Message of Action
As a journeyman mechanic at the Marriott World Trade, Peter Blanc knew the layout and interworkings of the 831-room facility like the back of his hand. The organization, intent on keeping its guests and clients safe and secure, had put a lot of drills in place, he recalls. “We knew what we had to do, and we knew our responsibility. I had a great boss, and he was really concerned about everything – security, safety, guests, and business in general,” he says.
On September 11, the hotel had 97-percent occupancy in its guest rooms and 100-percent occupancy in meeting areas. As Blanc was retrieving fan coil units from the storage area in the garage for work that morning, he heard a sudden bang and hurried to investigate. Racing to the lobby area – the “command center” established in the facility’s emergency plan – he and his associates began the painstaking process of going floor to floor to evacuate guests and clients from the building – “our job as the engineering department and security,” he explains. “We had disabled people, sick people, elderly – and our concern was to get them out of the building safely.” Quick action and the established plan ensured that they did.
Life Safety is No. 1
Chief Engineer Michael Catalano had served for 12 years at 7 World Trade Center, and he was certain he was going to retire there. After September 11th, everything changed for him.
The morning of the attack, Catalano was on the phone with Charlie Magee, an old friend, discussing Catalano’s son’s new uniform; his son’s first day as a helper was scheduled September 14th. After the conversation, Catalano had a meeting with his crew in the 48th-floor chiller plant. They felt the building shake, but in the windowless, soundproof area they were unaware of the nature of the attack. Because they had weathered the 1993 terrorist attack, the crew assumed another bomb had exploded. They sprang into action.
At 7 WTC, Catalano had first worked under Salomon Brothers and later Salomon Smith Barney, with Cushman & Wakefield as the facilities management organization. Catalano and his crew operated 32 floors. As building owner, Silverstein Properties maintained a separate crew for the remainder of the building. That morning, the engineers raced to check on the critical equipment – generators, chillers, and fans.
Catalano headed to the 44th floor, and this is where he saw the damaged WTC tower for the first time. “We were a 100 feet from the towers; all you could see was smoke. The plane had already hit and there was a big gouge,” says Catalano. He returned to his crew and ordered an evacuation. The second plane hit and they were thrown to the ground. While the building was emptying, Catalano and his crew worked to maintain the building’s vital systems, especially in the data centers. Assistant Engineer Joe Gregori, who had worked in 7 WTC for 11 years, even took the time to unplug coffee pots while heroically checking for building occupants left behind after the evacuation.
Knowing the building like the back of his hand, Gregori helped to lead others to safety. In the meantime, police officers had transformed the loading dock of 7 WTC into a triage area and the operations crew helped, providing chairs and medical supplies. Catalano and a few members of his crew had returned to the third-floor lobby to secure the facility when the first tower collapsed. “It got pitch black, we heard a rumbling, it sounded like a missile coming straight through the building right at us,” he explains.
Amidst the choking smoke, they managed a terrifying escape. Behind the facility, both crews from Salomon Smith Barney and Silverstein Properties embraced and rejoiced when they discovered they had all made it out alive. Then the second tower fell. “We all ran as fast as we could,’’ says Catalano. Adds Gregori, “I ran faster than I could.” Due to falling debris from the North Tower, 7 WTC caught fire and collapsed later that day.
The days, weeks, and months following the tragedy have been difficult for the crew. Both Gregori and Catalano had to search for new employment. Catalano created a CD photo album to commemorate the friends and co-workers they lost and the destruction they survived. Gregori relied on work and his family to get through the difficult times. “When I watched the towers fall, it was like a piece of me fell with them,” he says. They wholeheartedly thanked their union for its continual support during that transitional period.
Gregori was deeply touched by how the city rallied together and helped the victims. He sees that spirit continuing. Catalano pointed out the ease of accessing most commercial facilities today and would like to see an increased emphasis on security. Both engineers credit Salomon Brothers for its strong focus on safety. “Salomon Brothers treated its floors like a family. Everybody learned together,” says Catalano.
They encourage all building owners to create a strong focus on life-safety and to perform consistent emergency response testing and training. Adds Catalano, “What should building owners do? It’s simple: Life-safety is No. 1.” Their former employer also took the time to learn from the combined experience of the operations crew and get feedback on how to run the building at optimal safety. “Buildings that are 24/7, like financial institutions, do better training. All buildings should be that way,” says Gregori.
Day by Day
Joseph Shearin likens his days to a time warp machine. As former assistant chief of engineering at the World Trade Center and a grateful survivor of that fateful date last September, each day is a struggle – but a small step closer toward finding some resolution or acceptance to his and his colleagues’ experience.
“It has changed the person I am,” he says. “One day, you’re in total shock and then the reality starts pounding in. I know how I felt that morning. I had never experienced those feelings before. Then, how that just lingers and how you try to struggle and keep working with it. It’s been a roller coaster, but I’m doing the best I can.”
A large part of Shearin’s identity was based on the pride he felt in working at the World Trade Center, “the third largest operating building in the world,” he recalls. “With 73 guys there, I worked any shift – tons of hours around the clock. No matter where you were, you saw [the towers] from every highway. If somebody had told me 15 years ago I’d be the assistant chief of engineering for the third largest operating building in the world, I wouldn’t have believed them. And that was taken away from us.”
For Shearin, September 11th started out like any other morning. After arriving at 7:35 a.m., he met with many co-workers to discuss the day’s workload; by 8 o’clock, work was assigned and the crew went out into the 12 million-square-foot complex to commence repairs and performance maintenance duties. As Shearin exited the elevator on his visit to a tenant on the 38th floor of 1 WTC, he was hurled in the air from a sudden, loud explosion. Corridors quickly filled with panicked occupants; his immediate response was “continue down the stairs and out of the building” as he walked up three floors to the mechanical equipment room to inspect what he thought might have been the source of the problem.
The 41st-floor mechanical room had sustained considerable damage – equipment formerly located in the ceiling was down on the floor and water was gushing from crushed pipes. After ascertaining the room was vacant, Shearin proceeded to Level B-2, the location of the engineering office, and then to the lobby where destruction – to people and to the building – was devastatingly evident. Shearin offered assistance to the injured; then, as another plane hit 2 World Trade Center, he helped in evacuating individuals in the parking garage and then proceeded to the underground pump station with colleague Rick Collins to assist the firemen with the fire pumps. Along with Dennis Hughes, Peter Boros, Donald Sighn, Phillip Hanna, Dennis Malopolski, and Bobby Labriola, Shearin and three strangers were thankfully able to exit their underground location following the collapse of the second tower and offer assistance to the injured at Ground Zero.
As evacuation at the water’s edge proceeded, Shearin and his colleagues, trained in health and safety issues, lent their expertise to a boat crew and its occupants, ensuring life jackets were on and offering respirator masks they had secured from the pump room. With concerns for their colleagues and the occupants of the World Trade Center buildings paramount, these professionals maintained a cool, compassionate demeanor that instilled a confidence in those many individuals who were helped.
3 of 3