Archive for the September 11 Category

Ten 9-11 Stories

Posted in September 11 with tags , , , , , on September 11, 2016 by travsd


In remembrance of the day, a little wrap-up of some of our past articles posted here on September 11 in years past. Just click on the link to get to the post. Here at Travalanche we NEVER forget:

Sept 11. and the Theatre: Then and Now

A Vaudevillian 9-11 Story (on magician and hero Wm. Rodriguez)

Philppe Petit’s Wire Walk

The Tribute in Lights

Memory from the Top of the Woolworth Building

The Little Known Miracle of NY Downtown Hospital

Marie Roberts: 22 Drawings of the Pile

National September 11 Memorial and Museum

Jason Thomas: The Lost Hero of 9/11

American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11




American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, September 11 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2016 by travsd


The horrific events of September 11, 2001 were, you must admit, a triumph of planning: time, resources, personnel, organization. And for the most part, the perpetrators achieved what they set out to do. On the other hand, the responses to those attacks were triumphs of spontaneity: civilians and professionals, trained and untrained, leaping into the breach cold and on a dime, demonstrating in a fascinating way how humans can cooperate and coordinate their behavior on the fly. And to a remarkable degree, they too were extraordinarily successful.

A huge and fascinating slice of the story in New York was the evacuation of up to an estimated 400,000 people from Lower Manhattan by an ad hoc flotilla of boats –up to 100 tug boats, pleasure craft, ferries, fishing boats, dinner cruise vessels, whatever and whomever happened to be nearby in the harbor that morning. Some have said this story is “unknown”, but that’s not quite true. I’ve certainly read about the story in newspaper accounts, books, and the like many times — but then, I was focused like a laser beam on the story during my New-York Historical Society years, when we put on a series of exhibitions about the events (and I still am, as I’ve been working on a long term writing project about that day). But, it’s possible that most ordinary people haven’t heard the tale. If that’s so, I imagine it might be because it’s a quieter story, one that happened in the midst of high drama, tragedy, villainy, murder, death and spectacles of violence. But if you can just shift your focus, and direct your gaze towards the waterfront — consider what I just said once more: 400,000 people (roughly the population of Minneapolis) evacuated from New York in a few hours by boat. By strangers. On random craft, not even passenger craft necessarily. With no advance planning.


Participants on the deck of the Lilac — a perfect setting for this panel, as the events pretty much went down RIGHT HERE

 A number of participants in that heartening story (boat captains and crew members, rescuers, coordinators, evacuees) as well as researchers and scholars were aboard the Lightship Lilac last night for a different sort of launch, for the new book American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11. The fascinating panel included the book’s authors Tricia Wachtendorf and James Kendra, both of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware; Eddie Rosenstein, producer of Boatlift, a film about the event; Captain Patrick Harris of the yacht Ventura, who was one of the rescuers; and Jessica Dulong, chief engineer of the fireboat John J. Harvey, which also played a crucial role in saving lives that day (she is also a distinguished writer and the author of the upcoming book Calling All Boats: Untold Stories of the Maritime Evacuation of September 11th.  )

L-R, Harris, Wachtendorf, Kenda, Rosenstein, Dulong

L-R, Harris, Wachtendorf, Kendra, Rosenstein, Dulong

Kendra and Wachtendorf’s research drew largely from analysis of first person accounts, both their own interviews and those they found in archives, such as the one at South Street Seaport Museum. They seem focused on how people self-organize to respond effectively in sudden crises like this. And there were fascinating contributions to the discussion by people in the audience who were there that day. Again and again and again, the main theme of the conversation seemed to be that humans require freedom to make their own decisions in such situations. Bureaucracy and rules and dogmas and “permission” don’t serve you well where speed is required. The evergreen example of how bureaucracies can tragically fail in such situations is Hurricane Katrina, where each decision-maker seemed paralyzed by procedures, causing delays that cost lives. The one exception of course being the U.S. Coast Guard — which also performed admirably on 9-11. Accustomed to the exingencies of rescue as part of its core mission, the Coast Guard apparently has a pragmatic ethic of relaxing formalities as the need requires. Or, as Wachtendorf finessed the day’s lesson, remaining mindful of the aims and spirit of the rules, even as you need to bend them to get the job done. (Absolute chaos, after all, would be its own form of disaster). Other points stressed by participants included the intense training and inborn caution of all maritime personnel. In some ways, sailors are hard wired for sensible decisions and practices in such situations, and most are trained in the same way, so that even when they kick into gear in a spontaneous situation they have pre-set ways of interacting and interlocking that serve them well. And, as one of the rescuers chimed in from the audience, New York’s maritime community is small. Many of the players already knew each other and had interacted in some capacity — again, making the process flow more easily.

Anyway, I felt a real bond with everyone at this event. I sort of didn’t want to let them go. To get your copy of American Dunkirk go here. And to learn more about this incredible collective act of heroism, watch Rosenstein’s Boatlift right now:

Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #88: Barney Miller

Posted in Comedy, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, September 11, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , on September 11, 2015 by travsd


Please don’t protest that YOU haven’t forgotten the show. This world contains 7 billion people, including 320 million Americans, most of whom are younger than you are. 

I try to make my posts appropriately somber every September 11, but this year I thought of a lighter one that has some relevance to the day. The credit sequence to the ABC sit-com Barney Miller (1974-1982) is without a doubt the first place I ever saw the image of the World Trade Center. WTC had only just opened its doors to tenants in 1973 — I never even learned its name until 1979. That was on my first trip to New York City, a field trip organized by my high school teacher — very probably the single person who changed my life the most.

New York! I’ve known since I was 13 years old that I was going to move here, lured mostly by Neil Simon movies, and 70s and 80s sit-coms like The Odd Couple, Taxi, and Barney Miller. It appeared to be a gritty place, a place where irritated, world-weary, vaguely ethnic people dealt with frustration and inconvenience by making irresistible wisecracks.

Barney Miller was an especially strange one. Hard on the heels of a whole spate of neo-realistic 70s crime dramas like Serpico and The French Connection, it attempted to make merry in the same milieu, as a ragtag bunch of Lower Manhattan plainclothesmen brought in an endless parade of prostitutes, transvestites, drunks, hippies, flashers, litterbugs, peeping toms, shoplifters, vandals, and other colorful New York street types. The squad room was a smorgasbord of human types (and stereotypes): Fish, an elderly Jew (Abe Vigoda), Wojciehowicz, a dumb Polish guy (Max Gail), Yemana, a deadpan Asian (Jack Soo), Harris, a flashy, funky African American (Ron Glass), Dietrich, an intellectual (Steve Landesberg) and Levitt, a diminutive uniformed cop who aspired to make detective (Ron Carey). The first two seasons also featured Gregory Sierra as Chano, a moody, hot-headed Puerto Rican. They were all led by the patient, seemingly unflappable Captain Barney Miller, played by handsome Broadway star Hal Linden (whose real last name, we never tired of observing, was Lipschitz.)

Oh yes and James Gregory as crusty Inspector Luger

Oh yes and James Gregory as crusty Inspector Luger

Every episode, the detectives would bring in a parade of entertaining perps off the streets of New York, conveniently one at a time, so we could hear their snappy, funny New York conversations. There would be occasional moments of seriousness and pathos, always cleaned up neatly (if implausibly by the end of the episode). As a prime time show in the pre-cable age, it never got TOO close to truly troubling or controversial stuff. Thus as crime-ridden as it made New York seem, somehow the crooks came off as kind of lovable. Strung out junkies, knife fights, things like that got downplayed. But even those would have heightened the glamour. New York is a candle, and the millions of us who move here — are moths.

By the way, I was also a huge fan of the spin-off series, Fish which we blogged about here. 

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc

Jason Thomas: The Lost Hero of 9/11

Posted in African American Interest, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, September 11, Television with tags , , , on September 11, 2015 by travsd


The Destination America network premiered a new documentary special the other night. Since 2002 or 2003 I’ve been working on a piece of writing about September 11 (I haven’t decided yet if it will be a theatre work or a book-length poem, I’m going to let the material decide.) Painful (even inconceivable) thought it may be, I’ve researched the event obsessively, from every conceivable angle. There have been warehouses full of material produced on this subject: journalism, scholarship, correspondence and lots and lots of folk art. But very little serious art. I think most artists are terrified of the risk, or find it distasteful, or think they shouldn’t be the one to attempt it. I am of the reverse opinion. This seismic tragedy happened to everyone. Factoring in the repercussions and ripples, it is without a doubt the most significant thing to happen in much of the world since World War Two. And yet people have avoided the topic — strenuously. And granted, this thing I’m working on hasn’t seen and won’t see the light of day for many years, if ever. But I’m working on it.

If you told me in late 2001, what a frivolous, contentious, paralyzed, self-hating, violent, downright USELESS and DIRECTIONLESS society America would be in 2015, I don’t know what I would have done. Something unmentionable. I just typed something and erased it, because it’s too dark. Talk about 14 wasted years. Who are we? What have we done as a nation? It’s as though those planes flew into the country’s spinal cord and severed it, creating a deranged Leviathan.

Anyway, I am digressing majorly. The point I began with is that when they show 9-11 documentaries on tv at this time of year, I don’t go “Oh, ugh, this again.” I watch them. “Why be reminded?”, people always ask. How about to stiffen your resolve to a peaceful person who helps others? More power to you if you feel you’re golden enough on a daily basis to NOT need such reminders. But I certainly do.

That said, having seen so many documentaries and television shows about the subject (and they’re all powerful — even the ones that aren’t as good, because how can they not be?), at this late stage it is rare to run into aspects of the narrative (as complex as it is) that you haven’t encountered before. 9/11: The Lost Hero (despite a fairly unpromising title) accomplished that however. That is because its subject, ex-Marine Jason Thomas, never told a soul about his major act of heroism on September 11. It turns out, after years of mystery, that he is the guy responsible for finding and rescuing Port Authority Police Officers Will Jimino and John McLoughlin from the pile. Only 16 people survived the collapse of the Twin Towers. This particular rescue was dramatized by Oliver Stone in 2006’s film World Trade Center. Unfortunately at the time the film was made, no one knew the identity of the rescuer. Jimino spoke with him at the time but he was badly injured, under rubble and surrounded by smoke. Firefighters worked with him but all was chaos and who knows whom the film people had an opportunity to interview? So the “Mysterious Marine” was played by a white actor. This particular hero was African American. People should know that.

Thomas was at his mother’s home on Long Island when the planes hit. He threw on his fatigues and ran to the scene. And here’s the wild thing — puts a chill up your spine. There is TONS of video footage of him doing just that. It’s footage most of us have seen many times. You can see the guy running toward the collapsed towers in famous video clips. But no one knew enough to put him together with this mystery rescuer. He never told anyone until the Stone movie came out and he finally cracked, as anyone would. His own story was being told with inaccuracy. He let his wife know, and that’s the only reason we know.

Another GLORIOUS element of this story (to me) is that because he was an absolutely free agent, answerable to no one but his own conscience, he got the job done. When World Trade Center 7 collapsed late in the afternoon, FDNY officials (understandably) recalled their men from the pile. For a few hours, people under that rubble were out of luck. Thomas merely said “To hell with it” and climbed the pile on his own, and found these two guys. (To their credit, firemen were breaking rules themselves that day to get the job done. On another of the specials shown by Destination America, a construction worker told an FDNY Captain: “I know where some nearby backhoes are, but they’re not mine, I’ll have to hot wire ’em”, and the Captain said, “Well, then hot wire ’em.” If he’d waited for orders or clearance or permission or whatever, vital time would have been lost).

Anyway, I found this to be an inspiring story.  The film is available to watch via Youtube here. 

Thoughts on the National September 11 Memorial and Museum

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, September 11, Travel/ Tourism with tags , , , , , , on September 11, 2015 by travsd

2014-11-28 13.30.20

Over Thanksgiving weekend last year I went with my boys to see the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. The Memorial had been open for three years by that point; the Museum for six months. I’d dragged my heels in going (by my standards) because I wanted to avoid crowds. But the lines were still long, very long last November.  I hope that that will be the case for a long time to come.

You either get why such a place exists, or you don’t. Most of my New York friends have long been in “I wanna forget about this already and move on” mode. If you know anything about me, you know that I am ALWAYS in NEVER FORGET mode, not just about this, but about everything. The people who gave their lives deserve that much. The cause of peace in the future deserves that much. The survivors and the relatives of the deceased deserve that much respect. Periodic contemplation is not morbid; it is appropriate.  Among other things, it is one of the reasons art even exists.

I only took a couple of snaps that day, I wanted to experience the place unfiltered. And I didn’t blog about it at the time, because what can you say? Also, there are certain times and places where I think it is appropriate to leave your critical eye at the door.  But then I realized that that’s true about monuments and memorials…and it isn’t. Because there are important things to get right here, and if they hadn’t gotten it right, I would have been harshly and vocally critical. So I walked in with an open mind but I also walked in with judgment, because this subject is important and personal to me. But it surpassed my hopes.

First, I worried that somehow it wouldn’t be enough, that there would be too little of it, that it would be too small, that the scale of it would be insufficient. I worried less about that with the Memorial, which literally occupies the footprints of the Twin Towers, than with the Museum, which occupies the former “bathtub”, the subterranean walls that kept/keeps New York Harbor from flooding into the WTC sub-basements. This is an age of diminished expectations; we seem unable to do anything anymore on a scale we accomplished routinely a century ago. The Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore — those are big things, large enough to match the emotions they are meant to inspire. You look at them and you say “people can do things.” But I want you to know that despite the fact that I went to this Museum carrying a kernel of that skepticism with me, prepared to say that it was perfectly nice but more modest than I had hoped, in spite of that hurdle, I found that the scale and design and content of the Museum defied that jaded energy, overcame it and overwhelmed me. It is HUGE. It is huge in a way that is powerful and surprising and unexpected and eloquent about what was there, and what was lost, and who we are. and who we might be, and what we must overcome to continue as a civilization. Like New York City and the World Trade Center itself, it is cavernous, it goes on and on and on, and I was full of admiration for and gratitude toward the people who built this. It is equal in scale to the courage and sacrifice of the heroes, and to the sadness of the loss. As a work of art and a tribute to certain people’s lives I feared it wouldn’t be big enough. It is big enough. And I assure you that coming from me, with my expectations, that is high. high praise.

The second question, a major one given the subject, is that of taste. There is no universal “right” for this, and there are millions of potential wrongs and minefields. Everyone has a different barometer as far as that goes, and that’s why the Museum has been a political football since Day One. For some, the existence of a museum at all is wrong. Others would want it to be extremely traditional, or subdued. For me, personally, it is about catharsis and emotion and direct experience. It is about chaos and honesty and awe and empathy all at the same time. It was an event too complex to digest or ever understand. I didn’t come to think about anything intellectually, I came to feel something, to connect with others, to partake in a shared experience, to contemplate, to pray. And for me, this museum does that job and answers that need. You’ll have to decide for yourself if it does that for you.

For some reason, it feels kind of gauche to describe in literal detail what they have on view in this Museum. You should just go (if you want to) and have your own experience. I think it is a healthy thing to do, and I know that I will return from time to time. I couldn’t help taking this picture, though. I found it moving and eloquent somehow about what September 11 means to a New Yorker like me, who didn’t lose anyone personally, but just lost a city he knew, overnight. The staircase in the middle used to be part of the complex’s exterior, on the north side. For about a year I lived on Greenwich Street just a few blocks north of the World Trade Center. I don’t know how many times I walked on those steps, along with millions of New Yorkers. 200? 300? One day, it became part of a ruin. And suddenly it is a thing to look at it in a museum. Part of the past.

2014-11-28 15.29.36

Marie Roberts: 22 Drawings of “The Pile”

Posted in Coney Island, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, September 11, VISUAL ART with tags , , , on September 11, 2014 by travsd

Marie Roberts is well known as artist-in-residence and official banner painter at Coney Island USA, but she is an accomplished artist outside that context. In the days after September 11, she spent three months at “the Pile”, recording her impressions of the devastation, the recovery, the responders and the onlookers. She was generous enough to share some pages from her sketch book, and some thoughts.


“We got into Manhattan on September 15, the first day the trains ran. The first thing I saw when I came out of the subway was a dead green parrot. Remember, no photos were allowed? The soldiers and police let me draw because ‘no one said nothing about drawing’. You could smell it for six months where I live, 10 miles away. The ash and paper came down over my street when – was it number 6? – fell.*  It was something I doubt, I hope, I will never forget.”

* World Trade Center 7, 48 stories tall,  collapsed at 5:21 pm the evening of 9-11, several hours after the Twin Towers fell. 

Marie 1

Marie 2

Marie 3

Marie 4

Marie 5

Marie 6

Marie 7

Marie 8

Marie 9

Marie 10

Marie 11

Marie 12

Marie 13

Marie 14

Marie 15

Marie 16

Marie 17

Marie 18

Marie 19

Marie 20

Marie 21

Marie 22

Some additional thoughts from Marie from a couple of days ago:

“I am on the Staten Island Ferry. Soldiers with uzis [sic] are here standing in position ( full riot protective gear) watching as we board. I just looked up and a soldier like this is patrolling the aisles.

A Coast Guard skiff just passed with a soldier standing in the bow with drawn uzi , passing between the two ferries. Thirteen years ago, on September 9 I would not have dreamed I would see this in my own city.

When I was in France in 1987 I saw soldiers there like this at the airport. How outrageous it seemed, how foreign.”

The Little Known Miracle of NY Downtown Hospital

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, September 11 with tags , , on September 11, 2013 by travsd
Downtown Hospital Today

Downtown Hospital Today

On 9-11, I remember watching live local news coverage with a television reporter parked out in front of St. Vincent’s Hospital, where a small army of volunteer doctors, nurses. EMTs, etc were waiting for the expected onslaught of wounded to pour in from downtown. And then…nobody came. The impression you got was that, aside from the over 2,600 dead at the World Trade Center, most everyone else escaped with minor injuries.

The story that later emerged was quite different. It turns out that hundreds of injured people had been rushed to another local hospital, one much closer to Ground Zero. It’s a tiny hospital which most of us, including most New Yorkers have never even heard of: NY Downtown Hospital. This little outpost in lower Manhattan had been created out of the merger of several other small hospitals as a response to the Wall Street anarchist bombing of 1920. On 9-11, the little hospital received an influx of patients greater than any American hospital in history: 350 patients in the first two hours, 1,500 total. Burns, broken bones, lacerations, and lots and lots of eye injuries and breathing problems from the dust. Furthermore, they dealt with all of this with a tiny staff of 10 emergency room doctors.

I watched a terrific show on the Discovery Fit and Health network the other day that told (among many other amazing stories) the miraculous treatment of American Express employee Debbie Mardenfeld (initially known as Jane Doe #1 because she’d been brought to the emergency room without an I.D.). One of the first victims to be brought in, she’d been nearly cut in two by part of the landing gear from one of the planes when it fell on her. The only doctors on duty (or available) that day were a plastic surgeon and a hand specialist. They not only saved the woman, but they restored her legs — and with a blackout interruption in the middle of the 12-hour surgery. (Their names are Dr. Gerald Ginsberg and Dr. Nelson Potwinick). The woman not only lived, but she lived to dance at her wedding. 

Another amazing story: a woman had broken several ribs when the elevator she was riding in fell a couple of stories to the ground, its cables cut by one of the planes as it plowed through the building. She had just been put into an ambulance at one of the triage centers when the South Tower fell. She survived the collapse, but it was now impossible to drive the ambulance out. So she walked the six blocks or so over to Downtown Hospital, broken bones and all. (I retraced her steps a few days ago, and took the photo above. You have to admire her feat. The hospital is close to South Street Seaport).

A few months ago, Downtown Hospital was in serious financial trouble. They’d expanded services in the wake of 9-11, and doubled in size, but couldn’t handle the expansion. Fortunately, unlike St. Vincent’s before it, which went unrescued, Downtown was bailed out by NY Presbyterian and is now part of its constellation of medical centers. But…can you imagine? If it had folded, there would be NO hospital south of 14th Street. To say it has proved its worth is putting it mildly. If we let hospitals fail, where do we go when we need them — the M &Ms store?

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