In 1975, John Liegel, a young New York City police officer, was directing traffic when a bomb exploded at LaGuardia Airport. In February 1993, just reporting for duty at his post as Port Authority police officer assigned to the World Trade Center complex, he heard the impact of that car bombing. In 1994, he was seriously injured in the Fulton Street subway station explosion. “I was standing by the Millennium Hotel when the bomb went off,” he recalls.
On September 11, John -- a member of U. S. Security Associates and, since July of this year, Director of Security for the Parish of Trinity Church -- would experience terrorism at work for the fourth and most frightening time.
That morning, he had just emerged from the Trade Center (through which he commuted to work each morning) and was standing at the coffee cart nearby on the southwest corner of Liberty Street and Church Street when the first plane smacked into the tower. “My first instinct,” he recalls, “was that they blew up the World Trade Center again. I sensed it was going to be a catastrophic day.”
Running up the block to St. Paul’s Chapel, John’s first objective was to have his colleague, Roy Henry, secure the chapel. “The goal in this kind of disaster scenario,” John says, “is to close and lock all gates and doors immediately and assess the situation. With the chapel almost directly across the street from the Trade Center, I was really worried about how this situation might progress.”
Joined almost instantly by his Deputy Director of Security, Joe Redican, who’d been attending a seminar at nearby Pace University, the two men “stood there gawking,” John recalls wryly, “until we heard a massive explosion and ducked for cover in St. Paul’s.”
Praying that St. Paul's would not fall
Standing inside the magnificent old structure, John and Joe listened in horror as debris began to rain down upon the roof, praying that the church itself wasn’t going to fall.
After several minutes, the men rushed down to the main Trinity Church office building at 74 Trinity Place, just a few doors down from the site of the disaster, “We needed to determine if the evacuation plan had been put into place,” John remembers. “Fortunately, Dominick Lavino [Fire Safety Director, Trinity Church] had already begun to act on the plan.” John learned to his relief that the Trinity PreSchool had already been evacuated to the basement.
“I told Joe,” he says, “that I had to run up to the 6th floor to retrieve my lists with all the Trinity contact phone numbers I knew I was going to need. I’d just closed my office door when I heard a tremendous noise. The building was shaking as if there’d been an earthquake. I didn’t know it yet, but the first tower had just come down.
“I stood there, stunned. When this horrendous rumbling finally stopped, our building immediately filled with smoke.”
Opening the door to the stairwell, John was dismayed to see it obscured in a thick black haze. “Black smoke is truly un-breathable smoke,” he tells us. “I knew that this was not a good sign.” He raced down the stairs to the lobby and saw even worse signs. “Out the front and back doors it was complete darkness. It looked like they’d been painted black. I was really having trouble breathing.”
"There was no hope for us if the second tower fell"
Making his way to the basement, he found the air slightly better. But, as he conferred with Joe, Mike Borrero, Trinity’s Property manager, Dominick Iuliano, Facility Manager, and Frank Lynch, Operations Manager, for a quick assessment of the situation, he really began to feel fear. Breathing deeply, the five concluded that the unthinkable had occurred, that one of the towers had come down. It seemed only a question of time to them before the second tower would also fall. “ ‘How long?’ we wondered. ‘Five minutes? An hour?’ We felt there was no hope for us if the second tower fell; we couldn’t possibly breathe through a second round of this debris and smoke. We knew we needed to get everybody out of the building as fast as we could.”
With two of the men watching both exits for signs of the smoke lifting, the others set about organizing the estimated two-hundred people (a mix of tenants, Trinity staff, and passing strangers) taking shelter in the basement, including numerous preschoolers, for an instant emergency evacuation.
“We got everybody together, single-file, and told whoever was free to take one child and be ready to run when we gave the word. We waited, it seemed like forever, but it was probably six minutes,” says John. “Suddenly, we could see a ray of sunshine just above floor level at the Greenwich Street exit.” He was somehow certain they wouldn’t have more than two to three minutes to race the whole group out and south.
“We gave the word to go as fast as they could and told them to keep running towards Battery Park. I had just made it to Rector Street, a block away, when the second tower collapsed. In the middle of that mushroom cloud of smoke and debris, Michelle Wilson [Trinity’s switchboard operator] and I ducked into a parking garage. We didn’t come out, believe me, until the smoke was gone.
“After that,” John says, “everything is kind of blurry. We realized that all of us had made it out safely. I know the children were taken away on buses… I wound up meeting Frank Lynch and Joe Redican and we sat for a while in Battery Park to breathe and rest.”
Soon after, the three made their way back towards the Trade Center site. It was early afternoon and they needed to assess the damage. “I’d thought that Trinity Church would be okay,” John tells us. “But I really believed that we’d lost St. Paul’s. When I saw it standing, undamaged -- that was an emotional moment for me.”
"I know 80 people who were killed
John stayed in the area, checking on Trinity buildings and personnel, until about 4 pm that day. “When 7 World Trade Center collapsed, we ran east. We’d had enough! I was evacuated by medical tug to Christ Hospital in Jersey City with two scratched corneas that, thank God, have just about healed by now.”
Have any of the other terrorist attacks he witnessed previously come close to matching the WTC disaster?
“No way,” John says with passion. “This was comprehensively awful, absolutely, the only one that’s had a real personal effect on me. I know 80 people who were killed – Port Authority civilians, 37 Port Authority officers, former co-workers, friends, neighbors, a man I commuted in to the city with…
“Maybe,” he continues reflectively, “it was the complete surprise of it. I was shocked to think that the Trade Center would fall down. I was one of those self-described, so-called ‘experts’ who said it couldn’t fall down. I never thought of this scenario.
“But, I suppose,” John Liegel concludes, “I have to be grateful that so many people survived, that our people survived, that Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel survived, too. Whatever I could do to help, I’m glad I was able to do it. It could have turned out so different… In my field, you have to make what you think is the best decision you can make at the time. Looking back, everything worked out I guess as best as it could. We were so lucky that no one was seriously hurt.”