North Fork residents share their 9/11 memories

09/11/2011 12:08 AM |

MICHAEL SMITH COURTESY PHOTO | Old Glory hangs amid the wreckage of the World Trade Center, photographed by former New York City firefighter Michael Smith of Orient.

ELEANOR LATHAM WILLIAMS

“I just wish I didn’t have to face it, but I can’t forget,” said Eleanor Latham Williams of Orient.

Her daughter, Kathryn Brislow Lee, 55, was a senior vice president at Marsh & McLennan in the north tower when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the building at 8:46 a.m. The impact, between the 93rd and 99th floors, killed her instantly, Ms. Williams said.

That her daughter didn’t suffer is the only solace Ms. Williams has. She remembers the telephone call from someone telling her to turn on her TV. She and other family members had only to count the floors to know that Ms. Lee couldn’t have survived.

“We spent the day just mesmerized,” she said. Her daughter was one of 295 Marsh & McLennan employees who perished that day.

She knows from speaking with the survivors that they carry a sense of guilt.

“They were so lucky to be late” to work, she said. She remembers her daughter as “a determined person” who accomplished everything she set her mind to do.

“She just was always eager to do things,” Ms. Williams said. “She was ambitious” and quick to learn new computer programs so she could teach them to others. She was also an expert seamstress.

Ms. Lee left behind a husband, Phil Lee, and two children, both of whom are now in their 30s. Mr. Lee lived with Ms. Williams for about a year after the terrorist strikes.

“He was so good to me when Ralph was sick,” Ms. Williams said about Mr. Lee’s help during her husband’s losing battle with cancer.

Mr. Lee is now remarried. He and his wife continue to be regular visitors to Orient.

On Sunday, Ms. Williams plans to spend her day at home in Orient with her son, Dr. Jeff Williams, following their Sunday ritual of reading The New York Times and tackling the crossword puzzle.

PHIL BURNS

Phil Burns of Southold spent 40 years with the New York City Fire Department and retired as a deputy chief in 2003. He was the 11th Division commander for 10 years and spent seven months at ground zero.

Sept. 10 was his birthday and after 12 hours on duty, his best friend of 35 years, Dennis Cross, relieved him at 6 a.m., kidding him about how he was getting too old to stay on the job.

“I never saw him again,” Mr. Burns said sadly about his friend, who died on Sept. 11. The night before, Mr. Burns went to a retirement party for some members of another firehouse. He spent time with three firefighters there, three more he would never see again.

On the morning of Sept. 11, he awakened at 8:30 a.m. at home in Southold, was listening to the news and heard the explosion when the first plane struck the north tower.

“I knew it wasn’t an accident,” he said. “It was one of the clearest days ever and nobody lost their way that day.” He headed back to the city, working both at ground zero and at his own firehouse in Brooklyn, where he had to cope with the loss of 54 of his members.

Days after the attack, he recalled seeing a little girl near the rubble at what looked from a distance like a desk. But when he got up close, the girl was gone, but there was a bouquet of flowers and a card with a poignant message: “Daddy come home.”

He took it to the West Street firehouse where it became a shrine for passersby to leave flowers, rosary beads and crosses, he said.

People would stop, read the message and kneel in prayer. Mr. Burns tried unsuccessfully to find the girl.

“I just wanted this little girl to know how many lives she touched,” he said.

He has subsequently published two books about his work with the fire department. His first, written before 9/11, is “Laughter, Tears and Muffled Drums.” His second, with a chapter about 9/11, is “Death of Innocence, Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Mr. Burns plans to attend the memorial service at Jean Cochran Park in Peconic on Sunday.

“I don’t know whether to wear my Southold Fire Department uniform or my New York City Fire Department uniform,” he said.

MICHAEL SMITH

Michael Smith was a New York City firefighter who had been off-duty when terrorists struck the World Trade Center in 1993. He vowed then to fight any other such attack, but was again off-duty on 9/11. Rushing into the city, he recalls seeing the flames from the towers and watching with horror as people jumped from the buildings.

When he arrived near the site, he was within about 20 yards of the north tower when he heard a rumbling.

“It sounded like a freight train,” he said. Looking up, he saw that the building was “pancaking” as it began to fall.

“You run for your life,” he said. But he stumbled several times and with the debris and smoke, had difficulty finding his way.

“The dust cloud overtook me,” he said. Ultimately, he was saved by a fire marshal and police officer who pulled him into a building.

He worked at ground zero in the recovery effort and today counts himself as fortunate that while he suffers from frequent migraine headaches, his only respiratory ailment is sinusitis.

A year after 9/11, Mr. Smith retired from the fire department, a few years before completing 20 years of service.

For the past eight years, he has joined fellow firefighters and fire marshals in honoring those who perished, but has avoided going to ground zero.

Still, sights and sounds can bring him back to that day. Whether at his summer home in Orient or his house in Massapequa, there isn’t a morning he wakes up without the memories of that day and those of his friends who died, he said.

“I like to think I’m way better,” he said. What he does know is that he’s “celebrating the value of life” and remembering those who were lost. He hasn’t decided where to spend Sunday.

“I am contemplating what to do or what not to do,” he said.

CLIFF HARRIS

Cliff Harris is a New York City firefighter as well as a member and former chief of the Greenport Fire Department. He worked “the pile” of rubble at ground zero helping to rescue the fallen.

“It took awhile for it to even sink in,” Mr. Harris said of the day’s horror. He realizes 10 years later that there are children too young to know what it was all about.

“Some of the wounds have healed,” he said. But he recalls a fellow firefighter telling him, “I always kiss my wife when I leave cause I don’t know if I’m coming home.” But Mr. Harris said he can’t live his life thinking that way or “I couldn’t get through the day.”

Nineteen members of Squad 288 in Maspeth, Queens, perished that day and Mr. Harris will participate in three days of ceremonies honoring them and the others who died. He focuses on the thousands whose lives were saved by the rescue efforts, he said.

“It takes a special person to be willing to give up your life for somebody you don’t even know,” Mr. Harris said of his fellow firefighters. “We’re always there when people are at their lowest.” But, he added, “there’s a great feeling in being able to help people.”

He wants 9/11 to be declared a national holiday as a day of remembrance.

KEVIN ERDMAN

Kevin Erdman of Southold, a former New York City firefighter assigned to Engine 55 in Little Italy, just blocks from the World Trade Center, still doesn’t want to talk about the tragedy. But his wife, Mary Ellen, recalls that her husband was on vacation when the terrorists struck. She called him and he rushed into the city while she second-guessed herself, once she saw the towers were falling. She didn’t think he would have been on scene at the time, but worried until she heard from him.

“I remember that panic of why did I tell him,” she said, admitting she never thought the twin towers would topple.

Mr. Erdman’s firehouse was one then President Bush visited in the wake of 9/11.

“They wanted to find every member of the department,” she said of the rescuers searching for five firefighters from Engine 55. They succeeded, except for one whose body was never recovered, she said.

“He spent the next several months digging through the rubble along with many others to at first find survivors and then, sadly, to recover the remains of so many lost loved ones,” Ms. Erdman said. “I am blessed because our family is closer than ever.”

The Erdmans’ son, Michael, moved by the events of 9/11, joined the military and has served in Afghanistan, she said.

On Sunday, Ms. Erdman said, she and her husband will be at the firehouse on Broome Street “comforting each other and remembering and honoring those we lost.”

JIM AND LINDA WATERS

The terrorist attacks were “a big turning point” for Jim and Linda Waters to re-examine “what you want to do in life,” Mr. Waters said. Best known for their Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue, Mr. Waters said he doesn’t want to trade off on his 9/11 memories to promote his business.

But on 9/11, he was a volunteer Long Island firefighter who responded to the call for help and admits it was an event that pushed him in the direction of pursuing a long-held dream.

Linda Waters was and continues to be an air traffic controller who was at work that morning.

Both were consumed with 9/11, but it led them to reassess their goals.

Mr. Waters had previously confined his winemaking to his garage in Manorville and spent his work life in the transportation industry.

“We were there a limited amount of time,” Mr. Waters said of working at ground zero. They had always planned to move farther east and subsequently bought a home in Mattituck and started their winery in Cutchogue in 2002.

“We always felt this was the place we were going to live,” Mr. Waters said. He was drawn to the North Fork’s beauty, good schools and a more relaxed lifestyle.

The events of 9/11 simply propelled their move a little earlier, he said.

“Working in the rubble at ground zero, though, made me more aware than I had ever been of the tenuous nature of existence,” he told a reporter for East End Edibles.

EDWIN BLESCH JR.

Edwin Blesch Jr. and his partner, Tim, are frequent flyers, traveling between their home in Orient and Tim’s homeland in South Africa, as well as visiting with friends and relatives throughout the world.

Mr. Blesch was leaving Cape Town headed back to the United States, anticipating an arduous 22-hour journey. He reached London, had a four-hour layover and then learned that his flight to the U.S. was being delayed — but he was never told why.

Tim, who asked that his last name not be used, was passing a store in Cape Town and saw people gathered there, watching what he thought must be a rugby game. Instead, he saw the first sights of what was happening in the United States.

“I just ran home and waited to hear from Edwin,” he said

“I can’t say we’re becoming numb to it,” Mr. Blesch said after 10 years. He and Tim still find themselves scanning passengers at airports and wondering if boarding their planned flights is safe.

Both find themselves reminded constantly of the events of that day. It may be a scene in a movie filmed in New York while the towers still stood, or a piece of music or something they hear on TV that brings them back to that very long day. Tim said.

And Tim, whose father was a pilot, still finds himself nervous when he hears any out-of-the-ordinary noise when flying.

Ironically, this was the second brush with terrorism for the pair, who were in London on July 7, 2005, when the public transportation system in that city was hit.

RICHARD HULSE

Former Greenport Fire Department Chief Richard Hulse now lives in Fort Lawn, S.C., where he served with the Fort Lawn Fire Department for seven years before his retirement.

“I knew three of the FDNY firefighters that were killed on 9/11,” he told The Suffolk Times. Thomas Kelly of Ladder 15, Lt. Peter Martin of Rescue 2 and Ray Meisenheimer of Rescue 3 were among the firefighters who died.

“They and the other 340 firefighters, 23 NYPD officers, 37 [Port Authority] officers and eight paramedics were all heroes that day,” Mr. Hulse said.

Each year on the anniversary, Mr. Hulse has organized a program in Fort Lawn in memory of the fallen, but this year he will attend the dedication of World Trade Center steel at the York County Fire Training Center Memorial in Rock Hill, S.C.

He has returned to New York many times since 9/11 and “had quite a few chances to visit the WTC site and say my goodbyes, but can’t do it just yet. Maybe when they get the site finished I will be able to go and say goodbye to all of those heroes,” he said.

jlane@timesreview.com