NATIONAL VICE PRESIDENT’S REPORT – Twenty Years Later, The Many Heroic Acts On 9/11 are Still Vivid

John Duffy, National Vice President

The attacks on our country on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 were certainly some of our deadliest hours. With 2,996 casualties, they exceeded those of Pearl Harbor and comprise the deadliest terrorist attack in world history.

The tragedies that occurred in Shanksville, PA, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center changed our lives forever. It was also that day, and for many months after, we witnessed many acts of heroism. Those acts of heroism began with passengers and crew on United Airlines flight 93 who took on the hijackers to gain control of the plane. While unsuccessful, their attempt saved many lives at the U.S. Capitol, which is believed to be the hijackers intended target.

There were many acts of heroism that day at the Pentagon as well as the World Trade Center, and for many months after.

Local 1-2 members were among the many first responders to the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers.

Where were you …?

Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. As a Business Agent at Local 1-2, I was attending, along with Sr. Business Agent Harry Farrell, a safety conference at a Con Edison training center in Queens, NY. (Four years later, Harry and I would be elected President and Vice President of Local 1-2 respectively.)

Queens is one of the “outer boroughs” that surround Manhattan where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood. From there, on that crystal clear day in September, we watched in horror as those towers burned and one by one came crashing down. During this time, all bridges and tunnels were shut down, fighter jets were scrambling.

My first thoughts after those towers came down was the huge loss of life for all those who worked in the towers, and all the first responders. With few exceptions, just about every first responder was a union member. And amongst all those organizations that suffered casualties, no one suffered more than the New York City Firefighters with 343 giving their lives to save others.

As utility workers we are first responders to many natural disasters such as major storms and hurricanes. Restoring life sustaining water service, natural gas and electricity in some of the harshest conditions is part and parcel of what we do. At the World Trade Center, UWUA Local 1-2 members responded heroically as well. It’s nothing less than a miracle that no members lost their lives that day. Tragically, a Con Edison Vice President, Richard Morgan, was killed when the South Tower collapsed. He died while working with Con Edison’s emergency management team as a consultant after his recent retirement, trying to reach an electrical substation and help firefighters navigate the system near the towers. He was well liked and respected by Local 1-2 rank-and-file members as well as the local’s leadership.

Heroes work here

As a Business Agent for Local 1-2, I was anxious to get out and visit our members. Once it was allowed, I visited our members several times at Ground Zero starting on Saturday, September 15. There I saw our members giving their all, around the clock, to restore natural gas, steam and electricity to lower Manhattan. Many members worked in manholes in excessive heat. More than 3,300 miles of primary cable was laid above ground as a temporary measure to re-energize the affected area allowing the New York Stock Exchange to re-open in only seven days, proving to the world that even a terrorist attack as catastrophic as this cannot keep us down.

A large area of Lower Manhattan, known as the frozen zone, was closed to the general public for months. As Local 1-2 members drove their trucks north, leaving the frozen zone, New Yorkers applauded them at the perimeter. It was certainly a proud moment for our members. I was also so proud and happy to see our members receive this recognition and appreciation they so richly deserve.

Tragically, of the over 3,800 Local 1-2 members that served heroically on September 11 and the following six months, many developed serious illnesses as a result of their exposure to toxic dust at the site.

All across the nation utility workers continue to work around the clock to provide vital services such as clean drinking water, gas and steam to heat our homes and public buildings; providing electricity to do everything from lighting our homes, powering our electronics and many of our automobiles. The current pandemic has proven once again the importance of what utility workers do day-in and day-out.

Working through this pandemic has been especially hard for our water locals in California that must perform their heroic duties amid massive wildfires. Doing strenuous work with an N95 mask on is enough of a challenge, but try doing it when the air quality is so bad, that even breathing without a mask is a challenge. These UWUA members are working in 9/11 like conditions that will not dissipate. For them, its like 9/11 is happening over and over again on a daily basis. Conditions are reminiscent of the dust bowl days in the 1930s where everything was constantly covered with dust, now everything is constantly covered with ash. Like all those heroes that worked at Ground Zero, these heroes in California deserve the thanks and appreciation of the entire nation, and deserve the same medical monitoring and medical care as the 9/11 heroes!