Reflecting On a Somber Anniversary

At Island’s end an acrid wind not forgotten
Tom Staubitser, left, and Dave Schleifer
Tom Staubitser, left, and Dave Schleifer, present and former members of the New York Fire Department Russell Drumm

    Because the wind blew from the west for days after the attacks of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, the acrid smoke from the still-smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers hugged the South Shore of Long Island. It was eerily redolent even in Montauk 120 miles away. For many in the community, the acrid wind continues to blow.
    Yesterday, five residents of Montauk went about their daily routines, but shared their thoughts about the approaching anniversary. One was preparing to leave for Spain today for a year’s study abroad.
    Tom Staubitser is an active duty New York City fireman with the 50th Battalion out of Jamaica. On Sept. 11, 2001, his outfit was sent first to Brooklyn, then to Manhattan to the home of the Second Battalion. He ran for his life when Building Seven came down.
    David Schleifer had retired just a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center. He served with the “five-truck” ladder company of the Second Battalion. The company, including the young fireman who had taken his place, was wiped out when the buildings fell. It lost 11 men.
    “I lost 60 friends,” Mr. Schleifer said. “I’m going in on Sunday. I’ll go to Mass and then lunch at the firehouse.”
    Though retired, he went to Ground Zero to help immediately after the attack and stayed for four days. “I was on top of the ‘the pile’ on that Friday. I found a helmet from the 22nd Engine company. We called the company and they got five guys out — dead. Our guys were right underneath.” In all, there were 25 firemen found in that one spot.
    Three hundred forty-three firemen were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on New York City.
    “I was standing by your firehouse. It’s all a blurr. It seemed like a dream,” Tom Staubitser told Mr. Schleifer yesterday morning. They were on the beach at Ditch Plain, checking if the waves generated by Hurricane Katia had arrived. Both said it was the sense of unity and teamwork that grew in the wake of the disaster that has stayed with them.
    Mr. Staubitser worked on the fallen towers for a month following the attack. Only later did the immensity of the event take shape in his mind. He said the job to clear the rubble and search for victims “became part of our tour.” Firemen worked side by side with iron workers who were cutting through steel. “They were like gorillas,” he said with a laugh.
    Both firemen said rank and seniority dissolved along with the distinction between civilians and the uniforms during the work. That made a lasting impression on both of them. “We were all on an equal plane. Chiefs were like firemen,” Mr. Staubitser said.
    He remembers people showing up with clothes they wanted to donate. It seemed like a bother at first, he said, “but then I realized everyone just wanted to help.”
    Capt. Wayne King was taking his morning constitutional in Montauk yesterday as a light mist fell. He is a charter captain and a retired iron worker with Local 361. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was at sea with a charter aboard his boat, King Wayne. “They were F.B.I. guys. We were bassing, and they started getting calls. A private plane had hit one of the towers.” The cellphone calls got grimmer and grimmer, he remembered.
    Mr. King said that at least four of his fellow iron workers from Local 361 had died of lung-related disease in the past two or three years “from inhaling all that.”
    Mr. Staubitser said the fire department monitored the health of its members regularly. “They ask how long I was working here and there. I can’t remember. For me personally, it’s a blur.” So far, he has not experienced any health related problems, he said.
    “I’m a lucky person, a happy person,” Mr. Schleifer said. “Every day I thank God.” And he thinks of his fallen comrades often. “I talk to them a lot when I’m alone. I ask them for help when I need it.”
    Bryn Portella will turn 16 on Sunday, the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and she will be in Spain. A student at Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut, she leaves today for a year of study abroad. Yesterday she was packing for the trip.
    On Sept. 11, 2001, she was attending the Children’s Workshop School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side when the planes struck the towers. Bryn and her parents, Dalton and Gabrielle Portella, were living in Brooklyn at the time and had a house in Montauk.
    “Oh yeah, I remember. It was my birthday, and it was the day we drove out to Montauk,” Bryn said. At school in Manhattan that morning, “Even though it was close, we didn’t have a clear view. Our window was facing the other way. It was quiet reading time. It was lasting too long. Kids were leaving and my mom came and took me out.”
    “They were trying to figure out how to get to Brooklyn. We got out of school early and played in the playground. A group of us lived near Williamsburg, so we walked together over the Williamsburg Bridge. We had a really clear view of the smoke from our loft. Late that night, we drove out to Montauk. At the time it was hard. I had really good friends in the city, but ultimately I’m glad,” she said.
    As for her parents: “It was extremely traumatic to me knowing that if I hadn’t made a simple little choice [to stay in the city and run errands] I wouldn’t have been able to reach my kid,” she told The Star 10 years ago. “We just kept talking about what are we waiting for? That was the catalyst.”
    Now, Mr. Portella said yesterday, “I wake up across the street from the ocean.”
    Chris Coleman, a Montauk real estate agent, ran for his life on Sept. 11, 2001, from outside the New York Stock Exchange where he was working for Robertson Stephens, an investment banking firm. “I ran outside just when the second plane hit. Broken glass filled the sky. People were running and bleeding. I ran east toward the river,” he said not long after the attack. Yesterday, he sounded a bitter note:
    “Even with Bin Laden dead, we’re going to be suffering for a long time. He got off easy, shot and killed. I’d rather have seen him dragged down the L.I.E. by the people who lost on 9/11. Not just because of the U.S., but out of sensitivity to us. It happened in our own backyard. That’s in my heart.”