102 Minutes: Ground Zero 10 years later

ground zero

NEW YORK – The dawn broke with a clear blue sky over lower Manhattan on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. On the 95th floor in Tower 2 of the World Trade Center, Thomas Sullivan, a financial portfolio planner, was looking forward to sharing the news that he and his wife Deborah were expecting twins.

Story by Timothy Hale

A short time later, New York plainclothes police detective Vincent Mannion and his partner were coming off a midnight shift uptown when they heard a call of a plane hitting a building downtown. They assumed it was a small private plane … it had happened before.

Christopher Whitford had signed off from his night shift at the New York Police Department’s 1st Precinct on Washington Street. He then reported to Fort Wadsworth for his military job as an intelligence analyst. He had just sat down to have a cup of coffee with his first sergeant when his phone rang. It was his father.

For the next 102 minutes, their lives would become intertwined. Not necessarily at the same time at that hallowed place now simply called Ground Zero, but as Army Reserve soldiers when their nation called upon them to serve.

“You Gotta Keep Walking”

Sullivan, then an Army Reserve captain, was happy to share the news about the twins with his boss and co-workers from AXA Advisors located in the South Tower. He couldn’t wait to send out an e-mail to friends and see the look on his boss’ face.

Sullivan said they were talking and laughing when something outside caught their attention coming from the north of the city.

“At the speed and size of the plane that was coming it looked like it was heading right for us,” he said. “It impacted the north tower as best we could figure right above us.”

Sullivan and his boss, who served as the floor deputy fire warden and fire warden respectively, started clearing the floor.

“My duties were to clear cubicles, bathrooms, copy rooms. Things were developing very fast. We were looking at an inferno (in the north tower).”

After clearing the floor, Sullivan made his way down the stairwell to the 78th floor where there was a row of elevators.

“It was about 8:50 – 9:00 o’clock in morning, so everybody was coming to work and quite a few people (were now) trying to get out.

“At that moment I decided to just get back in the stairway and let the firemen get access to the elevators should they need it because at this time our building hadn’t been hit.”

Then, it happened.

“Somewhere around the 68th floor our building shook tremendously. The air went off. You could feel some warm air come down.”

Sullivan said he originally thought a secondary explosion had occurred in Tower 1 or a piece of Tower 1 had collapsed and collided with Tower 2. But seconds later, he knew it was something else, something much worse.

“The stairwell doors were opening up from other floors and people screaming that a second plane had hit our tower.”

Around the 48th floor, he came across three fellow AXA employees, one of which was in “physical distress sitting in the corner. The only words that I can recall were ‘you can walk as slow as you want but you gotta keep walking’. So I locked arms with her and just tried to keep her up.”

Upon arriving at ground level, they attempted to exit the tower but were stopped short.

“As we opened the door we could see the plaza was full of debris – burning pieces of the plane or the building itself. A law enforcement official told us to go back into the building and down to the basement to get out.” Which is what they did, eventually heading out on the east side of the towers.

Sullivan said emergency workers tried to keep everyone moving away from the building, telling them not to stop and look.

“But you had to look,” he said. “It was a very different picture that I had gotten just an hour and a half before. This beautiful sky was now filled with smoke. Both buildings (were) engulfed and the whole plaza and surrounding area looked like a war zone.”

He tried to get to a friend’s office nearby to call his wife and family but it was locked and had been evacuated. He then decided it was time to get off the island and the Staten Island ferry seemed like a safe choice at the time.

But another noise stopped him from proceeding.

“I heard a roar. It sounded it like another plane coming. As I looked up I saw the (south) tower coming down. I started running towards the Staten Island ferry. I figured that I could get on the ferry and get out of Manhattan and take it from there.

“It was a slow move down to the ferry. We were just trying to piece together what was actually happening. There were hundreds if not thousands in the same position I was. The Brooklyn Bridge seemed like the logical thing so the group started heading that way and just as we were coming up the off ramp, the north tower came down. It was at that moment when I saw that second cloud just pushing, coming at you like a wall the group just paused. It was like ‘can we make it’?”

He and the others eventually did make it across. Sullivan found a phone and his brother came and picked him up across the river in Brooklyn. But the days immediately following the attack didn’t get much better.

“I remember drawing the shades to the house (the day of the attack). I remember my phone messages filled up with people calling ‘we got this e-mail, we know you’re at work – let us know you’re okay.’ Then the phone ringing with coworkers, ‘Have you seen my son? Have you seen my husband?’ That went on for days. One of the toughest times is telling someone, ‘I thought I saw them in the hallway.’ Then there were the memorial services for months.

“We lost 104 from our company. Many of these same people were at our wedding, kids’ christenings and vice-versa.”

“It was mind boggling”

Mannion, then an Army Reserve Master Sgt., and his partner really didn’t think much of the first radio call of a plane hitting a building. It was the second, more urgent call that got their attention.

“We heard on our police radio to ‘10-2 command’ meaning we had to get back. We saw a lot of emergency vehicles leaving the Heights heading south.”

Mannion said that everyone at the station was putting on their uniforms as events unfolded on the television.

“We saw both towers with billowing smoke coming out of them … we saw the first tower come down and we knew that our world as we knew it had pretty much changed.”

Initially, Mannion and many of his fellow officers were assigned duty to protect the tunnels, subways and train stations from further attacks around the clock. It would be three days before he made it to Ground Zero.

“(We) came down the West Side Highway further up (from Ground Zero) and walked down as far as we could. It was something out of a surreal horror movie. It was mind boggling to see the carnage and destruction. We just kept walking down as far as we could and got to the rubble and debris,” he said.

Wanting to help, he and his fellow officers took their place in the ‘bucket brigade’ that had formed to start removing debris and looking for survivors.

“I remember seeing a female hand, a right hand of a female, just lying in the rubble. We got a body bag and put the hand in the body bag. That was my first (experience). From then on for several months later, there wasn’t really, unfortunately, a lot of recovery.”

“I knew he went in with his men”

After coming off his night shift, Whitford, then an Army Reserve Staff Sgt. with the 331st Military Intelligence Company, proceeded to his unit on Staten Island to make up a missed battle assembly.

“For a month prior to that I was at Fort Huachuca as an instructor at the imagery analyst course,” Whitford said. “I had just gotten back on the Sunday prior to 9/11 so I missed my battle assembly for September.”

“I was having a cup of coffee with my first sergeant when my father called and said, ‘did you see what happened? A plane hit the World Trade Center’. So we put the TV on just momentarily before the second plane hit the south tower. I turned to my first sergeant and said, ‘I need to go’. He understood.”

Whitford made his way down to the Staten Island ferry where he joined many firefighters and police officers.

“But I was the only one wearing BDU’s. I went to the front of the boat … you could see a bird’s eye view of the fireball, the smoke, debris and bodies coming off the building.”

Remarkably, Whitford’s cell phone continued to work, while others on the boat didn’t.

“My father had called me and told me that my brother, Mark Whitford, had responded to the World Trade Center as well. He was working that evening and was assigned to Engine 23 in midtown Manhattan. He was the chauffeur (driver) of the truck that day.”

As the ferry continued across the East River towards Manhattan, Whitford watched as the scene played out before him and the other responders on the boat.

“I just looked at that fireball and it was just clear that the buildings were not going to be able to sustain that heat for very long,” he said. “So I turned to one of the fireman standing next to me and I asked him, ‘how long before they collapse?’ He never answered me. Just his eyes and the expression that he made was enough for me to know that he hadn’t considered that. That’s when I got real nervous and realized that this was going to be bad.”

Whitford and the group were still on the ferry when the south tower collapsed. As they were pulling into the ferry dock in lower Manhattan, the north tower collapsed.

“I knew it was going to be devastating,” he said.

Whitford linked up with police officers from emergency services truck 5. “Being a police officer, I told them, ‘I work at 1st Precinct and I can navigate around Battery Park and I can get you guys in there’.”

As they proceeded north along West Side Highway, Whitford was faced with a stark reality – his brother’s fire truck was sitting in the debris field.

“I took a look inside and saw that he wasn’t in his truck. I knew that he went in with his men. As the chauffer of the truck he didn’t have to go in but Mark wouldn’t have that.”

At that point Whitford broke away from the group he went in with but said it was difficult to see because of the dust. “You could only see an arm’s length in front of you the dust was so thick.

“At that point I did link up with another off-duty officer and the two of us resumed our search just trying to find somebody alive. The dust was unbelievable. Everything was just pulverized. The only large chunks you saw were steel beams.

Whitford said that by this time, on scene command had started to take shape and the leadership pulled everyone back to Stuyvesant High School to regroup. After a brief respite, they were assigned search grids and went back to search for survivors.

Again, remarkably, Whitford received a cell phone call from his brother’s wife wanting to know if he had found him.

“She said, he told her on the way down to the World Trade Center, ‘If anything happens, Chris will find me.’

“She said, ‘find him, Chris.’

“I said, ‘I will’. I promised her I would find him.”

After breaking off the search in the evening, he went back to Staten Island and filled in the family on the situation.

He resumed the search in the morning with fellow 1st Precinct officer.

“On 9-12, throughout the whole day going into the afternoon, we continually went around the whole site. Every firefighter we saw we turned them around. ‘Hey have you seen the guys from 23?’

“It was always the same response – they either said ‘no’ or ‘I heard those guys didn’t make it’.”

Amid the dust and debris, Whitford would finally receive a sign.

“We were actually on the Church Street side. You still could only see a couple of feet in front of you at the most.

“A monarch butterfly, a big butterfly, flew directly into my face. I’ll never forget it. I thought about it for a second and I looked up and it was gone.

“That’s when I had a real pit in my heart. That’s when I was convinced I had found my brother.”

He shared the story of the butterfly later that evening with his family.

Mark Whitford’s remains were recovered from the World Trade Center, April 5, 2002. It was his 31st birthday. He is one of five Army Reserve soldiers killed on 9/11.

Christopher Whitford was serving overseas when they found his brother.

Answering the call

Sullivan, Mannion and Whitford would all answer the Nation’s call to service in the coming months and years.

Whitford was the first of the trio to land in Kuwait in November 2001. Assigned to C Company, 297th Military Intelligence Battalion, he served as the unmanned aerial vehicle team NCOIC. He would serve both in Kuwait and Afghanistan during his tour.

“A lot of my leaders said, ‘are you sure you want to do this’?” Whitford said.

“For me, that’s one time I will admit I was definitely being selfish and I needed a little payback. I needed to be involved in the War on Terrorism and I wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer.

For Mannion, the truck master for the 773rd Transportation Company, the call came in November 2002.

“We landed in Kuwait on Thanksgiving night 2002. We were the first transportation company in theater.”

Because the unit was primarily made up of soldiers from the five boroughs in New York City, the deployment hit close to home for them.

“We had a lot of civil servants – police officers, firemen, postal workers, sanitation, bus operators, delivery truck drivers, transit authority. We all wanted to just get involved and do something,” he said.

“I used to tell the soldiers as a New York unit ‘this is your chance – not necessarily payback – but do your job and do it well.’

“We had our N.Y. patch on our left shoulder with the Statue of Liberty. I told them, ‘everyone is going to look at you. You’ve got to perform. You’ve got to push. You’ve got to drive harder and faster’ and I think we did.”

Assigned to the 49th Quartermaster Group, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), the unit provided fuel for the push from Kuwait into Baghdad.

“We crossed the berm that night with 58 full tankers of fuel in excess of 270,000 gallons. The 13th Corps Support Battalion assigned a laundry and bath unit to us so we had a 92 vehicle, 209 Soldier convoy. I was the senior enlisted man in charge of all of them,” he said.

But their time in theater wasn’t without a little controversy.

While waiting for route clearance to go back into Iraq with more fuel, Mannion received a call on the radio.

It seemed that a senior non-commissioned officer was a little “irate about the ‘graffiti’ on his Soldiers’ helmets.

“He was leaning into me pretty hard.” ‘I want counseling statements done’, he told me. “But I had it on mine too.

“I said, ‘with all due respect, this is a New York unit and these kids that have this so-called graffiti on their helmet … it motivated these soldiers, an inner city unit from the five boroughs, and they knew a lot of people who died on that day’.

“He said, ‘well O.K., I’m going to go and leave you to it. I hear you guys are hauling a lot of fuel’.”

Mannion replied, “I guarantee we’ll haul a lot of fuel for you but we’d like to keep our Kevlar’s the way they are.

“So he left and we waited for our chance to go back into the box,” he said with a grin.

Sullivan was the last of these men to make it overseas. He was initially mobilized in January 2003 but the unit never deployed.

But, as coincidence would have it, he teamed up with Mannion in 2005-2006 as the command team with the 773rd.

“I believe we complimented each other,” Mannion said. “9/11, family backgrounds, Irish connections.”

In February 2005, the unit was sent to a large logistical hub known as Q-West where the unit pushed fuel and other supplies throughout Iraq.

Sullivan said the unit was again made up from Soldiers from the five boroughs as it had been in 2002-2003.

“It was pretty well put together,” Sullivan said. “They were with the initial move in so they had the experience.”

For him, he felt it was his duty to go and serve.

“Being (from) a New York unit and having that connection to Sept, 11, I had only hoped that my involvement, my service would somehow bring honor to all those that we had lost,” Sullivan said.

10 years later

All three men admitted the events of 9/11 have changed them, although they came to that realization in different times.

For Sullivan, he said it has made him, “a little more serious. I think it took some of the joy out of my life. You have a life to live and family to take care of. You have to find happiness somewhere else.”

For Mannion, 9/11 changed how he looks at his military job, his civilian law enforcement job and with his interactions with his family.

“The vigilance level is never going to go where it was prior to 9/11,” he said. “It shouldn’t, it better not, it can’t and it won’t.

“As good as the bad guys think they are, we’re just a lot better. And we’re going to maintain that.”

For Whitford, time cannot erase the memory of his brother who was lost that day. He carries a photo of Mark in his firefighter gear in his wallet next to his police badge.

“I’ve made it my mission to make sure that something like this never happens again – that we never ever get caught off guard again,” Whitford said.

“I made it my mission that there was a reason that Mark didn’t survive that day and there was a reason I did survive.”

As far as the 9/11 Memorial that is still under construction, Sullivan summed it up best when he described it.

“Everyone wanted to make sure it was done respectfully,” he said.

“We’re America and we bounce back fast. We do things fast and do things big, especially here in New York.

“I look forward to the day when I can come back and pay my respects to a place that honors and remembers all those we lost that day. We’re moving there.”

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