Crisp, cool, and cloudless is how Cliff Rosenthal recalls the start of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. “It was a day you couldn’t help but feel good in New York,” he says.
Shortly after Rosenthal arrived at the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, where he serves as president/CEO, word trickled in about a plane crash at the nearby World Trade Center. Few details were available, but most assumed there’d been an unfortunate accident involving a small craft.
“Certainly, by the time the second plane crashed we knew something very grave and serious was going on,” Rosenthal says.
At the time, the Federation was located roughly eight blocks east of the World Trade Center—and, as it turned out, downwind from the site. That became shockingly evident when the Towers came down, Rosenthal explains.
“Our building was enveloped in smoke and debris,” he says. “One of the tragic, symbolic things that struck us was when the pieces of paper blowing out of the World Trade Center offices started floating past our windows and over the East River toward Brooklyn.”
Also stunning was viewing the mass exodus from Manhattan as tens of thousands of people marched north on FDR Drive, fleeing the city and seeking the safety and comfort of home.
Still, Rosenthal and some Federation staffers stayed at the office, attempting to work and reporting what they witnessed to CUNA until phone service and e-mail went down.
“What was so striking was that there was an immense cloud and all this debris, and after a while it cleared and the sky seemed clear again,” Rosenthal says. “It wasn’t quite as if nothing had happened, but it was kind of a bitter irony.”
|"After 9/11," says Cliff Rosenthal, "I felt like a New Yorker for the first time."|
When Rosenthal eventually left the office, he walked through deserted, debris-covered streets, passing a hospital that was eerily quiet. “There weren’t many people being brought to the hospital. That was the tragedy: Everyone was prepared to give blood and treat the many, many wounded that survived. But there weren’t any.
“I walked home over the Brooklyn Bridge along with many other thousands of people. While I was walking home, I heard a third building collapse. It seemed incredible.”
It was a week before Federation staff could return to their building. It took far longer for any sense of normalcy to return.
Lower Manhattan was cordoned off, with ever-present police lines, Rosenthal recalls. Abandoned food carts dotted the streets, filled with their increasingly moldy contents.
“The ruins smoldered for weeks on end,” he says. “Anytime you walked out of the subway in that neighborhood, that’s what you were greeted with. So there certainly was no forgetting.”
Next: ‘I felt like a New Yorker’