Remembering Sept. 11: Securing the GW Bridge
As he watched the Twin Towers burn, Steve Napolitano realized that the bridge might be the next target for attack.
Editor's note: Many New Jersey residents saw firsthand the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Now, 10 years later, we've asked some of them how the event changed their lives. We'll be sharing their stories all this week.
Steve Napolitano, who was the General Manager of the George Washington Bridge and Bus Station on Sept. 11, 2001, remembers standing on the sidewalk the day after the terror attacks, staring at the American flag workers had just unfurled on the bridge "while car horns beeped as they drove beneath it."
“It was really important that we do that; that we hang that flag," Napolitano said. "Not only for us to remember, but for all Americans to see.”
Born and raised in Fort Lee, in the shadow of the bridge, Napolitano laughs as he shares this memory: “When I first got my driver’s license, I’d pile my friends into my car, wait for the Port Authority cop to turn his back, and then we’d sneak over the George Washington Bridge.”
Little did he know that someday he’d be general manager of that very same bridge.
His smile fades as his memory turns in a different direction.
"I’ll never forget the sky that morning on 9/11," he said. "Crystal blue with not a cloud in it. It was one of the most beautiful mornings I had ever seen."
Napolitano learned about the first plane hitting the tower from his operations unit head, who came into his office in the Port Authority Administration Building on Bridge Plaza South—now Bruce Reynolds Boulevard—named in honor of the Port Authority officer who was assigned to the George Washington Bridge but gave his life when he rushed to the World Trade Center to save others on 9/11.
“Here I was thinking that it was a little propeller plane," Napolitano said. "When I watched the second plane hit I realized that this was no accident. It was much bigger. We went into immediate lockdown mode.”
While watching the events unfold on TV, Napolitano called his people, who were located on the 71st floor of Tower 1. They told him that they were okay, but he insisted that they evacuate.
“I just stared at the gaping hole in the tower thinking, ‘How are we ever going to fix that?’” he said.
When the Pentagon was hit and another plane went down in Pennsylvania, it became clear that the bridge could be a real target.
“I wanted everyone off the George Washington Bridge," Napolitano said. "Every one off. No cars, no trucks, no contractors, no pedestrians. Everyone. Off. More law enforcement agencies than I have ever seen were now in and around my office assisting with securing the bridge and all land-side buildings.”
Napolitano had to keep the bridge clear so that large emergency vehicles could get downtown—fire engines and construction equipment—to transport the thousands of presumed wounded.
“Here we are, on the roof of the Port Authority building watching the towers burn, seeing the smoke, smelling the ash; it was all happening in slow motion like a nightmare," he said. "There were F-16’s flying overhead, army and police flooding to Fort Lee to defend and secure the bridge. That’s when it hit me. I’m on the front line. It was no longer about running the bridge, it was about securing it so that it’s still standing tomorrow."
As the first tower collapsed everyone fell into a state of total shock. No one ever suspected that there was even a remote possibility that the towers would ever collapse.
“It was so surreal," Napolitano said. "I’m watching the tower fall and all I kept thinking was that I have friends in that building. Within seconds all my support people who were stationed at the World Trade Center aren’t there anymore.”
While Napolitano was trying to process all that was happening, people were coming to him for answers to questions he didn’t yet have; questions about the well-being of co-workers, friends and loved ones who worked at the World Trade Center. And administrative questions because, despite all that had just happened, they had to remain operational.
“When the towers fell, we not only lost thousands of lives, we also lost our entire support facility," Napolitano said. "All our paperwork was down there, all the files for our leases, and all of our payroll. All of it was gone. We had every imaginable contingency plan, but there was no blueprint for what had just happened.”
Though he never said the words out loud, he knew that the situation staring him down was catastrophic.
Every concern that day and into the next week was significant, but primary was payroll. Pay day was scheduled for Friday, and people came to him concerned because they had mortgages and bills that needed to get paid.
“My head was spinning," Napolitano said. "I thought, okay, I’ll somehow get to the vault, give everyone, I don’t know, $200, just to get them by and I’ll keep handwritten records. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do that.”
Remarkably, the pieces started to come together. Law firms and tenants started dropping off duplicate paperwork so that files could be rebuilt. Perhaps most remarkable, copies of the payroll records were obtained and payroll was met that Friday.
Maintenance employees looking for meaningful ways to help had located the original 60 foot by 90 foot American flag that hung on the bridge for seven years until it was retired in 1988 in a storage room on the New Jersey side. Everyone, including Napolitano, worked around the clock on their hands and knees on the floor of the maintenance garage painstakingly sewing and painting the flag to restore it to its former glory and unfurl it at Ground Zero. It was their way of showing solidarity with their fallen comrades and displaced colleagues. The flag was unfurled on Sept. 24, 2001.
The focus of operations for the George Washington Bridge had always been mobility and keeping the flow of traffic moving. Although security at the bridge and Port Authority buildings was always a primary concern, in the post-9/11 world, security was the number one priority.
Ten years later, Napolitano has moved from overseeing bridge operations and is now in charge of the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 42nd Street.
“Ten years later I worry about the future of the world for my kids," he said. "They’re the ones who have to live with the real impact of 9/11. Up until 9/11 we lived our lives in total freedom. Our children will never know that luxury.”
As Napolitano pondered that thought he turned his chair towards the window overlooking 9th Avenue.
"Look at that sky," he mused. "Not a cloud in it. It’s a 9/11 sky."