Archive for September 11

Jason Thomas: The Lost Hero of 9/11

Posted in African American Interest, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, 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. 

Marie Roberts: 22 Drawings of “The Pile”

Posted in Coney Island, 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.”

September (Excerpt from a Longer Work in Progress)

Posted in ME with tags on September 11, 2013 by travsd


How little do we dream

on these sere days

when clarity above all seems within our grasp

that the shadows have crept past the noon mark

and that we have entered the twilight month

the dusk of the year.

Just cresting the horizon

a shade creeps toward the river’s mouth

like the tenth plague to take our first born.

Soon the sharp outlines around us will recede into obscuring haze

Mountainous clouds seep across the land,

to make the morning midnight.

Now we see for the first time

that the infinite blue is a veil

And we can never look at it again without remembering

the day the very sky lied to us.

(c) 2003 Travis Stewart

Sept 11 and Indie Theatre: Then and Now

Posted in Indie Theatre with tags , , , on September 11, 2013 by travsd
         3LD Arts & Technology Center, the closest theatre to Ground Zero

Adapted from a 2011 post. 

On September 11, 2001 I was an Affiliated Writing Fellow at American Theatre Magazine. I think I’d already turned in my quota of stories by that point, but when the attack happened I was only too glad to cover its impact for the magazine, and it gave me something to focus on for a couple of weeks, for which I was grateful. American Theatre is a monthly; the story made it into the November issue. As anyone who has tried to submit press releases to that magazine can tell you, even that (two months) is a short turn around on their production schedule. At any rate, that original story is here.

For the tenth anniversary, I decided to devote my column in The Villager/Downtown Express to a revisitation of  downtown theatres, how they rebounded in the decade since the tragedy (many people feared they’d fold), and what they’re up to right now. As bad as things are now in many ways, economically, morally, culturally, all of those theatres are still with us and pretty much doing great. (The only exception I can think of, and I didn’t mention it in the column, is the late lamented Collective: Unconscious, which ostensibly folded for other reasons. See my Village Voice article here.) My September 2011 column is here.
Another repercussion of 9-11 I didn’t mention in these spaces because it encompasses all the arts and not just theatre, is the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space program, but I did write about it on this blog last year. The piece includes some beautiful photographs from the top of 14 Wall Street by my son Cashel, including views of the World Financial Center that I imagine are already a thing of the past, as the fast-rising One World Trade Center now stands in front of them. The blogpost is here.
Lastly, as we all know, the second and ongoing chapter of the September 11 story has been the War on Terror. In July 2004, a year into our war with Iraq, the Republican National Committee decided to hold its convention here and New York’s theatrical community went crazy in reaction. I covered that story in a few places, including this broad-ranging feature in the Village Voiceand this more narrowly focused piece on Reverend Billy’s Ground Zero flash mobs for the libertarian magazine Reason here.

A Memory of the Woolworth Building

Posted in EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME with tags , , on April 24, 2013 by travsd


Today is the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Woolworth Building, which from 1913 through 1930 was the tallest building in the world.

Yes, but is there a vaudeville angle? Dear friends, there’s always a vaudeville angle. Did you know that F.W. Woolworth experimented in vaud, building a theatre over one of his Five and Ten Cent stores in Lancaster, Pennsylvania?

As for the Woolworth Building itself, there’s no vaudeville angle but there’s a me angle.  And it’s really not anything more than a scrap of memory, a connection.

Sometime in 2001, I was working at the New-York Historical Society in the fundraising department (I had not yet switched to public relations). At the time we had an exhibition up about the work of Cass Gilbert, architect of the Woolworth Building. And in that capacity I had the rare privilege to go somewhere few people have gone — the top of the Woolworth Building. I only recall a few of us on the junket: myself, a pair of elderly, eccentric philanthropists, a lady from one of the state or city arts agencies, and our guide, a man who worked for the real estate company that managed the building. And he gave us a very well-informed tour of the building, showing off its Gothic elements, the ornamentation in the lobby, describing its structural peculiarities (it has several owing to the fact that such a large building had never been built before).

But the memory I have of being on that top floor in an empty apartment. It had been used as a dentist office. We had the opportunity to get in because they were between tenants at the moment. But you know the eerie feeling you get in the upper floors of a very tall skyscraper, the constant moaning and crying of the wind, the feeling of isolation and distance from the city so far below, and the slight swaying motion under your feet. Just the handful of us in this remote place, the room empty of furniture. And there was an observation deck we could go out on – -I thought the wind would throw me overboard.

And just across the way, just a couple of blocks distant, but it felt closer, almost close enough to touch, was the sheer metal and glass striped face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I’d never seen it from this perspective — few people ever had. At close to 800 feet, we were at something approaching 2/3 of the way up. Really only helicopters ever saw the building that high that close. Looking southwest it nearly filled one’s field of vision. And while we stood there looking at it for what seemed like hours, we inevitably got on to the subject of the 1993 bombing and the likelihood (really the inevitability) of such a thing happening again.


After September 11 happened a few months later, I thought of that day so many times. I put myself in the shoes of the the people trapped in the North Tower, remembering what that perspective at the top of the building was like. And remembered that conversation with the strange old rich couple that seemed so eerily prescient. I also remember the man telling us about the elevators — the Woolworth Building has very few of them and they’re very narrow, in order to accommodate what for a time was thought of as redundancy in the structural elements. But in light of the collapse of the Twin Towers due their own engineering innovations, the construction of the older building didn’t seem so unwise all of the sudden.

Anyway, this is what I’ll always think of when I think of the Woolworth Building. It was almost as though that moment of time, and that perspective, had taken place in some other dimension. As though we had climbed into some weird dreamspace. Now that it’s only a memory, and that perspective (both physical and temporal) is just a memory, it is natural for it to seem like it was a dream. The weird thing is, it felt like a dream even when it was happening.

The Day I Met Sir Elton

Posted in Rock and Pop with tags , , , on March 25, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of flamboyant glam rock songwriter and performer Sir Elton John (b. Reginald Dwight, 1947). Where to start? Impossible to start. His career sort of coexists timewise with my entire life.

Sir Elton’s career has had at least three major phases.

The first phase was about showmanship and costume and outrageousness and “rumored bisexuality” (that’s as far as anyone would admit in those days). He almost single-handedly revived piano as a rock and roll instrument (it had been a major one in the days of Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis). It’s seldom used as one any more even today, although it has great potential in that direction. (I suppose people associate it too much with the 1950s. Well, re-invent the damn thing, then. That’s what Elton did!)

If you look through his song catalog, it’s almost insane how many popular songs he’s written and performed. In the early years, being a child I didn’t have his LPs, but I did have almost all the major singles on K-Tel and Ronco records and listened to them endlessly: “Rocket Man”, “Crocodile Rock” (1972), “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Bennie and the Jets” (1973), “Philadelphia Freedom”, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, “Island Girl (1975), “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (1976, a duet with Kiki Dee).   I heard his version of “Pinball Wizard” before I ever heard the Who’s, and his version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” before I ever heard the Beatles’. And I did actually have one LP, 1974’s Caribou on a cassette tape I got at a yardsale. This one had the epic “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, and opens with “The Bitch is Back”, the lyrics to which for some reason appalled my parents, who used worse swear words before, during and after their morning cup of coffee.

Then in the mid to late 70s as far as Americans were concerned, though he kept turning out records, he appeared to vanish off the face of the earth. He was to come back in the mid 80s with yet another long string of hits for the MTV age. (His straw boater period, although properly speaking he was much more the vaudevillian during his glam phase).  And then he reinvented himself yet again in the mid 90s by penning musicals for Hollywood and Broadway, as he still does to this day. I’d say he’s earned that knighthood, wouldn’t you? He’s a one man industry.

Ah…but you’re wondering about the title of this post, aren’t you? Very well. This would have been about ten years ago. More than that, actually: 2002. I was p.r. director for the New-York Historical Society which was then doing a rapid-response series of exhibitions related to September 11, which the entire city was still recovering from. And Sir Elton wanted to come see the current one, which had a lot of artifacts from the actual disaster. And neither my boss nor my boss-of-bosses were available to escort him through, so it fell to me. (We blocked it off so he had the place to himself).

The most amazing thing about the experience was that I think I blacked out. Well, one of two things happened, and I’ll never know which of them it was. I was standing near the entrance desk at the top of a small flight stairs in the atrium. I saw them (he was accompanied by Interview magazine’s editor Ingrid Sischy) through the glass doors about to come in. And either they took their time and I spaced out waiting for them, or….I went into shock, which seems more likely, because the next I remember they were standing next to me, waving their hands in front of my vacant stare saying, “Hello?”

And so I took them both through the exhibit and answered their questions. They were both appropriately somber (it was easily less than six months since 9-11, I think). There was really no opportunity for me to do anything but be there for them (as opposed to something inappropriate like cracking jokes, or inviting them to come see my latest vaudeville show). But yes, thanks to the worst thing that ever happened to New York, the hand that is typing this once shook Elton John’s.

And now, a personal favorite of mine, and I don’t care who knows it:

The Amazing Odyssey of Evan Fairbanks

Posted in EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES with tags , on September 11, 2011 by travsd

One thing I have always been fascinated by is the way major historical events have millions of smaller ripples and repercussions on individual people’s lives. Here’s an example. America’s involvement in World War II caused my grandfather to enlist in the Navy. He was stationed at Quonset, Rhode Island and the family remained after the war. And thus my father met my mother. A strange if horrible equation is unavoidable: No Adolf Hitler, no Trav S.D.

I was one of those million of bits of flotsam in the months after September 11, it seemed. I worked at the New-York Historical Society.  On September 13, the controversial decision was to made to collect artifacts from the disaster while they would still be available, and to make an effort to interpret the events for the public. There was a shake-up at the institution, many employees quitting in protest, and when the churning stopped I was suddenly Director of Public Relations. The next few years (2002-2004) saw a series of dozens of exhibitions, lectures, panels and other initiatives related to September 11. My job was to promote them. (Some of the chief people behind the iniative are now working at the new Ground Zero museum).

One day, early on in this process, I learned we would be meeting with this photogapher who had been at the World Trade Center on September 11, and had taken some of the most astounding video of the event. The most astounding aspect to me, however, was that the photographer turned out to be my friend Evan Fairbanks.

I met Evan through my producing friends at Surf Reality. He’d generously taken many amazing publicity photos for us, including this:

(Folks in the photo: Scott Stiffler, Judith George, Loren Kidd, David Jeness, moi, Gilda Konrad. Taken in 1998).

And this, for my production of House of Trash at HERE Arts Center in 2000:

This was taken in the old Piano Store, by the way. In 1999, Evan had even directed a play of mine at Surf Reality. (He also took the picture of Robert Pinnock eating frogs in my book No Applause)

But we hadn’t seen each other in many months by late 2001, so it was a shocker and a jolt when he came back into my life in this new way. By now, I’ve totally internalized his story, I heard him tell it (and watched his video) so many times, so I hope he doesn’t mind if I recount it here from memory. There certainly is copious record of Evan telling it himself on line — so many clips it’s hard to pick one to link to. At any rate, Evan had a video gig at Trinity Church that morning. He was shooting around the pedestrian bridge when he heard the noise — and then (as he and all good photographers are wont to do) headed for the action. I have a copy of the original raw footage sans audio (it was lost in a hasty dub). For the next 45 minutes or so you are with Evan in compressed/ real time as he approaches the base of the towers, shoots falling debris, captures a bunch of scared looking firemen heading into the towers, witnesses the second plane hit the South Tower from directly below, flees around the corner, is nabbed by some cops, is interred for a time INSIDE the World Trade Center by Port Authority cops and FBI, exits the center escorted by a cop, sees the South Tower fall from across the street, and dives under an SUV before the image is engulfed in darkness.

I don’t know if the full video is available for public consumption anywhere, but certainly sections are. Here’s Evan talking you through it on the History Channel:



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