Twenty years after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the effects continue to be felt around the globe. Members of the Pittsburgh Jewish Community who were in New York on that day two decades ago share their memories here.
Stories have been edited for length and clarity.
The new parents
Olga and Mark Pizov were living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side while Mark attended Columbia University. Their first son, Alex, born prematurely on Aug. 18, was in Cornell Medical Center’s newborn intensive care unit on that Tuesday, which began as any other day, recalled Olga.
“I remember taking a shower and the phone kept ringing,” she said. “I thought, ‘What is happening?’ It was my cousin from Israel calling me — he knew about it before I did. I turned on the TV and I saw the news about the plane hitting the first building. As soon as I realized it was real, I walked straight out of the apartment with the intent to go to the hospital and just get a hold of our baby.”
Olga, unable to reach Mark at Columbia, hailed a cab to get to the hospital across town, while Mark walked from Columbia to the Cornell Medical Center.
“By the time I got to Central Park, people were coming uptown and you could see they were covered in soot,” recalled Mark, now a vice president at U.S. Steel. “You could look down and see the plumes of smoke emitting from downtown.”
The Pizovs eventually got to the hospital and were able to see their son.
“They wanted to send us home,” said Olga, a clinical research consultant. “They were preparing the hospital, trying to get patients discharged to make room for survivors. Sadly, there weren’t very many. I told them, ‘I’m not going anywhere. My son is 4 pounds. He needs oxygen.’ We didn’t take him home that night, but we had to leave.”
The Pizovs spent the evening with friends, and by the time they returned home, posters and photos had been plastered along the streets by people searching for their loved ones.
The next day, Alex was released from the hospital.
Olga spent the night listening to military planes flying overhead, coming up with exit plans in case of another attack and feeling concerned about the city’s air quality.
“You could smell it from our apartment on 79th Street in the West End,” Olga said. “They kept reassuring us that the quality of air was fine, but then a lot of first responders got sick.”
“It was a very traumatic homecoming for Alex,” she continued. “We moved to Ohio nine months later and I spoke with my doctor who said, ‘You have post-traumatic stress disorder.’ That makes sense because it was very hard to get back to things. It felt like the sky was falling.”
The business trip
Erica Miller was flying to New York to attend a trade show with her business partner. They landed at the airport and headed into the city unaware of what had happened.
“We knew nothing of what was going on until we were in a cab going over the Triborough Bridge,” said Miller. “The radio was on, and it was just pure static. The cabbie didn’t really speak English, but he was trying to tell us there was something going on. We looked at the horizon — the bridge overlooks the city — and we could see smoke coming from the first building, but we didn’t know what it meant. My business partner said, ‘Oh, there’s been a fire,’ and at that moment I saw a plane circling the other building. I’m a skeptic and said, ‘No, this is a terrorist attack. It’s not a random fire.’”
They got as far as Brooklyn when their cab driver dropped them off near a Marriott Hotel.
“We were fortunate enough to be able to get in the lobby,” Miller said. “It was already a triage center. It turned out that the manager was from Allison Park and took pity on us and allowed us to have a spot in the lobby.”
She looked out the window and “saw the most surreal sight, people walking over the bridge holding their shoes covered in white,” she said. “They were the survivors that had gotten out of the building and were getting out of the city the only way they could, which was over the bridge.
“They were dazed,” she continued. “The smell of burning flesh outside — which is why everyone had their noses and mouths covered — was so intense and strong and hideous.”
She and her business partner were able to leave the next day by bus.
“I will forever remember that plane circling that second tower and hitting it, and remember the people walking over the Brooklyn Bridge carrying their shoes covered in white, and just the sheer but organized pandemonium that was going on, and, you know, the kindness of people trying to help other people,” she said.
The MBA and the architect
Laura Hopkins Young and her husband, Jeff Young, were living in New York on 9/11, although they weren’t yet dating.
Laura had recently graduated with an MBA from Duke University and was working at Unilever in Connecticut. She was on her way to an overnight training session in Connecticut on the morning of the terrorist attacks.
“I remember driving up the FDR with my roommate, it being a beautiful sunny day,” she said.
She learned of the attack during a morning meeting.
“There were a lot of rumors,” she said. “We had colleagues in from Chicago and there were rumors the Sears Tower was going to be hit. Rumors were everywhere.”
Unsure if she would be able to get back into the city, Laura stayed overnight at a friend’s house in Connecticut.
“I have vivid memories of people crying on the island of the highway, random things throughout this beautiful day. We didn’t have cell phones and I felt disconnected. A friend of mine was able to get in touch with my parents.”
When some semblance of normalcy finally returned, Laura recalled her daily commute and the train ride from Grand Central Station to her office in Connecticut.
“The train would pull in and all the firemen would get on from working their shift from the pile and people would applaud and holler,” she said.
Jeff Young moved to New York in 1997 after finishing graduate school in Philadelphia. He joined a large architectural firm on Wall Street, two-and-a-half blocks from the World Trade Center.
He arrived at his office early the day of the attack and was talking to a colleague when the first plane hit.
“We heard some sort of crash,” he said. “I wouldn’t even call it a crash. It was a noise. Our first thought was a cooling tower on a building exploded.”
A colleague called to tell them that a plane hit the World Trade Center.
“Our first reaction was that some sort of novice, amateur pilot lost his way,” Jeff Young said. “We had the bright idea to go up on the roof and see what’s going on. We were southeast of the tower. We saw where the wing popped out on the east side of the building. We were up there for a few minutes before building maintenance and security told us we had to leave.”
He returned to his office and called his father in Pittsburgh. Debris was beginning to collect in the air near his window.
“I’m on the phone with my dad and the second plane hit,” Jeff Young said. “Our building shook. That second hit made things pretty clear. My dad and I both agreed I had to get out of there.”
He walked down Broadway, making it to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.
“A ton of people were going across the Brooklyn Bridge trying to get out of Manhattan,” he said. “Fire engines and ambulances were screaming into the city. I stood there for about two minutes and thought, ‘I don’t need to be here.’”
He walked the five miles to his apartment on the West Side.
“I didn’t leave again for four days,” he said.
Jeff Young’s company lost one person in the attack. They returned a week later to their offices.
“When you stepped off the train on Wall Street, you got a whiff of something,” he remembered. “It was pungent. The pile was still burning a week later. We went to the office. They had scrubbed it over the weekend because of the air intake. People started to complain about nausea and headaches and were sent home. We stayed until 2:00 that day. And then, we just kept going back. One day became the next and things returned to normal at some point.”
The Jewish professional
Debbie Swartz was two years into her first Jewish communal job, working as the assistant director of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut, on Sept. 11, 2001. Her responsibilities included managing southern New England’s partnership with the Israeli region Afula-Gilboa, which included 13 federations in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
“At that time we didn’t know from terrorist attacks, at least not foreign ones,” said Swartz, who now serves as the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Israel and overseas planning associate.
She was shepherding a group of teenage Israeli emissaries who had arrived earlier in the month, and had spent the night in Westport, meeting with that town’s Federation president as well as the partnership director from Afula-Gilboa who had been scheduled to fly back to Israel the day of the attack.
“We were watching the ‘Today’ show when they broke in with news about a plane hitting the World Trade Center,” she recalled. “We watched a live video. You could see smoke rising.”
She recalled her Israeli colleague turning to her and saying the crash was “not a coincidence. I couldn’t even process what he said, but he knew immediately.”
Swartz remembers fielding calls from the teens’ concerned Israeli parents.
“For them,” she said, “Connecticut might as well have been New York. They were all freaked out and worried.”
Juxtaposed to the regular terrorist attacks that were occurring at the time in Israel, the day was a “weird reversal,” she said.
Swartz drove from Westport to the offices of the Western Connecticut Federation in Westbury.
“The Federation director, after the Pentagon got hit, said, ‘I’m going to put an American flag on the roof,’” she said. “It’s the funniest things that you remember.”
The New Jersey transplant
Ken Selig moved from Pittsburgh to New Jersey shortly before 2000 and worked at a financial services company in Midtown Manhattan.
“I’m not really a morning person, but we had an early morning meeting at like 8:30 or something ridiculous like that,” Selig recalled. “The news started coming in around 9:00. We ended the meeting and people went back to their desks to figure things out.”
He set up a spare monitor on his desk tuned to CNN.
“The initial order was to shelter in place,” he said. “Eventually they said, if you think you can find a way home, go. After a couple of hours we were told to evacuate the building.”
By the time he left, the Port Authority was shut down, leaving a ferry as the only option for Selig to get back to New Jersey.
“I was in a long line waiting,” he said. “I saw a policeman get a call over his radio and he broke down. That really stuck with me. During the walk from the office to the West Side, you could see plumes of smoke coming from downtown.”
He had a cell phone and pager and used AOL Messenger. Like others, he had difficulty communicating with people.
“There were weird things going on,” he said. “There were some people I could text with from my phone and some I could text with my pager. …It was a lot of back and forth to let people know I was OK.”
The attack affected him long after it was over.
“It changes your frame of mind,” he said. “I remember later there was a problem with the power grid, with massive power outages, and everyone’s first reaction was, ‘This is another terrorist attack.’”
The cantorial student
Seth Adelson, now senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, was in New York beginning his second year studying to be a cantor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. On the morning of Sept. 11, after conducting a class, he recalled “walking up the stairs to the sixth floor where the cantorial school was in the JTS building. The planes had already collided with the towers at that point but I had no idea because I didn’t have a cell phone.”
Adelson walked into the school’s office when the executive assistant for Henry Rosenblum, dean of the cantorial school, said, “’I’m going to show you something. Don’t tell anyone,’” Adelson recalled. “That was strange. She showed me her computer and there was an image of the towers on fire. She said again, ‘Don’t tell anyone.’ I’m thinking, ‘Don’t tell anyone?! The whole world knows.’”
The future rabbi said the rest of the day felt like chaos. When he left the building, he saw people staring at their cellphones.
“They were just flip phones,” he said. “Everyone was looking at their phones expecting to hear from someone. All the cell phone towers were jammed. No one was getting through to anyone.”
After classes were canceled, Adelson said he did what he said everyone else did — watched TV.
“Everything was shut down and suddenly Manhattan was very quiet,” he recalled. “Nobody was moving.”
Later in the day, he decided to take a walk and stopped at a pier near 72nd Street.
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut was in New York City on 9/11, during a “very significant juncture” in his life, he said.
The year before had been “a crushing year of terror in Israel,” recalled Yolkut, now rabbi at Congregation Poale Zedeck. “It was the first year of the Second Intifada. We were plugged into Israel and this constant sense of dread and terror and sadness. There was this feeling that as Jews and part of the pro-Israel community, that there was a cloud of terror over us that had now come to these shores.” Yolkut was working as an assistant rabbi in Teaneck, New Jersey.
“There was a family in the synagogue who lost a brother in the Towers,” he said. “As someone just coming into his rabbinate and about to start my adult life, it had a very powerful impact on me.”
The day before Yom Kippur that year, Yolkut was with a friend and was feeling depressed.
“There was so much heaviness in the air,” he said. “We were looking for inspiration.”
The rabbi and his friend saw that Rabbi Moshe Weinberger was speaking and went to hear him talk. Unbeknownst to them, the event was a memorial service for someone who had died when the Towers collapsed.
Weinberger spoke of his friend, Shimmy Biegeleisen, who was killed in the attack, and recounted that another friend had gone to ground zero the day before Rosh Hashanah to stand where Shimmy had stood and scream the word HaMelech, as cantors do to begin the Rosh Hashanah morning service.
“To go into Rosh Hashanah that affirms God’s sovereignty over the universe, he had to grapple with his friend’s death,” Yolkut said. “He had to stand there on the pile and make that commitment. That totally blew me away.”
Then, on Oct. 11, Yolkut was reading a story in the Wall Street Journal, “How Five Lives Became One Horror When Terror Struck the Twin Towers.” Shimmy Biegeleisen was one of the people profiled in the story, which recounted how Biegeleisen spent the last moments of his life reciting Psalms from the Rosh Hashanah service.
“The takeaway is, here’s a person that had a rich and extensive spiritual toolbox,” Yolkut said. “When he came to an unfathomable moment of crisis, he had something at his disposal to be able to transcend and connect to God at that moment.”
The FBI agent
In 2001, Shawn Brokos was an FBI agent assigned to the violent crime squad in Newark, New Jersey.
“I vividly remember driving to my office,” she said. “I took 22 East. You see the whole Manhattan skyline. It’s exceptionally beautiful. I will never forget that morning, it was one of those tremendous blue-sky days that we get in September.”
Brokos, now the director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said someone in her office erroneously reported that a helicopter hit the World Trade Center. Then they got word it was a plane.
“We all were starting to gather around thinking this is not normal,” she said. “We learned that a second plane hit. We all saw a cloud of black smoke that was juxtaposed against that incredible blue sky. We were trying to watch the television news reports but we knew that this was something catastrophic.”
After learning it was a terrorist attack, Brokos was tasked with helping to get a headcount of FBI agents, both in Newark and in New York City.
“The cell phones were overloaded so we couldn’t communicate via cell phone, we only had our radios,” she said.
Brokos and other agents then tried to make their way into the city.
“We were trying to drive against the masses,” she said. “It was a sight to see — just hordes of people, the mass exodus from the city, trying to get to a place of safety — and we’re trying to run into the city to see what we can do to help.”
Unable to make it into Manhattan, Brokos returned to her office with other agents and started the investigation into the attack.
“Many of the hijackers had stayed in Newark,” she said. “We set up a command post. I don’t think I got home for three days. It was working day and night, around the clock. It was very, very difficult.
“I’ll never forget that first night standing in Jersey City and looking across the river and watching helplessly as black smoke filled the air and everything was quiet,” she continued. “I had such a sense of helplessness because you knew the tragedy that unfolded, and you also knew that in law enforcement we’re supposed to help and restore a sense of peace and security in the community. I knew that that sense of peace had been forever shattered.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.