By Kevin OToole
Kevin J. O’Toole is the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. This was first printed in the Bergen Record on 9/9/19.
The most humbling duty that falls on the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is speaking on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. It was the second attack on the Trade Center, which was bombed on Feb. 26, 1993, resulting in the deaths of six adults and an unborn child. Nearly 3,000 souls were lost on 9/11.
The loss of life – whether in numbers small or large – is always personal to the family and friends of the victims. Many of us in New Jersey and New York, lost family, friends and colleagues. The sum total of this loss is incalculable.
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Who knows what these individuals would have done or who they might have influenced or inspired if they have lived? And as we marked earlier this year on May 30, with the dedication of the 9/11 Memorial Glade on the World Trade Center campus, the losses from 9/11 continue. The memorial glade honors the workers who toiled on the rubble of the Trade Center, what became known as “the pile.” These heroes first hoped to discover survivors and then week after week, month after month, focused on recovering human remains, exposing themselves to toxins.
The images of 9/11 are unforgettable. Some, like firefighters raising the American flag, the iconic picture taken by Record photographer Tom Franklin, show our resilience and belief in the American promise of liberty. Other images move us to tears.
There is one that is extremely poignant, taken by Reuters photographer Shannon Stapleton. It shows five men carrying the Rev. Mychal Judge out of the rubble. The men are covered in dust, there is horror behind them, but they lift up the lifeless body of a New York Fire Department chaplain to bring him to a better place. They brought him inside St. Peter’s Church and laid him at the altar.
Father Judge is the first recorded fatality of 9/11 and is buried in Totowa.
The five men who lifted up Father Judge were not all first responders in the traditional sense. Christian Waugh and Zachary Vause were firefighters. Bill Cosgrove was NYPD. Kevin Allen worked in New York City’s Office of Emergency Management. John Maguire, a West Point graduate, worked for Goldman Sachs. Maguire was last on the scene and saw the four men struggling to carry Father Judge and shared their burden.
Think about it. Firefighters. A police lieutenant. A city worker. A Wall Street man who also graduated West Point. Few of them knew Father Judge. Yet they came to together as brothers. The poignancy of that photo lies not with one aspect of it, but with it all – loss, sacrifice, determination, and most important – dignity.
This summer, I was on a family trip to Ireland and toured the Waterford Museum of Treasures. I was not expecting to be spiritually challenged while admiring exquisite works of glass. But Sean Egan changed that for me, for the people around me, for all who have seen his tribute to the six men in that iconic 9/11 photograph.
Egan was an artisan at Waterford and, moved by the photo, embarked on a personal project to transform what he saw in that picture into a work of art. It was a labor of love and as fate would have it, one day, one of New York’s “Bravest,” Michael O’Rourke, who was visiting the Waterford factory, saw Egan working on the piece. Egan explained he wanted to ultimately donate the piece to the NYFD. The story doesn’t end there.
When the top management of Waterford became aware of Egan’s personal tribute, they made it Waterford’s personal tribute and a larger piece was commissioned. What began with one man became something more.
The Waterford sculpture consists of three parts: engraved glass depicting the men lifting up Father Judge, a backdrop of the jagged façade of the destroyed towers – which represents all the souls lost in the towers – and a solid base made of Irish bog oak.
The larger piece was given to the NYFD, presented in 2007 to the firefighters at Engine 1, Ladder 24, the firehouse from where Father Judge responded to the call on 9/11. This past week, I went to see that piece in Manhattan and was honored to speak with firefighters who knew Father Judge. Later that same day, I paid my respects at Father Judge’s grave at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.
Each of us remembers 9/11 differently. The enormity of the loss and sacrifice is near impossible for most of us to capture in words. Artists fill that void. Egan’s crystal masterpiece to the heroism of 9/11 is moving because it captures the entirety of that time. And what strikes me 18 years after the Sept 11 attacks and 17 years after the formal end of recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site is that the courage, compassion and dignity shown in those challenging months remain. I see it in the many people I speak with at memorial events and when I talk with Port Authority employees who worked for the agency on 9/11.
The Port Authority lost family on Sept. 11, 84 employees including 37 PAPD, in addition to the six adults and unborn child killed in the 1993 bombing. These attacks were personal to the men and women of the Port Authority. I am humbled to be part of this great institution.
On this 9/11 anniversary, I see the five men lifting up Father Judge. It is engraved in my heart as much as it is engraved in crystal. These men were determined to carry Mychal Judge to a better place. They did. It is a lesson for us all.