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’
‘I felt like a New Yorker’
Rosenthal grew up in the New York metropolitan area (Newark), and attended graduate school in New York City. After spending time in Connecticut and Washington, D.C., he returned to the city in 1980 to get married.
“But in the back of my mind, there was a sense that this was temporary; that when the daughter we had in 1981 finished elementary school we’d move somewhere else; maybe to Washington. But that didn’t happen.
“After 9/11, I felt like a New Yorker for the first time,” he continues. “It became quite clear that for many of us, this is where our fate was. And that feeling has persisted.”
Many people left New York after Sept. 11, believing the city would never be the same. And it has changed, Rosenthal says, but in many positive ways.
The downtown area where the Federation currently resides has been revitalized with both new buildings and older structures converted to luxury housing.
The crime rate fell following Sept. 11 and has remained at historic lows. And the city’s population has grown to a level unseen in a half century or more.
“The pulse is very much alive in New York,” Rosenthal says. “It was extremely painful to watch the crippling [antics] among the various interest groups and real estate developers fighting over the rebuilding of the trade center. It was frustrating, embarrassing, and outrageous.
“But now the trade center has risen to more than 70 stories, and is adding a story per week, if not more. And the memorial will open this Sunday. So there’s a tremendous amount of activity.”
He likens Sept. 11 and its aftermath to a volcano that covers everything in its path. “Eventually, there’s new growth through the volcanic soil. You can’t ignore the scars, but you certainly see new life. To some degree it feels like that.”
Rosenthal plans to visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in October during a meeting with the Federation’s board. The organization’s new offices bring it still closer to the World Trade Center, but the group isn’t concerned about the potential safety risks.
“We feel pretty confident about the level of security here,” he says. “We’re very close to it—just a few minute walk away. We don’t live our lives in fear of what could happen again. We’ve had to be resilient. And for the most part, we are.”