9/11 20 years later: Elected officials recount reactions on dark day

Amsterdam firefighter Chris Fernandez tolls a fire bell at the base of the World Trade Center memorial in Riverlink Park in Amsterdam Sept. 11, 2020
Amsterdam firefighter Chris Fernandez tolls a fire bell at the base of the World Trade Center memorial in Riverlink Park in Amsterdam Sept. 11, 2020

Not long after heading into the office on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Schenectady Mayor Al Jurczynski heard the news. A plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York City.

“Initially when I heard that, I figured it was a small Piper Cub or something like it,” said Jurczynski, who was one year into his second four-year term as mayor of the city. “We dragged in a television from somewhere into my office and turned it on. It wasn’t a little Piper Cub. Something much bigger had flown into the Twin Towers. Things were unfolding, and we quickly realized that this was something really serious.”

The terrorist attack on 9/11, 20 years ago on Saturday, was a shock to all Americans, reminding many of the horror they felt when President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas on Nov. 23, 1963. Jurczynski counts himself among those who can recall the JFK assassination, while for those a few years older, seeing the Twin Towers collapse must have also evoked memories of Dec. 7, 1941, and the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor.

Rotterdam’s Angelo Santabarbara, New York’s Democratic Assemblyman for the 110th district, wasn’t around in 1941 or 1963, but he is a student of history, particularly military history.

“I joined the military right outside of high school, so I have a military background and I know Pearl Harbor has been brought up several times in the context of talking about 9/11,” said Santabarbara, who spent eight years in the U.S. Army Reserve after graduating from Schalmont in 1990. “Pearl Harbor defined a generation, and I think 9/11 has shaped how we live our lives today. The comparison between the two is something people are always going to talk about.”

By Sept. 11, 2001, Santabarbara had completed his four-year science degree at the University at Albany and was working for Cobleskill-based Lamont Engineers in pursuit of his civil engineering license.

“We were doing a job at GE, and when I walked into our field office there was nothing going on,” remembered Santabarbara. “It was usually quite a chaotic construction site, but that morning everyone was watching television and no one was making a sound. My father had called me on my way to work so I knew something was going on. But that scene was something. It’s impossible to describe. It just hit you. Something was terribly wrong.”

State Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, from the 49th District, was in the state Assembly in 2001, and remembers what a beautiful early September day it was in the Capital Region.

“There was an incredible blue sky that morning, but tragically that beautiful day, weather-wise, became one of the saddest days to have ever befallen our country,” Tedisco said. “I had the television on that morning before going to the office, and after the first tower was hit I thought, ‘How could an accident like that have happened?’ I saw the second plane hit the tower and I knew this was no accident, but an attack on our country.”

Gary McCarthy, currently Schenectady’s mayor, was working as an investigator for the county District Attorney’s Office on 9/11.

“I was on my way to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to interview a prisoner in the correctional facility down there, and when we left Schenectady we knew a plane had hit the tower,” remembered McCarthy. “We just thought it was a Piper Cub or a small jet. On the way down we were picking up bits and pieces of the story on the radio, and by the time we reached Binghamton we got the word to turn around and head back to Schenectady. Everything had stopped. That’s when we realized the magnitude of what had happened.”

Phil Steck, D-Colonie, a member of the state Assembly representing the 110th District, was a member of the Albany County Legislature at the time. He was sitting in his law office at 39 North Pearl St. in downtown Albany when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

“I was working on a legal matter, and one of our associates had the television on so we started watching it,” said Steck. “Obviously it was shocking, and I was just astounded that something like that could happen. Given our immense military power and all of our intelligence services, I couldn’t believe that terrorists could actually accomplish something like this.”

Steck didn’t know anyone who was killed on 9/11.

“We had some family friends who lived on 123rd and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan who had to flee the area, so I felt a little connected to it,” said Steck. “And then another connection was that one of the planes left Boston and flew toward Albany, and then straight down the Hudson River. Watching all that occurred that day was just shocking. We were under attack, and not just by one plane. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening.”

Back at the mayor’s office inside Schenectady’s City Hall, things started happening. Not long after the second plane had hit the other tower, Jurczynski got a phone call from Schenectady Fire Department Chief Robert Farstad.

“He told me how he had volunteers lined up and a fire rig ready to go,” remembered Jurczynski. “He said, ‘I’ll send them down there. All we need is your OK.’ I thought about it for two seconds and said, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ ”

Firefighter Michael Della Rocco led a contingent of Schenectady’s first responders that made a special trip to New York City that day. Della Rocco was a lieutenant with the department and would later become president of the union.

More Remembrances: We remember; The Daily Gazette’s special Sept. 11 anniversary section 

“I can remember Mike coming back and describing to me just how unbelievable it was,” said Jurczynski. “He told me to imagine standing on the corner of State and Erie and looking down toward the GE sign. Imagine all that, everything in that area just being reduced to a big pile of rubble. That was an image that really stuck with me. Those guys that volunteered to go down there were wonderful, and Bob and Mike both deserve a lot of credit. Bob called me up and laid it out for me, and then Mike was the guy in charge for us down there.”

From the rubble of the Twin Towers in New York City and the other two tragedies that day involving the crashes of hijacked airliners — United Airlines Flight 93 in Somerset, Pennsylvania and American Airlines Flight 77 at the Pentagon — America began to heal itself.

“One of the proudest moments I’ve ever seen was when General Electric draped those huge American flags on two of their buildings,” remembered Santabarbara. “The terrorist attack brought us to our knees but we stood tall. America showed some true courage the days after 9/11, and people came together. Nothing will take away the pain, but we come together each year to remember and to honor the men and women who died, and to honor all the firefighters and police officers and the bravery and patriotism they showed us that day. It all reminded us never to take anything for granted.”

For a while, anyway, America came out of the horror of 9/11 as one, united country.

“We had deep sadness for the thousands who lost their lives and the grief for their loved ones, anger at the terrorists who did this, and then resolve to be strong and united against those who meant us harm,” said Tedisco. “The one positive thing that came out of that terrible experience for our country was that we were very united as Americans after 9/11, and I hope we can find a way to recapture some of that spirit again.”

Albany County native Elise Stefanik, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the 21st District, and Paul Tonko of Amsterdam, the Congressman from New York’s 20th District, both shared with The Gazette their feelings about 9/11 via email.

Stefanik was in high school at the Albany Academy for Girls on 9/11, while Tonko was a member of the New York State Assembly.

“I remember the tears of my classmates trying to call family members who worked in the World Trade Center, but I also remember the true acts of heroism in the midst of that horrifying day,” said Stefanik, who in 2014 became the youngest woman ever — at age 30 — to win election to Congress. “First responders rushed to save fellow Americans.

New Yorkers helped strangers find a way home. Twenty years ago, Americans touted their patriotism for the world to see and rallied around our troops, who willingly went into harm’s way to serve our country in the face of these terrorist attacks.”

Like Stefanik, Tonko recalled the work of the first responders.

“The devastating loss of lives and property numbed my senses,” he said. “I will never — can never — forget that darkest of days in our nation’s history. Yet from that darkness, our first responders, firefighters and police officers answered the call in an unimaginable way, rushing into danger to save friends, neighbors and strangers. In our hour of greatest need, their bravery gave us the light of hope, reminding us to keep our faith in one another and showed us who we really are. We will never forget them or the gift of their sacrifice.”

More Remembrances: We remember; The Daily Gazette’s special Sept. 11 anniversary section 

Categories: 9/11 20 Years Later, Life and Arts, News

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