By Steve Sears
September 11, 2001 started out like a gorgeous late summer day.
The beautiful day soon turned ugly, as the biggest attack against the United States of America on home soil claimed 2,977 lives combined in New York City at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
New View Media Group reached out to various community members, seeking their remembrance of that fateful day.
Township of Mount Olive Councilman Alex Roman lost his Mom, 49-year-old Arcelia Castillo, on September 11, 2001. Instead of her normal 9:00 a.m., she had arrived early to work that morning at 7:45 a.m. to the World Trade Center North Tower.
American Airlines Flight 11 hit the tower at 8:48 a.m.
“I prefer to be left alone on 9/11,” says Roman. “Much like my mother, I’m not comfortable with being viewed as a victim. My kids also spend the day quietly reflecting. We have attended several 9/11 ceremonies in New York City in the past, but mostly we prefer to go to the 9/11 Memorial at different times of the year.”
Roman celebrates his Mom’s life just like anyone else that has lost a loved one. “I never assume my loss is greater than anyone else’s,” he says. “I keep a picture of her at my shop along with a framed United States flag that was presented to us by President (George W) Bush. I routinely talk about her to my wife and kids and how each of them have some of her qualities. Her name regularly comes up at family gatherings.”
“As 9/11 approaches, I feel guilty being happy (my birthday is Sept. 8). It’s like a rollercoaster ride.”
“I was in the city that day that the attack happened, and I was on my way into midtown, and a plane probably hit a few minutes after I passed by there. I’m on my way to attend a meeting up near Grand Central, and I get a call from one of my colleagues, and he says, ‘Hey, a plane just hit the (World) Trade Center – and it was a commercial plane!’ I said, “You’re kidding me!’ I get up to my appointment – and I’m passing ambulances and fire trucks like crazy, they’re sailing down towards this place – and I get to where I’ve got to go, and everybody is sitting there looking at the television. Out the window you could see the buildings. I then said, ‘I can’t believe this – oh my God!”
Perkins headed to a pay phone (cell phone connections were knocked out that morning) line of about 200 people to wait and make a call, and then the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the South Tower. Perkins then exited the line and started running towards downtown, reached 23rd Street, then headed into a store to buy 12-packs of water, giving it to those who’d just experienced the most terrifying moments of their lives. “These people walking towards me look like someone had dumped flour on them, because now the buildings had collapsed.”
Perkins knew that Mount Olive needed to remember the lives that were lost that day, and he kicked a memorial idea in motion. “On (United Airlines) Flight 93 that went down (in Shanksville, Pennsylvania), was Hilda Marcin, a woman from town, was employed through the Board of Education as a teacher. I had met Hilda; what a pleasant lady. She was moving out to live with her other daughter in California.”
Mayor Rob Greenbaum got involved, donations gathered, and current Council President Joe Nicastro’s stepson, Michael Lalama, came up with the design rendition. Perkins then forwarded the design to a Canadian company called Picture This in Granite, who took care of the final product. “We got an amazing amount of support,” says Perkins. “It was tremendous. It was heartwarming to see the community members and the township employees that dedicated their time and expertise to getting this done.”
Bruno Varano officially became a United States citizen in 1961. The morning of 9/11, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge was at his office in Fairfield, New Jersey.
Varano, currently President of the Local 121 of the Federal Agent PBA, got a call that morning from one of his New York agents. “He said, ‘Listen, we got attacked.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I told him to cut it out and he said, ‘No, I’m telling you – we got attacked.”
“I then got a call from D.C. and realized it did happen.”
“It was right after the second tower fell that I got in there (to the city),” he remembers. “I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, The Terminator, and one scene showed that in the future there was a huge war, and there are atomic bombs, it was like hell – everything was gray, everything was cloudy, there was smoke and everything was destroyed. That’s what it looked like. It was incredible.”
Varano checked into his office several blocks north of the area, and he and his team tried to see what they could do. “It was just a mess; so chaotic. Nobody knew what the hell was going on. Sirens – ambulances and fire trucks – were still going back and forth, and then at one point you couldn’t go anywhere. The soot, the dust, and the metal…you couldn’t move in cars, you had to go on foot. There were still fires going on there, the State police were there, they were bringing in the military. It took a day or so to get acclimated to what was going on.”
“But that first day – I don’t know how to explain it,” he states. “I guess try to walk into a volcano without getting cut, without getting burned, without getting killed. There was no ground to walk on. It was nothing but debris.”
Joel Katz, an investment banking firm employee of Sandler O’Neill and Partners, was on the 104th floor of the South Tower that fateful morning.
“I was on the trading floor, we had all the window shades down on the windows because of the glare, so we can’t really see outside, and we hear a big roar – and we had heard roars before that high up – but this really shook the whole floor,” he recalls. “It kind of stopped the floor for a moment, but we went back to what we were doing.”
A man from the other side of the floor came running over to inform Katz and others that a commercial plane had just struck tower one. Katz started thinking. “It was a beautiful, crisp day. It didn’t add up that a pilot would do that. We had plenty of cloudy days when you wondered if that was going to happen, where we’re in the fog, but this was a beautiful day.”
The smell of jet fuel was very strong, and Katz felt that the situation was uncomfortable. He and 16 other people left the floor to start their descent and exit the building. Once he exited the building and was about fifty yards, he heard another big roar. It was another commercial jet, this time striking the very building he had minutes before departed.
“17 people who were at work at my company escaped, and 66 people died,” he says.
As Katz walked up the street, he thought about his coworkers. “I told them I was going downstairs, and they said, ‘Okay, see ya,’ and never gave it second thought. They had little babies at home, they had wives and families like I did – I had young children at the time – and they were in peril, so I thought of them. I thought of my family, obviously.”
Eventually Katz made it to a friend’s home in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where he met his family. “This became a congregation area for us, and we were getting calls from the wives of coworkers asking if we had seen their husbands. They (the calls) were very hard and I didn’t know.”
A few days later, Katz and his team were stationed temporarily at a new location, and all the surviving employees hugged. “We helped each other, spent the next two months going to funerals – sometimes three to four a day – and the company provided counseling services if we needed it.”
Katz, who now teaches Finance as an adjunct professor at County College of Morris, occasionally gives talks regarding 9/11. “The people who died were innocent people going to work like I, who had young families, who went to work and didn’t come home. I think that’s obviously a tragedy, and I think in honor of them and the lives they led, the love they had and it was an injustice to them, their families and their country — I think it’s important to remember the lives they led, the spirit that they shared, and I don’t ever want to forget that I knew these people.”
“In my mind, they died as heroes.”
Tom Miller has been practicing fine art for years. He has a master’s in fine arts from the University of Idaho. He works in watercolor, colored pencil, ceramics, and more, and his topics are a variety. A Marine veteran, he was working at the time at Madison’s Fairleigh Dickinson University on an Operation Harvest Moon project, which is the operation he got injured in during his time in the Marines.
“Along comes the morning of 9/11, I’m at home waiting to go to a screenwriting course – it was a 9:30 class – I’m drinking a cup of coffee, and had the radio on, and heard of a plane crash (at the World Trade Center). So, I turn the television on to see what was up, and then I saw a second plane go in.”
Miller went to his class but first stopped at Columbia Turnpike and Park Avenue in Florham Park to view the on-goings. “I could see it, just a bit of the towers and the smoke. “I tried to get into the city, asked the Morris County sheriffs to take me in, but they couldn’t.”
Learning that the towers had fell during the class, Miller started going to work on his 9/11 artwork. He has roughly 65 pieces, and he still creates them. His creations are given to first responders.
Miller, 78, lost a neighbor, Michael Sorresse, in the attacks. “He was a neighbor and a friend. I would say he was in his 30s, just had gotten married, worked for Marsh USA Agencies up on the 101st floor of tower one. I really liked him. He was a really nice kid. Then there was Giovanna Galletta “Gennie” Gambale (of Cantor Fitzgerald). I did a ceramic sculpture of her missing poster – I got her family’s okay.”
He then deeply reflects. “It (9/11) was as important as when my partner died in my arms (during an Operation Harvest Moon battle in 1965),” says Miller. “So many people, such a senseless thing, and because Mike died, too.”
That morning, she was preparing to head into New York City with her daughter, Michele. “My husband called me and told me something had hit the World Trade Center. Then, while watching television, I saw the second plane hit.”
“We didn’t go in; no one went in. 9/11 was horrendous.” She pauses, then continues. “I was angry. I’m a New Yorker at heart and have always lived in the tri-state area. This is my heart, just like if you’re from France, Paris is yours. I grew up in the area — Rockefeller Center, skating over there, Times Square, the whole bit – and to see it demolished like this… it was very, very hard.”
The next day, Weiner saw a Salvation Army ad asking for help at Ground Zero. Her Dad was alive at the time, and he saw the same ad. “He said, ‘When I was in World War II, the Salvation Army brought me blankets, they brought me hope, and I never forgot it.’ And he suggested I join.”
She worked with the Salvation Army on Thursdays, noon – midnight. And when Weiner, who prepared meals as a volunteer, and her entourage first arrived at the sight, she was shocked. “It was an absolute disaster. It looked like a nuclear explosion. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen, and the smell…I’ll never forget it. It was like decay, decomp. It goes in your nostrils and you never forget it for the rest of your life. The ash would be up to your knee when you walked through it.” She then adds, “You would think from such large office buildings, you would find desks and other things…nothing, it was like a giant crematorium. Another thing: we were not allowed to cry in front of the people. If you had to cry, you had to go in the back.”
However, it was a period Weiner would not regret. “It was cathartic and healing for me. It was healing for them and healing for me. Instead of feeling helpless and important, I was doing something. I was helping somebody hurting.”
After serving at Ground Zero and the “other” Ground Zero (a morgue) with the Salvation Army from September 2001 to May 30, 2002, she then became a tour guide for World Trade Center Tribute Tours from October 2005 until 2018. She eventually received an award from the center for doing 500 tours, and even got her first tattoo ever…on her back, which has the 9/11 symbol and reads, “Remember and pray”. “It was in my DNA,” she says.
The whole experience changed her. “There’s pre-9/11 Rita, and there’s post-9/11 Rita. Pre-9/11 was good; you never saw tragedy, you heard about Pearl Harbor, but you weren’t really a part of it. Post-9/11, I lived it personally; this was the first on my soil, in my town. I had hatred, and that bothered me, because I am a loving, giving person, and I don’t like having hatred in my heart. And I do believe when you have bitterness and hatred it kills you.” Serving with others fought the hatred. “I needed to express myself somehow to help others. The Salvation Army was the perfect way.’
Her advice? “Enjoy every day you have, because you see how quickly it can be taken away.”