Survivors of first WTC attack recall that terrible day 20 years ago

By Steve Strunsky The Star-Ledger

NEW YORK — John Murphy was a Port Authority Police sergeant working in Jersey City on February 26, 1993, when an officer at the World Trade Center PATH Station reported what he thought was a collapse in the complex beneath the North Tower.

Murphy, who lives in Hillsdale, raced across the Hudson River with a PAPD emergency services unit and headed underground.

“It was dense smoke, electricity out, darkness and smoke,” recalled Murphy, who thought it must have been a transformer explosion. “I remember that there was an ATF officer there who stated there were some nitrates in the air. And that’s when we knew it was a bomb.”

Murphy, now a 55-year-old PAPD lieutenant assigned to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, was remembering the first terror attack on the World Trade Center 20 years ago today. The truck bomb killed six people and injured more than 1,000 others.

“That was obviously my worst day on the job,” he said. “Until 9/11.”

As devastating as the 1993 attack was, its memory has been largely eclipsed by 9/11, which killed nearly 3,000 people, destroyed the Twin Towers and surrounding buildings, and shattered many Americans’ feelings of security at home.

September 11 wiped out the memory of the earlier attack even in a literal sense, destroying a granite fountain erected in memory of the six victims when the towers collapsed with pulverizing force.

There are also increasingly few members of the Port Authority “family,” as many refer to it, who are still with the agency after having experienced the 1993 attack firsthand. Many have left the agency. And of course, 87 Port Authority employees were killed on 9/11, including 50 civilian workers and 37 police officers, plus a 38th officer who died later from his injuries.

“I’m probably one of the only officers left who was stationed at the trade center,” said PAPD Detective Richard Paul, 57, of Staten Island, a patrolman at the time who now works with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.

To preserve the memory of the event, the Port Authority will hold a 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Lower Manhattan, followed by an agency-wide moment of silence at 12:18 p.m., the time of the explosion, and a reading of the victims’ names.

The six people killed included four Port Authority employees: Robert Kirkpatrick, 61, of Suffern, N.Y.; Stephen Knapp, 48, of Staten Island; Bill Macko, 57, of Bayonne; and Monica Smith, 35, of Seaford, N.Y., who was pregnant and scheduled to start maternity leave the next day. The two others were John DiGiovanni, 45, a dental products salesman from Valley Stream, N.Y., and Wilfredo Mercado, 37, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who worked at Windows on the World.

Their names are included on the bronze parapets of the National September 11 Memorial with those of the 9/11 victims. But a plaque to be presented during today’s Mass will be mounted at the bi-state agency’s new headquarters at 4 World Trade Center, as a distinct reminder of the event.

“It was the first attack on American soil anywhere by terrorists,” Paul noted.

Six Islamic fundamentalists were convicted in the attack, including mastermind Ramzi Yousef, who was sentenced to life in prison.

The explosion blew a hole in the underground parking garage several levels deep. Alan Reiss, the Port Authority’s World Trade Center director at the time, had finished lunch and just gotten off the elevator outside his office on Level B2 of the North Tower — the level the truck was parked on — and some of those killed were Reiss’ colleagues down the hall.

“I was walking into the office, and while the doors were still open, the bomb went off behind me,” recalled Reiss, 60. “The floor shook, and there was just a tremendously loud noise. And as an engineer, everything went through my mind as to the possibilities, and it wasn’t a transformer. And as I said, ‘It’s a bomb,’ a piece of steel flew behind my rear end. A big piece of steel. We’re talking thousands of pounds.”

Reiss told his staff to get out, then headed toward the building’s operations center one floor up. What he encountered, however, was “a horizontal tornado of smoke and fire” billowing up an elevator shaft into the building’s upper reaches.

Reiss made his way outside, where he met firefighters who asked him for building plans to help combat the blaze and to evacuate the tower. Almost immediately, he and colleagues began work shoring up the foundation of a neighboring hotel. Later, Reiss would have other, less technical responsibilities.

“I had to go to the medical examiner’s office and sign for some of the effects of the victims,” he said. “It’s not what they teach you in engineering school.”

Reiss plans to attend today’s Mass with Port Authority colleagues, as he has every year since the attack.

“We’re a family,” he said.

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