NATIONAL PARKS OF NEW YORK HARBOR
Employees 9/11 Experiences Captured In Oral Histories
|NPS photo by Eugene Kuwiz.|
On September 11, 2001, hundreds of National Park Service personnel in New York City who protect and tell the stories of our nation’s rich heritage suddenly became part of one of the most tragic days in our nation’s history. Today, the nation reflects on the events of that day and mourns its losses. To add to that reflection, the staff at the National Parks of New York Harbor wanted to share with the NPS family what it was like to be a part of that date in history.
To do so, we thought it fitting that we share some of their memories of the events of that fateful day. The September 11, 2001 Oral History Documentation Project by the Northeast Region captures the recollections and reflections of employees involved in the event and beyond in a series of interviews that took place in the following months.
The 10 units in the National Parks of New York Harbor preserve stories that span the foundation of democracy at Federal Hall, the legacy of immigration at Ellis Island, and the rediscovered past found at the African Burial Ground. On September 11, 2001, the service’s tradition of protecting its resources and helping its visitors and neighbors was enduring and unwavering even in the face of disaster.
Those who were interviewed as part of the oral history project spoke matter-of-factly about their participation, seeing nothing they did as extraordinary. Stevens Laise, chief of interpretation for the Manhattan Sites, perhaps summed it up best: “You know, it was our job. I think that's how we felt about it, that working in the National Park Service you feel a strong tradition of service. It's been that way ever since 1916 when the Park Service was created, that rangers are there to help people. If it's deep in the wilderness and somebody's lost. Or if it's in Lower Manhattan and somebody's seeking shelter. That's our job. That is what a park ranger does.”
Many remembered how the morning began, much like any morning. But as the attacks unfolded, there was a sense of how strange the day was becoming. Daniel Merced, a laborer/custodian at Federal Hall NM, went outside with a colleague after hearing reports that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. They headed up the street to where they could get a view of the Twin Towers. Upon seeing the hole in the building, he turned and said, “’How do you think they're going to fix that?’ And you know, it never occurred that it would fall.”
“It was surreal,” said David Luchsinger, then the Gateway business manager and now the superintendent at Statue of Liberty NM and Ellis Island. “I just sat there and I kept saying, oh my God. What's – something's happening. Something's happening. And then all of a sudden we realized that the whole tower had gone down and they started announcing it. It was incredible.”
As it became clear that this was not an accident and the scale of the situation was huge, those with first responder training were at the forefront of the NPS response and some of those first responders were members of the U.S. Park Police. In his interview for the NPS’s September 11, 2001 interview series, then USPP Captain Martin Zweig (now major) said “the [U.S. Park Police] evacuated quite a few people from the piers. People were jumping into the water, from what I was told by the officers on the boat….They just, you know, got as many people out, as well as transporting doctors and nurses to Ellis Island, where they were setting up a triage site.”
Other NPS personnel did their part to assist by securing their sites and clearing spaces for other agencies to use as staging areas. Manhattan Sites superintendent Shirley McKinney, then the superintendent of the Staten Island Unit of Gateway NRA, cleared one of the sites in her unit, “because at Great Kills Park there is a marina there and I figured someone might need to use the dock for rescuing efforts.” Another was the use of facilities at Ellis Island for treating the wounded. The team there treated some firefighters and civilians, but soon there were no longer wounded coming.
Back in Manhattan, rangers at Castle Clinton NM on the Battery and at Federal Hall NM, the two closest parks to the World Trade Centers, did their best to ensure the safety of those in the area following the attack, either by directing them away from areas that could catch fire or by offering them shelter from the blinding cloud of debris that rolled through lower Manhattan as the towers collapsed. As people huddled together wondering what could possibly come next, NPS employees were handing out dust masks and water, doing whatever they could to offer comfort before those seeking refuge felt ready to venture out into a city forever changed.
The team of interviewers for this project was comprised of Louis Hutchins, ethnographer; Chuck Smythe, Ph.D., senior cultural anthropologist, Boston Support Office; Mark Schoepfle, Ph.D., ethnographer, Archeology and Ethnography Program, Washington, DC; and George Tselos, archivist, Statue of Liberty National Monument. The team interviewed 35 NPS employees – from maintenance to management at four National Park Service sites in the New York City area.
Note: The above quotations were all taken from transcripts of the National Park Service September 11, 2001 interview series.
Name: Mindi Rambo