For many years, Joe Breed, Executive Director of Saint Margaret’s House, Trinity Church’s pioneering housing facility for seniors and the disabled, practiced preparing for disaster assistance with a most unlikely model: imagining that a plane has just crashed into his building or the building next door.
"In the nursing home industry,” he says, “we always used that scenario. I always thought it was completely ridiculous. Couldn’t picture it happening.”
On September 11, Joe was sitting down a few minutes early for a 9 am meeting with structural engineers. He was bracing himself for the home’s five-year physical inspection, a day-long process that is a requirement of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) for all recipients of HUD grants.
“The engineers arrived at 8:45 am, on the 6 am flight out of Boston’s Logan Airport,” Joe recalls. “I was just remarking that they’d arrived early for our meeting and as I was finishing that sentence, a sonic boom shook our building to the core. It sounded like an explosion or a massive truck overturning, like an earthquake.”
Ned Daly, the lead engineer, exclaimed: “Well, that certainly got my attention!” Joe instinctively grabbed his walkie-talkie and made for the door.
Joe, Josephine Chung, St. Margaret’s Director of Maintenance, Housekeeping, and Security, and their guests from Boston all ran outside.
Standing on Fulton Street, looking west towards the Hudson River, “We couldn’t believe our eyes. It was a huge fireball,” Josephine says, “enormous.” “We were astounded by what we saw,” Joe adds. “I radioed to my staff: ‘Call 911! World Trade Tower Number One is on fire!’ I was so astonished, I radioed twice.”
As they stood there, staring in horror, a second explosion blew out the side of Tower Number Two. “We couldn’t see the plane,” Joe remembers, “it was on the other side of the building. But I knew that this was the disaster of disasters. Ned Daly was telling us that Tower Number Two was already listing and might fall. I could see we had one whale of a situation on our hands. Thank God, all that nursing home training kicked in.”
In handling disaster, Joe says, it is essential to keep one’s head. “Control the situation,” he tells us firmly. “You simply cannot allow it to get control of you. Perhaps because we house the elderly and disabled, we’ve always been particularly careful to prepare for trouble as often and in as many ways as we can.”
Communicating by walkie-talkie with those of his staff members who’d been able to make it in to work, he put into action St. Margaret’s well-rehearsed emergency plan. Staff assumed their appointed positions at key elevator banks and intersections in the building to avoid crowding. Fifty-five gallon containers were quickly filled to ensure that the home would have a drinkable water supply. Residents were calmed and a triage center was established to treat anyone who was wounded.
As they were making preparations, just blocks down the street the World Trade Center towers, first one, then the other, collapsed.
“When the first building imploded,” says Joe, “all hell broke loose.” Clouds of black smoke and debris rolled across Fulton Street in what seemed like seconds. St. Margaret’s House was soon engulfed in darkness. Josephine and her assistant, Santo Diaz, quickly mobilized the staff to protect the residents. All air systems and windows were shut immediately.
“People were running,” Joe says, “coughing and choking. As soon as the smoke thinned and I could make out daylight, I put up signs along our Fulton Street railing saying ‘Triage’ and about thirty people came in. We left a hose running on the sidewalk so that anyone who needed it could wash themselves off.”
Covered in ash, many needed their eyes rinsed; there were people with breathing problems, and several ankle and leg injuries. Two doctors and an EMT from NYU Downtown Hospital showed up, in search of patients to treat.
As the day continued, people streamed into the home. National Guardsmen, firemen, police and emergency workers, local downtown Manhattan residents who couldn’t make it home – St. Margaret’s House provided all of these and others with comfort, shelter, and hospitality. The activity wing and library were converted into dorms.
“We even had 20 seniors from an elder hostel visiting the South Street Seaport Museum. Tourists from around the country, they were stranded and couldn’t get home. We ended up hosting them for two nights. But that day, they were put to work flushing toilets and washing floors. They were delighted to help!” Joe Breed says.
At 6 pm that night, the power suddenly failed. For Joe, Josephine, Santo, and the rest of the already-challenged staff – Manny Valerio (maintenance), Carlos Rivera (housekeeping/porter), Angel Vizcarrando and Tak Cheung (porters), Wai Ling (occupancy assistant), and Paul Chin (door security) – a long night and several hard days still lay ahead.
With no phone service, no running water, no electricity until generators restored it partially, and only four days’ supply of food and potable water on hand, the staff worked round the clock to service residents and guests. Organizing a major clean up, maintaining security, keeping the residents comfortable and calm, feeding everyone as best they could, they became exhausted. “By the next day, after working all night, I was on the verge of collapse, “ Josephine says, smiling broadly. “By the third day, I could barely walk!”
Low on milk, at 2 am Thursday morning Joe Breed cycled from downtown Manhattan through deserted streets all the way to 21st Street to sign, in person, at the 13th Precinct for a crucial delivery by a milk truck.
Gradually things returned to a kind of normality. Power was restored on September 13 by the New York City Housing Authority’s generator; by mid-day, Monday the 17th, Con Edison had restored full electricity. Phone service was slowly returned, line by line. And Geri Eckberg and Lisa Salemi, two key staff members who’d been unable to get to work at first, made it in. “It was great to see them,” Josephine tells us. “They were a great help to us. We really needed some fresh faces and energy.”
When those first terrible days were over, Joe Breed and his staff sat back and evaluated their performance.
“We did pretty well, I think,” Joe says. “Having lived through what was certainly the worst disaster in the history of this country, I feel we met the challenge, that we were able to meet the needs of our residents -- and our community. ”