Anthony Palmieri and his Department of Sanitation partner Joe were on duty uptown the morning of September 11th. Palmieri - along with a number of strangers he drove to New Jersey amid severe traffic congestion - was able to get home later that day. Ultimately, though, he would spend the next nine months working with the DSNY at the World Trade Center site.
Throughout the month, we've been profiling those involved with the massive clean-up effort, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the formal end to rescue and recovery operations at Ground Zero. Here, Palmieri answers some questions about his 9/11 experience and work he did in the aftermath.
Where were you on 9/11?
I was working for the New York City Department of Sanitation around 215th Street in Manhattan. I had been with the department since 1984. That day, I was with my partner, Joe, doing our regular collection route. Someone passed us and said, “Did you hear a plane hit the World Trade Center?” We thought, like most New Yorkers, that it was a terrible accident. When we heard the second plane hit, we knew it was more than a coincidence. It was a day that you wish you could forget, but you can’t.
From the Sanitation garage, we could see the smoke from the towers. It was far, but you could see it. My first thoughts were about my wife and children, because we didn’t know the extent of what was going to happen. I tried to get home as fast as possible to make sure they were safe. At the time, I was also a volunteer firefighter in New Jersey, and I thought my company would be called in. I got in my car to go home, but the traffic was horrendous. I wasn’t too far from the George Washington Bridge, and I knew a lot of backroads from working with Sanitation, but every road was a mess. When I finally got to the bridge, everything was held up. I thought I could get out and talk to the police officers and show them my fireman’s badge and let him know my company might be called. At that point, I was hoping we would be called.
There were hundreds of people walking around. I got an eerie feeling because you don’t know who these people are. A man knocked on my door and said, “Please, are you going to New Jersey?” I was terrified. I was really scared. I wasn’t going to let him in, but I did. While we were waiting to cross the bridge, two other gentlemen got in the car with us. Eventually, the bridge opened, and we got over. We were talking on the way over, and they had very worried looks on their faces. When we got over the bridge, two of the gentlemen got out near the bus stops. The gentleman who stayed in the car didn’t live too far from me, the same exit off the highway. I offered to drive him home, but he said no. It was very humbling because we were three strangers, but we were supporting each other. Unfortunately, I never saw any of them again. I went home and spoke to my children. The rest of the day was chaos, watching TV, going back and forth from the firehouse and home.
What role did you play in the rescue, recovery, and relief efforts?
The Department of Sanitation’s role, when we first got down there, was anything and everything that had to be cleaned or moved. We started on the outer perimeter, cleaning buildings, washing streets, throwing out rotting food from vacant stores. It was non-stop, 24 hours a day. Most of the time, I was cleaning up in that capacity. For a few days, I also drove a truck which carried steel out from the pit and brought it over for transfer to the barges on the East River. As time progressed, we had to start handling the garbage that accumulated from places of rest for volunteers. I was there working for about nine months.
Can you describe the bond you feel with other rescue and recovery workers? How has this community impacted you?
I’ve met some wonderful people. It’s an incredible situation how this brought so many people together. I met some construction workers and volunteers that I keep in touch with to this day.
My time down there was so meaningful. The people that I met, I really bonded with. While we were down there, there was a closeness that you found from everyone. Each year on September 11th, you see people you knew but haven’t seen in years, and you pick up right where you left off. I wish everyone could experience the goodness that has come to me from September 11th and not just the memories of the badness.
What does May 30th mean to you?
The hardest part of me being there for nine months was when I left. I had the honor of standing on the ramp with these heroes. I felt that even though it was bad down there, the majority of people did not want to leave. I had a hard time leaving as well. When you first got to Ground Zero, and the things you continued to see, it was awful, but leaving was so difficult. People say to me, “You spent nine months there, how did you do it?” I wanted to be there; I was not forced to be there. I volunteered to go there. My job allowed me to go down there, and I was so grateful.
When May 30th comes around, I reflect that it was the end of something I didn’t want to end but, it was needed to get back to normalcy. It was a good thing. I’m happy and proud that I was part of the ceremony. Twenty years later, I feel like a pretty lucky guy.
Do you have any health issues connected to your time at Ground Zero?
I’ve had some problems and I was operated on. Knock on wood, that’s subsided. I go to check-ups through the World Trade Center Health program. I am scared about several things, but there are so many more people that have so many more problems. I think I’m pretty lucky.
Why is important to share your story - and the stories of others - with the generation now growing up with no memory of September 11th?
They need to know this is their history. They should know that for every person that was murdered on September 11th, there is a family member that is still alive that deals with this every single day. These people suffer with this every day. It never ends. It is not something that happened 20 years that you can get over. Their families are still suffering.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I remember cleaning up a lot around St. Paul’s Church. Right after everything happened, people were walking around with pictures of loved ones and signs that said, “Have you seen my loved one?” I remember thinking, “That could be me. That could be anyone’s mother, father, brother, sister, not knowing where their loved one is.” It just stuck in my brain, how hard it is for those people to have to do that. People saw it on television, but when you saw the disaster, you could see that their loved ones were not coming home. That is embedded in my brain more than anything. The people that survived and how they could ever get over it.
Compiled by Caitlyn Best, Government and Community Affairs Coordinator