September 2011
August 21, 2011

Ten years later, tragedy still defines us

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Ground Zero, 2004. Photo by Marie Triller.

In recalling the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, many union members noted how the world welcomed and praised the public servants who responded to the attacks, got children home safely and more. The dedication of public employees was heralded by the media and politicians in the days, weeks and months since.

Below, some of the members directly impacted by that day share their stories and note that much has changed. They question why public service workers are now disparaged by media and elected officials, and their hard-won benefits are under attack.

Tell us what you think, especially your views on solutions. Write to us at united@nysutmail .org .

Dorothy McGrew was on a bus coming down 7th Avenue when all traffic stopped.

A UFT paraprofessional in the travel-training program, McGrew was paired with a special education student learning to navigate New York City.

"Soon it was like watching a science fiction movie," she recalled. The streets started filling with people, then smoke, then ash. She had to get the student to safety without the help of buses, taxis or subways. They walked for hours until the student got home. "Then I couldn't get home to New Jersey and thankfully I was able to stay with a co-worker," said McGrew, adding her memories are as clear "as if it was yesterday."

As the nation prepares to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the crash of United Airlines flight 93 in Pennsylvania, many join McGrew in remembering. Barbara Maertz heard the news on her car radio as she was driving to the SUNY Farmingdale campus to set up for a United University Professions membership picnic.

"Our first thought was perhaps we should cancel, but then as we saw students, faculty and administration coming together, we opened it up to everyone. Several of our members, administrators and students had loved ones in the towers. Out of all the horror of that day, it became a beautiful and spiritual thing, being together," Maertz said. AFT President Randi Weingarten was president of the United Federation of Teachers at the time of the attacks. She recalled being in Brooklyn and then spending the rest of the day working out a dismissal plan with administration. She calls the day a miracle because "8,000 children, some as young as 4, some with handicaps, most known to their teachers only a few days, were moved through conditions comparable only to the height of war, without a single child hurt or lost!"

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, NYSUT-represented nurses and health care professionals provided care and counseling to survivors and those working at Ground Zero. UUP member Henry Dondero provided peace of mind to about 600 families. The associate professor of dental hygiene at SUNY Farmingdale worked the morgue with other dentists and technicians helping to identify the deceased.

"I would work the weekends because I didn't have a private practice," Dondero said. He worked every weekend until June.

Anthony Georgakis was among union reservists activated for duty at Ground Zero after the attack. A social studies teacher then, he recalls the intense emotions of being so close to the 16-acre World Trade Center Complex of seven buildings. The attacks laid the massive towers (standing 1,368 and 1,362 feet high) to rubble and dust.

Georgakis, now retired from the Chautauqua Lake TA, said there were many gestures of kindness: people bringing food, care packages and even insoles for the boots of the Guard members living in tents in Battery Park. "One of the nicest things was a fitness center allowed us to use their showers," he said.

"Ten years ago, we felt valued for the job we did," said Roberta Grabler of the UFT. "Public employees are the backbone of this nation. They make this country work; now all we hear is the incorrect information that public pensions are bankrupting states."

A librarian at PS 1 at the time, Grabler remembers how faculty and students watched the tragedy unfold from school windows, how all staff and parents worked together to ease the impact on students when the school was among those too near Ground Zero to reopen for several days. She noted how unions did much to help the healing. The statewide union created a "9/11" fund with a $100,000 donation to provide school supplies to hard-hit areas and help union members who suffered losses. NYSUT members raised an additional $400,000 and every penny was disbursed. "Those were anxious days," Grabler said. "But we all worked together and we all turned to each other for help." Minna Barrett, a psychology professor and Red Cross mental health volunteer, knows about anxious days. In 2001, she was at the Albany airport renting a car to drive back to Long Island.

"We heard about the first attack and it didn't take long for flights to get canceled," said Barrett, a member of UUP at SUNY Old Westbury. By the time her group made it to the Throgs Neck bridge, guards were stationed with machine guns.

There were four pleas for help on her answering machine when she got home from those who knew she could access the missing person system. She went to Manhattan and was immediately enlisted to supervise mental health workers. "They wanted me because I could work nights and still teach class during the day." Barrett never imagined she would remain so involved.

In addition to bereaved children and family members, Barrett provided mental health services to nearly 500 first responders. The damage ranged from the physical (workers with respiratory distress) - to the neurological (patients with memory loss, trouble organizing thoughts) - to the emotional aspects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She still sees about 12 patients regularly and continues to take referrals. PTSD can be extremely difficult to manage and treat as many patients continue to be overwhelmed by what they witnessed and uncomfortable admitting it.

"Sept. 11 was a major event that started with an attack, led to a collapse of two buildings and a recovery effort that took months," she said. Her strategies include getting patients to understand the physiological reasons for the anxiety they experience and to learn self-care techniques to manage distress. Barrett's passion about public education and public service has run deep for almost six decades. She mourns what she sees as a demonizing of public service.

"I see it as dismantling of the public common," she said. "It's hard to understand the choices people make and why so many in this country want to identify with wealth and celebrity rather than with honor and integrity."

For more on Sept. 11

For other remembrances and more in-depth reporting on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, visit www.nysut.org, www.uft.org, www.uupinfo.org and www.psc-cuny.org.

For an online clip of members' work during and after the attacks as well as AFT President Randi Weingarten's recollections, visit http://go.aft.org/911video. The video includes the poignant story of how UFT members Margaret Espinosa and Julia Martinez, both School-Related Professionals, rescued wheelchair- bound students Becky Zeng and Stephanie Sealy.