World Trade Center: an interview with survivor Thomas Grassi

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

We are today offering our readers the personal account of survivor Thomas Grassi who used to work for the Port Authority at the 82nd floor of Tower 1 and was in his office when the first plane struck.

We would like to thank Thomas Grassi for his kindness and willingness to help.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us an account of what happened to you on 9/11? What do you remember of that day?

Thomas Grassi:
I was an employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who owns the site and the buildings, and I was on the 82nd floor of Tower 1. It was a fairly average morning. I was not looking out of the window, I was talking to somebody and suddenly came a crash and a thunderous sound and the feeling that the building was shaking; we had no idea what had happened but it was so big everybody just started to run. I immediately run for the exit stairs. After two or three minutes everybody started to calm down; we stopped going down and went into the 78th floor to kind of regroup. People were trying to find a television to understand what had just happened and figure out “Should we leave or should we stay?” because I was there during the attack in 93 and to a great degree it turned out the best thing to do was to stay in place.

So we didn’t know what to do, we even considered going back to the office because things seemed kind of normal: the air conditioning was on, the lighting was on. We turned on the radio and after lingering a bit we decided we would try to get out. We walked down slowly because the stairs at times got very crowded, sometimes there were people being carried coming behind us because they were very badly injured so we would get out of the way. It was a slow walk down but there was no sense of panic or urgency. At a certain point firefighters started coming up the stairs, so were getting out of their way too, but in good spirit like “Good luck guys, hang in there”. I had come across a Snapple bottle at some point and I gave it to one of these firefighters on his was up and said, “I think you are going to need this more than I do”. He seemed very grateful, took it and kept walking up.

Communications then were not like they are now, with social media and texting, but several people had pagers and were getting messages that a plane may have hit the World Trade Center and some were saying that planes had hit both Towers 1 and 2. I never heard Tower 2 being hit and the pager reports seemed somewhat unconfirmed.

We continued down very slowly; we were around the 7th floor when another thunderous roar came. I had no clue at that point, but it was Tower 2 collapsing right next to us. A prolonged rumble came and our building shook, it felt like our building was collapsing, a big gush of smoke also came up from the stairs from below. The lights then went out, it was total darkness and a lot of panic and people kind of swarmed back upstairs a flight or two, I then tapped into an office just to get out of the stairs because there were so many people and smoke. I followed the firefighters’ flashlights as they directed me to a different stair, and we were able to then get out. I got out around five minutes before Tower 1 collapsed, it was quite shocking when I saw the lobby and plaza because even at that point, I didn’t really know what was going on. I got out and saw the plaza in great disarray, there was a lot of smoke and dust, various pieces were collapsing or falling to the ground.

I was looking up and I couldn’t see Tower 2, somebody said, “You just can’t see it because of all the smoke” and somebody else said “No, Tower 2 collapsed, we just have to get out of here.” I was debating “What did you just say?? Tower 2 what??” because it was still completely unbelievable. It was hard to believe, but apparently, the earlier pager reports about both Towers being hit by planes was true. While I was there debating Tower 2, I looked up at Tower 1 and it slowly began to collapse.

I then made my way home, I lived in New Jersey across the Hudson River, there were ferryboats taking people off the island of Manhattan. It took me hours to get back to my home, but I did. Shortly thereafter there was a lot of phone calls, people asking who I had heard from or about people who were missing, who made it, who didn’t make it.

A couple of days after I was asked to go back to work, to work at the reconstruction effort. I worked on the reconstruction of the World Trade Center for fifteen years, until 2016, mostly on the transportation components because I’m an architect and have a lot of history in the transit architecture. I was very happy and proud to work on reconstructing for a long time until the Transportation Hub opened in 2016.

Undicisettembre: Well, this is very interesting, would you like to elaborate a bit on what you did in those fifteen years?

Thomas Grassi: As I mentioned I was an employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who owns the site; they became in charge of the reconstruction effort with a lot of input from other entities of course. There is a Port Authority run train system within the World Trade Center site called PATH, it stands for Port Authority Trans Hudson. The agency wanted to restore the PATH operations to help bring commerce and people in Lower Manhattan and to regain a sense of normalcy as quickly as possible. I was the project manager for the Temporary PATH Station; it opened in November 2003, just over two years after the attacks. It was in the middle of an otherwise empty sixteen-acre site, but we did reopen the PATH station – with new tracks and platforms as it had pre-9/11, but in the same placations and with a new entrance and a new facility. It did a great job with bringing people back to Lower Manhattan.

Once that opened, we transitioned immediately into working on the design of the permanent Transportation Hub and the master plan of the entire site. The site was ultimately built with a series of skyscrapers and the memorial; these projects were going on simultaneously but somewhat separately. The Port Authority hired a European architect, Santiago Calatrava, as the lead architect to design of the Transportation Hub and he, with some local engineering and architecture firms, was the visionary designer for the transportation components. Working very closely with him was a real thrill and very exciting; the building that we ultimately built did a lot for the healing and the reconstruction of the site. The building itself, and primarily the primary entrance building, the Oculus, has become kind of famous, it’s featured in commercials and is already great a landmark.

I work now for and Engineering and Architecture company, HNTB, in the Empire State Building, and every day I have a great view out my window of the World Trade Center [Thomas Grassi turns his webcam and shows me the World Trade Center view from his window – editor’s note].

Undicisettembre: You survived both attacks: 1993 and 9/11. After 93 were you expecting that to happen again?

Thomas Grassi: Well, probably not exactly “expecting”. 1993 was a shock to us, we who worked in the building didn’t know there was such a thing, but we recovered pretty quickly. We got back to work within a couple of months and new features were put in place in terms of egress stairs or the ability to get in and out of the building became stricter with new ID cards and turnstiles. Also to get into the garage underneath the building became more difficult. But as time went by, while nobody forgot about that, it was not on our minds everyday. We had fire drills and that type of things, but it sort of felt like a thing of the past. I don’t think that we had a sense that it might happen again.

Some of the features put in place as a result of the ’93 bombing saved a lot of lives on 9/11. For instance, glow-in the dark paint was applied to the stairs and handrails in the egress stairs, Those features were a great help as everything went dark when Tower 2 collapsed.

Undicisettembre: Was working on the reconstruction healing for you?

Thomas Grassi: Absolutely! Everyone reacts differently, there are people I worked with before 9/11 or that I was with on 9/11 who did not really want to go back or at least not so quickly, but I wanted to get back as quickly as possible.

My first time back at the site was October 12th, 2001. The Port Authority rented an office very close by the site for those of us involved in the reconstruction. The ability to get back and to play my little role and do whatever I could do to help clean up and recover became something very important to me and part of my personal healing.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of the choice of what the World Trade Center actually looks like now? Could it have been any better than this?

Thomas Grassi: The agency first made an initial decision not to put the towers back as they were, and that’s something that still comes up in discussion on social media or wherever else. I guess we’ll forever debate that and wonder. But there was a sense that people wouldn’t want to go back into buildings that looked exactly like the Twin Towers, I don’t know whether that’s true or not.

A lot of great things were done with the new design, some streets that the original complex interrupted were brought back. The original WTC site was designed in the late 60s with a super-block concept, so the site is now better integrated into the city’s grid. There’s a lot more of street life and street level activity. The World Trade Center, after 5 or 6 PM or during the weekends was generally a deserted place, it wasn’t a 24 hour campus. Now we have a performing art center soon to be completed on the site, another tower to be built, and the reconstruction of the streets has done a lot of positive things. A tremendous amount of people have moved downtown, I believe there’s about three times as many residents in that area today than pre-9/11.

So the reconstruction of the site, the improvements in public transit, the reintegration of the streets and the robust city life in general have done a long way for all that. It has been very successful.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your everyday life even today?

Thomas Grassi: Well, for the first 15 years I was involved with the reconstruction. I ultimately retired from the Port Authority and took a job in the private sector, from which I can fortunately see the World Trade Center from my window. I now work for an architecture and engineering company called HNTB, we work on transit projects all across the United States. So I’ve entered a new phase of life, but it certainly still comes back, when I get up just to go to talk to somebody, even briefly, I always take my cellphone with me because I always think “If it happens again now and I have got to run I want to make sure I have my cellphone with me.”

There are certain things like that that stick with me, small modifications to my behavior; it is always on the back of my mind that if it happens again I have to be ready to run.

Then on the anniversaries there are great memorial events that happen. In the fifteen years I was still in the neighborhood I was very involved with the Tribute Center and the 9/11 Museum, I was a docent there and my drawings of the reconstruction were exhibited there for a couple of years. So for those years I was connected not only for my workday to day but also because of the museum.

So it always stays with me, is small subtle ways.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories according to which 9/11 is an inside job?

Thomas Grassi: I’ve read, listened and looked into those theories but I’ve never found any realistic or convincing evidence that would bring me over to that point of view. I see no reason to believe them.

Undicisettembre: Have you been to the twentieth anniversary?

Thomas Grassi: I wasn’t physically there on the twentieth anniversary, there are years when I have returned for the anniversary and years when it’s a more private event. The memorial opened on the tenth anniversary and before that I started a charity called “Memorial Miles”; I with a lot of my coworkers, who were also working on the reconstruction, committed to walk or run a mile a day for the year leading up to the tenth anniversary and we raised money for the memorial’s opening. So for the tenth anniversary I was physically still there and very much involved. They still have some great memorials and anniversary commemorative events to make sure that we never forget which is very important, but I was not physically there for that anniversary though.

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