Twenty years later, New York remembers the first World Trade Center attack: ‘That people haven’t forgotten gives you a light of hope’

By Dareh Gregorian New York Daily News

It was the World Trade Center attack almost no one talks about anymore. Twenty years ago this Tuesday, a 1,500-pound car bomb exploded in an underground parking garage at the twin towers, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000.

At the time, it was the most devastating terrorist attack in the U.S. — but the shock and horror would be completely eclipsed by the death and devastation of September 11, 2001.

Yet Edward Smith cannot forget that cold and snowy February day, which will be remembered on Tuesday with a service at the 9/11 Memorial. He has his own way of marking the passage of 20 years.

“My son would have been starting college,” Smith, now 50, said.

Smith’s wife, Monica, was 35 and seven months pregnant with the boy they’d planned on naming Eddie when the bomb exploded near her Port Authority operations office at 12:18 p.m.

Edward Smith was in Boston for work and heard a report that there was a fire at the twin towers.

“I called their emergency line, and nobody picked up the phone. I called the police substation, and they didn’t pick up the phone,” he said.

He had no doubt his wife of three years was there.

“It was the only place she’d ever worked. She’d just gotten an award for having gone 11 years without missing a day,” he said.

He rushed to New York to search for her, but nobody knew where she was. A little after midnight, he called the city morgue.

“They told me I should come in,” he said.

The Seaford, L.I., man remained in New York long enough to see his wife’s killers sent to federal prison. Then he headed west to try to cope with the loss of “the most phenomenal person” he’d ever met.

“She was the embodiment of the American Dream,” he said. She’d immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador with her family as a teen, went to college and landed a job straight away at the Port Authority.

Smith met her at the World Trade Center while making sales calls there.

The couple had moved into his childhood home in Seaford and were renovating it to prepare for the arrival of their baby.

“Everything changed in a split second,” he said. “It makes you aware that you never know what the next day is going to bring.”

He lives in Arizona now, but comes back to New York every Feb. 26 to pay his respects to Monica, Eddie, and the five men who lost their lives: Robert Kirkpatrick, Wilfredo Mercado, Stephen Knapp, William Macko and John Di Giovanni.

“It’s a very reflective and and a very sad time,” he said. “As the years go by, it’s just different. You lose the initial anger and try to represent the people who passed away as best you can.”

“That people haven’t forgotten gives you a light of hope,” he said.

Lawrence Bernhardt was only 5 that day, but he cannot forget.

He was on a field trip with a dozen classmates from Public School 95 in Brooklyn, riding one of the Trade Center’s high-speed elevators when it suddenly stopped and everything went black.

“Nobody knew what was going on. People were just panicking,” he said.

The panic got worse as the hours dragged on.

“Parents and teachers in the elevator were trying to calm us down, singing songs and saying prayers,” he said.

Somebody tried to open the elevator door, and it flooded the car with smoke. It started getting hotter and hotter inside.

“Some people thought we were going to die,” Bernhardt said. Several of his classmates threw up from the smoke and fear, but he felt safer than most, because his mother Debbie was in there with him. She’d come along as a chaperone.

“It was definitely more comforting to have my mom there,” he said. After about seven agonizing hours, a firefighter pulled open the ceiling of the elevator and started pulling people out.

Everyone inside discovered they were covered in soot — a sight that would be seen again eight years later.

The experience gave Bernhardt nightmares for years.

“It affected me socially a bit. I wasn’t able to sleep over at people’s houses,” he said.

Now a 25-year-old exterminator, he didn’t go into another elevator again until he was teenager.

“I still try to avoid them however often I can,” he said.

Bobby Egbert had been a Port Authority police officer for seven years and couldn’t believe what he was seeing when he went into the basement of the WTC the day after the attack.

“I was absolutely stunned when I first saw the crater,” he said, referring to the 100-foot hole blasted through several floors of the garage.

“The magnitude of the damage was unbelievable,” he said. “It was like Dante’s ‘Inferno.’

“I was with a Marine who’d served in Beirut, and he said he’d never seen this kind of destruction,” Egbert said.

Investigators at the massive crime scene were able to find a key piece of evidence in the rubble — a vehicle identification number for the rental truck the terrorists had used to get the bomb in the garage.

They were eventually able to use it to track down the Islamic fundamentalist who’d rented the truck, and arrested him when he tried to get his $400 deposit back from the rental car company.

The bombing led to massive changes in security procedures around the country, just as the 2001 attack on the twin towers would do.

It also led to revamped evacuation procedures at the World Trade Center, which helped save thousands of lives on 9/11.

“You can’t talk about 1993 without 2001, and you can’t talk about 2001 without 1993,” Egbert said. “They’re joined together.”

Among the things destroyed in the 1993 attack was the Port Authority police station, which would be destroyed again in 2001.

“They knock it down; we rebuild,” Egbert said. “We don’t give up.”

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