It was 20 years ago, on September 11, 2001, that four coordinated terrorist attacks by the militant Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda against the United States of America resulted in the deaths of 2,996 individuals and changed the lives of countless others.
At the World Trade Center in New York City, 2,606 people perished when two airplanes crashed into the buildings, causing them to collapse in what was a horrific scene.
Among those who died were eight men from Putnam County: Thomas Kuveikis of Carmel (F.D.N.Y.), 48; Robert Minara of Carmel (F.D.N.Y.), 54; Christopher J. Blackwell of Patterson (F.D.N.Y.), 42; George Kain of Patterson (F.D.N.Y.), 35, Daniel Harlan of Kent (F.D.N.Y.), 41; Stephen Patrick Driscoll of Lake Carmel (N.Y.P.D.); 38, George Paris of Lake Carmel (Cantor Fitzgerald), 33; and David Fodor of Garrison (Fiduciary Trust International), 38.
Following the attacks, many Putnam residents took part in the recovery and cleanup efforts at what became known as The Pile. Some of those residents plan to attend a Putnam Heroes Memorial Candlelight Vigil at Cornerstone Park in Carmel on Saturday, September 11 at 7 p.m.
“Putnam serves, and I’m so proud to live in a county where people look out for others,” said Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell.
“Hundreds of our residents who work as first responders, or in the trades, or in countless other professions, saw the devastation at the World Trade Center and rushed to help. Some spent months working under dangerous conditions to try and find those who were lost and give the families of the victims some closure. Many have since lost their own lives to 9/11-related illnesses. They all put others’ needs before their own, and we in Putnam County will always be grateful.”
Carmel resident Eamon Cummins, an operating engineer, spent six months using heavy equipment to aid the recovery effort at Ground Zero.
“It was like the Twilight Zone. You did what you had to do,” he recalled. “I remember crying all the way down, all the way home. One night there was a rumor that we expect to find a lot of bodies tonight because we were going to a stairwell, but we didn’t find one.”
Cummins searched for damaged gas lines and tried to restore power to the area before looking for remains, always pausing and saying a prayer when any were uncovered. The work took a toll as Cummins, now retired, developed asthma and lung disease, and even the slightest cold presents a danger. There has also been an emotional toll.
“I saw the best and worst in people,” he said. “When we were putting the cables back in the ground, I was stuck at one cross in the road and there was a picture of a lady and it said, ‘Last seen on the 29th floor.’ And that brings a different side to it all. Loved ones, people who would stand at the perimeter, looking down at the pile and crying. You just wished you could do more.”
Mahopac resident Larry Mack, an F.D.N.Y. Lieutenant whose station house was in the Bronx, arrived just as the South Tower of the World Trade Center fell. He didn’t return home for a week. At one point, he worked 30 straight days on recovery.
“A lot of it is still foggy,” Mack said. “It was an intense non-stop round of funerals, firehouse shifts and searching for remains at The Pile.”
Mack, who helped raise the six children of his longtime friend and fellow firefighter Lt. Vincent Halloran, who was killed on 9/11, now heads a group of F.D.N.Y. retirees, the NYC Firefighters of the Hudson Valley, which includes about 200 retired firefighters from Putnam and Northern Westchester.
“Every firefighter in Putnam County, every firefighter in New York City, stepped up to the plate. They all did something,” he said.
Pete Conlin, an N.Y.P.D. detective, immediately drove from his home at Mahopac Point to the police command center in Manhattan once he learned about the attacks and begged to be transferred to the Emergency Services Unit so he could assist at The Pile. He didn’t leave for three days.
He sorted through the debris searching for possible human remains and brought unknown pieces to a priest to be blessed before taking them to a morgue.
“It was tough,” Conlin said. “This not recovering was demoralizing. There was so much steel twisted, you’d think, ‘There’s got to be somebody in there.’ But no. That just didn’t happen. In the early days, you still had hope and you just keep digging and looking.”
Conlin, who retired in 2004, worked on The Pile for six months. He noted he mourned many friends who died from 9/11-related cancer.
He is now President of the local Fraternal Order of Police, Stephen Driscoll Memorial Lodge #704, named in honor of the Lake Carmel N.Y.P.D. officer who died on 9/11. Like Conlin, Driscoll served in the Emergency Services Unit.