Richard M. Larrabee served as the Director of the Port Commerce Department of The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey at the time of the September 11, 2001, attacks. He was in his 62nd floor office when the first tower was hit and the building started to rock. He was able to escape and made it through the dust, smoke and debris, and was part of the evacuation of 800,000 people from Lower Manhattan by an impromptu rescue effort by police and fire boats, ferries and private vessels.
MarEx spoke to Larrabee about his experiences.
What were your first sights as you evacuated the building?
My office was in the southwest corner of the 62nd floor of World Trade Center 1 (WTC1). I was in my office having a meeting with one of my staff, when the first plane hit the building. We did not know what happened, but we did experience the building shake, causing items to fall off my desk. It rocked back and forth for a period before settling down.
Out the window we saw flaming debris and other objects in the air. Keep in mind that from that level of the building you could see great distances, but it was very hard to see the ground below us. We knew something catastrophic had happened but did not know what caused it.
There were about 100 Port Commerce Department personnel that worked for me on that floor. Many of them had gone through the 1993 bombing of the WTC, and no one needed to be convinced to leave. Staff were instructed to go to the predetermined stairwell and get out of the building. After ensuring that everyone was out, I started down the stairwell, down 62 flights of stairs to the main level of the building.
The stairwells were filled with people going down. There was some smoke, the lights were on and there was little panic for most of the descent. Keep in mind that we still did not know what happened, did not realize that this was a terrorist attack, and were all led to believe over the years that even if a commercial plane were to hit one of the towers, because of it's design and construction, the building would not come down.
What does stick in my mind was the presence of NYC Fire Fighters, with all of their gear, going up the stairs, as we were going down.
What happened when you got out of the building?
By the time I made it to the ground floor, most of the department staff had spread out and were exiting the building. My first thought was to call home and tell my wife that I was ok. I did get through, and because she was not home, I left a message.
By this time, we were aware that it was a commercial airliner that hit the building and that WTC2 had also been hit. I went to the lobby of the hotel that was part of the WTC complex where I met with most of the senior leadership of the Port Authority. We were discussing plans for where to go when suddenly, there was a loud noise, almost like an explosion, it got dark and I was knocked to the ground.
Someone fell on top of me and we laid there for what seemed like forever before the noise stopped. It was still dark, the person who fell on me turned out to be a NYC Fire Fighter and together he and I crawled out of the building. What I thought had been a bomb turned to be WTC2 falling on top of the hotel.
I worked my way down to the Battery in lower Manhattan and found myself at the Coast Guard building at the very end of the Battery.
As I approached the building, I saw CDR Ray Seebald standing behind a chain link fence. Ray had worked for me when I was the First District Commander and I think we knew each other pretty well. I approached him and said, "Hey Ray, its Rick Larrabee." Because I was covered with dust and somewhat unrecognizable, he hesitated and then asked for my ID.
Once past that awkward moment, he took me in, got me cleaned up, I got a call into my wife and then got on a NJ State Police boat and went across the harbor to our offices in Port Newark.
What did you do to keep the port operational?
For the next four days we worked to find all of our people, get the port back into operation and begin to figure out how to re-establish our operation in the Port Commerce Department.
The Port of New York and New Jersey was closed to all incoming traffic by the Coast Guard. Very quickly, shipping began to back up and commercial supply chains stopped. It was imperative to get things moving again. As Port Director, my staff and I worked with then Captain Dick Bennis to develop the rational for increasing security but at the same time, allowing commerce to begin flowing again. By the end of the week, the port was open, all be it with many new port security measures in place.
I am most proud of the people who worked in the Port Commerce Department that day. Within three days, we had found all of our people, established temporary spaces in our port facilities and all of the staff went back to work.
Like the Coast Guard, the Port Authority and all of our commercial partners now had a new mission. For us, port security became our number one priority. Over the past 15 years, we worked with the Coast Guard and Congress to help develop the new Port Security Regulations that have vastly improved security but allowed commerce to grow and support our economy.
What losses did you suffer?
Every one of the people that went through that day that worked for the Port Authority lost friends and colleagues. In total, 87 members of the agency lost their lives that day. In the case of the Port Commerce Department, we lost one individual. Bill Fallon, who headed our Marketing Division, lost his life. He was in a meeting in another part of the building when the first plane hit.
For whatever reason, they chose to stay in the space they were in and did not leave until it was too late. In the next few weeks, we, along with Bill's wife, will dedicate a conference room in the new WTC 4 Building. I think about Bill and the others we lost that day.
How do you feel about the events now, 15 years on?
In the fifteen years since 9/11 it has thankfully become more of a past memory. For the people who I worked with, we got refocused on our jobs, moved to temporary space in Union Square in Manhattan and then in March 2015, moved back to the WTC site into the 17th Floor of WTC4.
Our offices looked over the Memorial that has been built to honor those who lost their lives that day. Moving back was painful for many and it took great courage to make that move for a few.
My last thought about 9/11 is that it was an event that no one knew was coming, that the reaction of so many to help each other was so evident and that it was a testament to all of those who ran toward danger rather than away from it.
No one knew if there were more attacks to come in the ensuing days, but people did not hesitate to jump in. Since 9/11, the people who work in the Port of New York and New Jersey have been through other difficult times. Super-storm Sandy dealt a devastating blow to the port. Working with the Coast Guard and other agencies, the port was reopened in four days.
Looking back on 9/11, if there was anything good that came from it, it was the confidence that in tough times, Americans will always come together, even at the risk of their own well-being. These are the kinds of stories that I think the National Coast Guard Museum can help tell.
Prior to joining the Port Authority, Richard Larrabee held the rank of Rear Admiral in the United States Coast Guard. He served as Commander First Coast Guard District in Boston, where he oversaw all Coast Guard operations in the Northeastern United States.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.