Bob Swierupski, CBP
It was the loudest bang I ever heard. It wasn’t just a single sound but seemed to reverberate for over a second. Since I was located on the fourth floor of 6 World Trade Center I couldn’t tell what just happened. One of my employees then noticed that some debris had fallen from above right past my window. It was then that my front office employees and I decided that we should evacuate the building even though an alarm had not gone off yet. Since the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center we were always prepared to leave the building whenever we felt threatened by any type of incident.
As I left the office I noticed many other employees from the National Commodity Specialist Division already filling the hallways to go to their evacuation exit. As my group and I were approaching the exit one of my employees said, “I have to go back; I forgot to turn off the coffee pot.” He went back to the office while the rest of us continued to the exit that took us out by Seven World Trade Center. It was then that I noticed large chunks of concrete and pieces of metal in my path. At that point it seemed better to get inside a building than to stay outside. Still not knowing what had happened I went into the lobby of 7 World Trade Center. Within a short period of time, however, the lobby started to fill with people who were trying to evacuate that building. Then there was another loud bang. It was at that point that the relative calmness of everyone evacuating turned into a sense of urgency. The building management of 7 World Trade Center then decided to open the emergency exits to let everyone outside.
I’ll never forget my first sight of what had happened. Standing right near tower one and looking up I saw what appeared to be the outline of a plane right through the side of the building. At that point I wasn’t really sure what to do. I tried to call my headquarters office with my cell phone, but the cell phone didn’t work. As I left the area and started to walk up West Broadway I noticed a medical doctor standing in the doorway of his office looking at the towers. I asked him if could make an emergency call to Washington and he said, “sure, go ahead.” When I reached my supervisor I remember saying, “we have a problem here in New York.” His response was, “you sure do, we’re under attack. Tell your people to try to get home as fast as possible.”
I waited for about 30 minutes, but couldn’t find any of my employees because there were hundreds of people leaving the area. By the time I decided to leave for home, the subways were already shut down so I started walking back to Penn Station. My route took me up West Broadway. That’s where I saw wave after wave of New York City firemen rushing to get to the towers. I never saw so many different types of fire fighting vehicles. There were also many other firemen coming in their own private vehicles to help. Since the sidewalks were full of people leaving the World Trade Center area, I was walking in the street right next to the firemen going directly into the area from which everyone else was evacuating. I could see the fearless intensity in their faces. They were going to put out the fire and save lives.
After walking for almost an hour or so I finally made it to Penn Station. It, too, was shut down. Everyone was just standing outside on 7th and 8th Avenues completely filling the streets. There was no other place to go. Amazingly, I ran into one of my employees who had also just arrived at Penn Station. Since we still didn’t know exactly what happened we decided to enter the Hotel New Yorker to find out what had happened and to call home. The lobby of the hotel had a big screen TV showing live action and replays of what was going on down town. I was stunned to see that tower two had collapsed. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. When I was standing beside the towers when I first left building 6 I thought the worst was over. I never thought that either tower would collapse. All those people, all the firemen, police…..
Since 6 World Trade Center was right under tower one I knew then that we probably lost our building. Did everyone get out? Where will we go? Was everything lost? What will become of our division? I finally got to make a phone call home, but my wife was teaching in school at the time so I just left a message that I was safe but didn’t know when I’d get home.
After leaving the hotel I went back to stand outside of Penn Station and, to my surprise, I heard the rumbling of a subway. I went down the stairs and there was an E train going to Jamaica. I got to Jamaica and was able to get a Long Island Rail Road train going to my station. When I got home around 4 p.m. I immediately put the TV on to see the latest developments. I was shocked; both towers gone, our building destroyed and 7 World Trade Center burning. I kept watching all through the night for any new developments.
The next morning I attended the New York DFO’s recovery meeting at JFK Airport. The first step was to contact all employees who worked at the World Trade Center to make sure everyone evacuated safely. Plans were already underway to explore possible relocation sites. My supervisors did an outstanding job contacting everyone and keeping them informed that plans were underway to find a new location. In days following 9/11, I was “on call” with my headquarters management from 7:00am to 10:00pm to keep them informed of ongoing activities.
Two days after 9/11, around 9:45pm, I received a very unusual phone call from the New York Times. They were calling to find out if I had survived the attack on the World Trade Center. I asked them why, out of all the thousands of people who worked there, would they be calling me? They told me that a lady living in Brooklyn found a Ruling Letter that I had signed in her backyard the day after 9/11. It was singed around the edges and looked official. It appeared that when tower one went down it created such a strong air current that it took the ruling letter over the East River and into Brooklyn. After finding the letter the lady was so upset that she called the Times to report what she found and asked if they could find out if I had survived. She was relieved to hear that I was ok. The story appeared in the Times the next day.
The next several weeks resulted in several amazing accomplishments through the coordinated efforts of various offices in the Customs Service. Through the extraordinary efforts of the NY DFO’s Office, the Office of Information Technology in Headquarters, the Logistics people in Indianapolis and the Office of Finance, our new location at One Penn Plaza was up and running in record time. While our new temporary space initially looked more like a warehouse than an office, it was wired for computer access and stocked with computers, supplies and telephones. All we needed was to have our employees return.
Then came the big day. On October 9th the employees were contacted and told to report to work at One Penn Plaza. While many of my employees were eligible to retire, no one did. They all returned. I’ll never forget the pure joy of seeing everyone again in our temporary conference room. It was one of the happiest days of my near-forty year career. Despite losing all their national commodity files, records and resource materials, the national specialists, their assistants and the staff in the Customs Information Exchange were ready to get back to work to perform their assigned tasks. As true professionals it took very little time before all NCSD tasks, functions and programs were back and running smoothly. We eventually had our office space renovated to accommodate all our needs. I’ll always remember the dedication my employees had to their job and to the Customs Service in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.