Memories of the WTC Before and After 9/11


This is a guest post by James Fisher, a professor of theology and American Studies at Fordham University and the author of On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York. He is Care2 blogger Kristina Chew’s husband.

The Port Was Their Place

On August 16, 2011, I experienced my first and only glimpse of the Statue of Liberty from the magnificent vantage point of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s 88th floor executive offices in the World Trade Center’s North Tower. I had just ascended from a tour of the complex’s six subbasements and its famous foundation-level “inverted bathtub” design with Frank De Martini — the WTC’s construction manager and a devoted curator of the complex’s history and architecture — and my friend Angus Gillespie, author of the finest study available of the WTC’s origins and development.

Only weeks earlier I had returned to New Jersey with Kristina and Charlie after seven years in the Midwest. The first course I was to teach that autumn at St. Peter’s College — just across the Harbor from the WTC in Jersey City — focused on the history and culture of the Port of New York and New Jersey, news that both bemused and heartened Frank and executives of the bi-state agency who shared their time with Angus and me on that sultry August afternoon.

It was clear these folks loved the Port and its history and lore: it was their special place and they tended this privilege with an affection that belied the Port Authority’s reputation as an opaque, inaccessible agency beholden to political interests on both sides of the Harbor and unresponsive to public concerns. As far back as the 1940s, according to the agency’s historian, executive director Austin J. Tobin was deeply “touched by the romance of the harbor,” a sentiment he nurtured and conveyed to his staff. As I discovered in my own research, Tobin had exerted his quiet clout in autumn 1953 to enable Elia Kazan and crew to shoot the 1954 movie On the Waterfront on Port Authority-owned piers in Hoboken, after the filmmakers were informed their lives were at risk should they persist in their initial plans to shoot the picture on Manhattan’s West Side.

The classic film On the Waterfront (1954) depicted the Port at in all its violence and glorious beauty. The heroism it depicted was renewed—in all too real life–on September 11, 2001, when Frank De Martini and dozens of Port Authority executives, policemen, and other personnel were killed; many — like Frank — while ushering others to safety.

The following day, I was among hundreds who reached the site to bring relief supplies to rescue workers via police vessel. It was a terribly hopeless feeling. I’ll never forget the ride back across the Harbor, and the look on the faces of two Jersey City cops who sized me up before pointing at my lower legs: covered to the knees with ashes.

In the days and weeks that followed, the spirit of the Port was incarnated in stories of firemen and cops and brokers who shared a historic link to the Harbor and waterfront, often through the memory of longshoremen ancestors who had worked the piers of the West Side at a time when the Port was the great metropolis’s most special place.

The World Trade Center was designed by officials at the Port Authority as a hub for productive maritime-related commerce in the world’s greatest harbor and around the world. Austin J. Tobin, grandson of a Brooklyn longshoreman, had struggled for decades—almost entirely behind the scenes—to overcome the organized and less-organized criminality that had plagued life in and around the port since the late nineteenth century.

With the advent of the Port Authority-backed Waterfront Commission in 1953, control over hiring in the Port was shifted from mob-controlled piers to the new agency’s hiring information centers. But by the time the World Trade Center was opened in the early 1970s, container technology had rendered the piers of Manhattan’s West Side obsolete: the epicenter of the Port shifted to container facilities at Newark and Elizabeth in New Jersey.

The Twin Towers were like thousand-foot vertical piers, soaring up and away from the often violent, yet deeply compelling history of the sea-level docks of the West Side. The Port Authority’s insistence that the Twin Towers site be moved from its originally planned location on the East Side to the West linked the project to the agency’s recently acquired Port Authority Trans Hudson (formerly the Hudson and Manhattan railroad “tubes;” now PATH) light-rail connections to New Jersey. The move affirmed the agency’s self-identity as a kind of third state in the region, coordinating transportation and infrastructure improvements within a twenty-five mile radius from the Statue of Liberty.

The Trade Center struggled in its early days; the diversification of its tenant base in later years saved the complex while shifting its focus from maritime trade. Yet at is heart it remained a monument to this special place, the Port of New York and New Jersey, and the special people who made it great and whom we will never forget.


Go here for Care2′s 9/11 coverage.


Related Care2 Coverage

Growing Up in a Post-9/11 World (Video)

The Challenge Of Teaching 9/11

Remembering Our Heroes’ Sacrifice

My Time At Ground Zero: A Forensic Scientist Tells His Story

I Remember The Silence

Eleven 9/11 Memorials in New Jersey: We Never Forget

Photo by Gavin Costello from Wikimedia Commons

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Thomas P.
Thomas Price3 years ago

its been a decade see what toronto could do.the toronto trials on 9/11 on tube no media confusing lies

Thomas P.
Thomas Price3 years ago

its been a decade see what toronto could do.the toronto trials on 9/11 on tube no media confusing lies

Sonny Honrado
Sonny Honrado3 years ago


surjit k.
surjit k.4 years ago

Ameer T. Good try. More muslims are killed by muslims in the countries where Americans and allied forces are at war , and else where. Who is killing muslims in Syria, Egypt at this moment ?

David L.
David Laing4 years ago

The website of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth is:

Gloria W.
Gloria W.4 years ago


Sonya Armenia Redfield


Ameer T.
Ameer T.4 years ago

True this was a devastating event. I won't implicate some particular group responsible for it either. But once let us take a moment to consider something that may be bigger and better than all of us. Americans and peoples from all nationalities died on that fateful day, so the grief should rightly be shared by the entire world and the loss should be considered global, not just American. But even if someone did not lose a friend or relative in the 9/11 attacks, we are all connected through the bond of humanity. And therefore there is where my appeal lies.

America started a war in three countries as a direct consequence of the 9/11 attacks. in ten years How many people do you think were bombed, attacked, arrested, shot, harrassed, murdered, raped, orphaned, widowed, threatened, robbed and killed? i dont think a true figure would ever be reached. but it would be safe to say they were in the millions.

They couldn't all be terrorists. thats common sense. But what they were and are, are our brethren humans. They feel pain as much as you, they love their families as much as you, they love liberty as much as you, they are in a sense just like you.

How many of them would need to continue to die as a consequence of war? how many children should continue to wait for their father or mother to come back, or widows for their spouses.

America has set a bad precedant when it was in power. Would you like some super power of the future to come bomb your house & family to oblivi

Ameer T.
Ameer T.4 years ago

Sure Everyone is having fun now because the war is taking place elsewhere. some place far off from where the cries of children and widowed women, the shrieks of raped girls, the wimpers of kidnapped orphaned children to be sold as sex slaves in the meat markets of Europe and US and indeed the world dont reach your ears.

The bombs are raging on over some desert dwelling, barefoot, naked, illiterate, half civilised people. All the better if the war is far off and not near home. At least your family, loved ones & your children and pets are safe.

So who cares right? even if you lose a bit of sleep over it when you get down to thinking sometime, you are reminded that these muslims are a plague and a threat to everything good and civilised. If left unchecked they may bring the world back to the dark ages. they are barbaric and so they should be killed without remorse, without pity, without consequence. Or perhaps you may think that the world is over populated and this killing will set the clock back a bit.

But Powers have risen and fallen throughout history. America has risen now and seems it is set to fall already with the crises it has run itself into. Consider that another nation rises to power, maybe even muslims and they find similar reasons such as yours to come and bomb you back to oblivion and similarly be deaf, dumb and blind to the pleas and cries of your loved ones. Is that the future you want to see for your children? Coz thats the standard you have set.

Sandy Hetherington

@Jack W For goodness sake Jack..Look at the evidence! I've been studying the 9/11 disaster for 10 years. I don't just believe what I'm told! You can't dispute the facts Jack! 1500 engineers and architects say that what we were told in the "official" explanation is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE! Never in history has a building come down like that from a plane hitting it. Those towers were built to handle just such a situation. Jet fuel can't burn at the temperature needed to melt steel. Nanothermite was found at the scene! I could go on, but maybe you should look up some of this stuff yourself. You could start with and let the EXPERTS explain some things to you! Mind'll have to pull your head out of the sand to listen and learn. There are some very bad people out there and a few of them got into power in your country.