, ‘cause at this point towards the afternoon, people were starting to walk over the bridges and, you know, you could see the people covered with dust and then just starting to walk. And I was hoping I would see him [her husband, Mike], and…I was trying to look at all these masses of people walking over the bridges and trying to pick out Mike. Then, finally, it was after three in the afternoon…it was quiet all day, and then finally I heard a train…when I heard the first train, I ran outside and waited, and I ran half-way to the station, but then I didn’t want to run and then miss the telephone in case it rang…So I kind of would stand in between where I could still hear the phone and where I could still see down the road as much as possible. Anyway, and then he was, he finally came home after about three o’clock, and I, we both just cried….and he smelled of, of fuel and smoke…”

Click here for the full oral history, available on the New York Heritage digital portal.