This essay, published on Tuesday, September 11, 2018, is exclusive to Notablog.
ANTHONY SCHIRRIPA, ARCHITECT
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
Photograph by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
On September 12, 2011,
The New York Times
published an essay, "Then
I Heard a Pop" (page BU8), in which architect
Anthony Schirripa gave
his recollections to Patricia R. Olsen of the nightmarish events that had
engulfed New York City ten years before. Some of the material herein is referenced from that essay, but most of
reflections below have emerged from my interview with him for this year's installment of my
annual WTC remembrance series.
The Brooklyn-born Anthony Schirippa (or Tony as he likes to be called) spoke of his young ambition to become an architect. Tony had attended Our Lady of Grace elementary school. It was his father, owner of a small construction company, who had encouraged him to take the test for Brooklyn Technical High School, which had an outstanding architecture program. During the summers, he worked as a bricklayer's helper for his father's company. After high school, he moved on to Staten Island Community College before transferring to Texas A&M University, where he earned a bachelor's degree of science in building construction and a bachelor's degree in environmental design, graduating from the College of Architecture in 1973. He is currently a Registered Architect in New York State, Nationally Certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) and also licensed in twenty other states.
Tony worked for four years at William B. Tabler Architects, which specialized in the design of hotels, and later at Gibbs & Hill, which specialized in the design of nuclear power plants. For fifteen years, he worked for Gensler, where he became a Vice President. During this period, one of his most important projects was the design of the Goldman Sachs building (at 85 Broad Street), a half-million square foot project, with its trend-setting indirect lighting providing a distinct ambiance for their trading floors. By 1995, Tony joined Mancini Duffy. He became a partner of the firm, which was located on the 21st and 22nd floors of the South Tower (2 World Trade Center). Later, he became the firm's C.E.O. and chairman.
One thing cannot be denied: Through all of life's ups and downs, Tony has been blessed with a loving, extended family. He is married with two sons, one of whom is married with three children. He has one sister, whose three children were all married, providing her with eight grandchildren. Sadly, she lost her son in May 2017 and one of her grandsons in March 2018. Tony's wife has one sister with no children. He and his family live in East Northport, Long Island.
Tony remembers that on that clear, sunny, late summer morning of September 11, 2001---a Tuesday morning, like today---he had arrived at his office at around 8:30 a.m. He went up to the 21st floor of the South Tower. He was at his desk, listening to his voice mail messages. He glanced out the window and was watching a person walking on the plaza toward the North Tower. Suddenly, he saw that same person running to his right, away from the Tower and almost instantaneously he "heard a pop." He looked up at the North Tower and saw flames shooting upward, toward the top of the building. He thought for sure that some explosion had occurred from within the building. Perhaps it was "an emergency generator [that] had exploded in a test." He smelled what he thought was diesel fuel; it was only later that he realized it was the smell of jet fuel.
It was a good thing that Tony never heard the initial Port Authority advice to South Tower occupants to stay in place, in their offices, where it would be safer, given the amount of debris coming down from the North Tower. He only heard those announcements after he'd gotten to the lobby. Instead, he acted decisively; he told his entire staff to immediately evacuate the firm's floors within five to ten minutes after the first plane hit the North Tower. "All of the members of my firm took the stairs. I left last from my office on the 21st floor to make sure everyone was out and one of my partners, Dave Hannaford, did the same thing on the 22nd floor. Dave was in front of me heading to the stairs..."
Suddenly, Tony paused. He was reminded of the recollections of one of his partners who had lived through the February 26th 1993 truck bombing in the parking garage of the North Tower. Apparently, "in the aftermath [of that first terrorist attack], many personal belongings were taken from the offices." So Tony decided to go back and lock the doors to guard against theft of his staff's personal items. He decided to take the elevator to the ground floor, figuring "that if something was wrong in our building the elevators would be recalled to the lobby and not respond to my call. The elevator stopped at my floor," Tony said, "and I went down." The swiftness with which he acted was remarkable. Indeed, as he observed: "I'm lucky I made it out."
He "was already in the street, on Broadway," and recognized a handful of people from the firm. He told them to get home safely, reassuring them that they would regroup as soon as possible. Because of his swift decision making, all of his employees had made it out of the South Tower, literally one minute before Port Authority officials told occupants to evacuate both Towers---and only two minutes before the South Tower was struck by a second incoming plane that sliced through the 77th and 85th floors of the building.
It was 9:03 a.m. Tony heard the explosion and felt the intensity of the flames, now engulfing both towers. Lots of people were in the street, horrified, looking up at the buildings. It must have been hard to comprehend how awful the conditions were inside each of these iconic New York skyscrapers. When Tony glanced upward, he could see people falling out of the upper floors. Could it be that the conditions were so awful that some human beings had made conscious decisions to jump, rather than to be incinerated inside by two towering infernos?
After about 40-45 minutes, Tony started to make his way back to the garage where his car was parked, about 2 blocks south of the South Tower. Tony observed the large hole in the building and that "columns were missing on the building perimeter" and he soon "realized the tower might collapse." En route to the garage, he saw the south face of the South Tower and the hole in the building. It appeared to him as if the top portion of the building might topple; he thought he should get into his car and drive away as quickly as he could. But this was not to be. "When I heard the sound of the collapsing building, I thought that the top of the building was falling toward me. So I took cover next to a masonry wall and column of that garage hoping that I could survive the building coming down on top of the building I was in. I did not realize until later in the day that the building essentially collapsed in-place. I was immediately enveloped in a dust cloud, eventually making my way out of the garage with others who were also there. We could not see very far ahead of us."
They all moved toward a bright light that turned out to be an adjacent
health club. As they approached, the people inside opened the door and took
them in. While in that building, Tony finally saw TV news reports that
confirmed that two jet planes had crashed into each of the Twin Towers. He
saw a video replay of what he had just experienced: the collapse of the
At this point, Tony knew that the North Tower could collapse in the same fashion at any moment. "I wanted to get as far away as I could. The dust was very thick," he recalled, as an acrid burning smell permeated the air. So thick was the dust---a pulverized mixture of cement, glass, metals, burnt plastic, asbestos, and human ash---that it was "hard to see where I was." In fact, Tony was completely turned around. As "the debris in the street was getting thicker," he realized he was walking toward the disaster, rather than away from it. He quickly reversed course and got to Water Street, just as the North Tower began its horrific descent.
Tony made his way to the South Street Seaport, where he met someone he knew from an engineering firm JB&B located in downtown Manhattan. The man confirmed that both buildings had collapsed; they were far enough away that the only debris seemed to be airborne dust.
He got to the Brooklyn Bridge, thinking he'd join thousands of others who walked across that historic span, seeking to escape the devastation in downtown Manhattan. A police officer advised him that the Long Island Railroad and all mass transit was shut down. So Tony decided to turn around. "I then started to make my way to my son's apartment in Manhattan." His son had just started law school and lived on 11th street off of 5th Avenue. He arrived at the apartment, his clothes virtually bathed in dust, took a shower, and spent that night and the next morning in Manhattan. He and his partners organized a conference call; they were deeply committed to do all that was necessary to rebuild the firm. After conferring with his colleagues, Tony finally left his son's apartment, went to Penn Station and took the railroad trip back to his home in East Northport, Long Island.
The damage to his firm was irreparable; in the end, the South Tower collapse obliterated everything that the company owned. And yet, with diligence, within a week, the firm's founding partner, Ralph Mancini, was able to secure temporary space on Park Avenue with the assistance of J. P. Morgan. Eventually, the company moved to midtown Manhattan and "set up a more robust back-up and recovery for our I.T. operations."
He also expressed his appreciation to the construction managers who took on the clean-up of the original WTC site, which was accomplished nine months ahead of schedule.
Today, Tony looks back on these seventeen years and thinks that the site, once known as Ground Zero, "has been brought back to life and [that] the area has become a vibrant part of our city again." He was fortunate enough to "have visited the memorial and the museum." For Tony, it was a deeply "emotional visit." He thinks that the memorial and the museum were not just well designed, but "a powerful tribute to those who lost their lives," providing "a somber and sober commemoration of the World Trade Center buildings lost, the people, and the heroic response of the FDNY and the NYPD at the time of the attack."
Tony has not yet been inside the new building designated as "One World Trade Center." But he has been "well informed about its design and of all the safety systems and construction methodologies designed and built to ensure the safety of the occupants" in the event of another catastrophe. He is so impressed by the construction of the new buildings at the site and hopes that all skyscrapers will be built with similar care in the future.
Tony concluded our interview with a palpable sense of vulnerability: "I will certainly never forget the events of that day---ever. I fear that a similar terrorist attack may happen again despite the valiant efforts of law enforcement. I am afraid that we will have to get used to a life of heightened security in all aspects of our daily life."
There is healing in remembrance---which is why I am honored to have provided this space, since September 11, 2001, to telling the stories of those who survived. And I wilI continue to do so, as long as I am alive. I am grateful to Tony for his account of the events of that day. It is a testament to the resiliency of those who have lived---and who will never succumb to an existence defined by acts of brutality.
Tony Schirripa (far right) with family.
Tony Schirripa (center) with family.
(Photos courtesy of Tony Schirripa.)