This is an entirely true — and eery — 9/11 related story. In July 2001, I was in Rockaways, Queens at a legendary bar called The Harbor Lights with an intimate group including two guys named Charlie and Chris.
Charlie died on 9/11/01 in the World Trade Center. Chris died two months later on 11/12/01 when a plane crashed on his house (located across the street from The Harbor Lights). Surreally, The Harbor Lights was destroyed on October 29, 2012 by Hurricane Sandy.
Think about those facts above and the relationship of three catastrophic events tied to one random night in a bar. What are the odds?
Never Forget: There are Three 9/11s
In case you don’t know, there are three 9/11s. That is, there are three separate, yet connected, terror attacks which have occurred on the date 9/11.
There is the “original” 9/11, which is September 11, 2001. There is also 9/11/2004 when Al Qaeda attacked our American air base in Iraq. Airman Brian Kolfage, a big supporter of Red Nation Rising, lost three limbs, and is the most severely wounded Airman to ever survive. Most recently, there is last year’s Benghazi attack in which the Obama Administration has engaged in a coverup which pales to anything prior.
September 11, 2001
I didn’t really know Charlie in July of ‘01. It was just a chance encounter. I learned he worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. Cantor is a financial services firm, but I knew it back then as a bond house. I knew it because my cousin Peter worked there as a Bond Trader. Peter was such a great guy with an amazing family.
A few years before the original 9/11, I was facing a career choice: 1.) Go back to school or, 2.) my cousin Peter would get me a job at Cantor Fitzgerald. I chose school.
Had I worked at Cantor (Peter was getting me hired) I’d be dead. I’d have been killed on 9/11 with Charlie, cousin Peter and all the others by Muslim feudal animals hellbent on our destruction. But I’m still here. More on the almost surreal facts surrounding Chris and Harbor Lights below.
More Brief, Personal 9/11 Stories
I knew quite a few people who died on 9/11. Acquaintances, friends of family, cops, firemen, six degree relationships, etc. In the days and weeks after 9/11 I feel like I may have attended 10 memorials. Memorials, and not funerals, because there were no bodies.
I know survivors, too. Including my wife, who was 15 minutes late for work at the World Trade Center that morning. Also, my brother-in-law (brother, really) is an NYPD Detective with an Elite Unit and he was down there randomly for some administrative hearing but helped save lives.
My friend Anthony called in sick on 9/11. His company suffered heavy losses. He might have died if he went to work that day. The only other time in Anthony’s career he ever took a sick day was the first time those Muslim animals bombed the WTC. That was February 26, 1993. What are those odds?
My buddy John is a Special Agent with the FBI. John is documented as being the closest Federal agent to survive the collapse. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the FBI. But I love John. He’s a great Patriot, actually. I bet what is going on in America these days makes him sick.
Here’s an aside and completely true story: a week before 9/11/01, I hung out with John and 2 or 3 of his FBI colleagues. John and I shared a summer house and his workmates stopped by. Now, these are all FBI Agents working some counter-terrorism unit in the NY Field Office and there was something wrong with them. I asked what was the problem. After some refreshments it came out.
They were chasing ghosts and were exhausted. They were on high alert but just didn’t know what the hell was going to happen. It was anguishing. They knew something was going to happen. They just didn’t know what. I wholly respect them, actually.
I know building maintenance personnel at Two World Financial Center. These men stood in the plaza as falling bodies crashed onto the pavement around them while they were trying to help. When they tell me their experiences there is something missing in them. They’ve lost a part of their soul. They are victims, too.
There are plenty of other horrific stories of people I know or have some relationship to 9/11. Did you ever see the street level video by those French filmmakers? The one where the FDNY is dealing with a gas leak and then the sound of the plane ricochets off the buildings and a fireman looks up to the plane hitting the North Tower and some man’s voice says repeatedly, “Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit.”? I know that guy. He works for Con Ed, the Electric Company in NYC. But let me get back to the eerie circumstances of The Harbor Lights.
That summer night in July 2001 was memorable both at the time and especially after the fact.
I had been to the Harbor Lights several times. It was a great bar and a local institution. The upstairs room held a few family parties I attended. Great memorabilia on the walls. A neighborhood, family joint.
I wasn’t friends with Charlie and Chris. Didn’t even know them, actually. I just happened to wind up with them at Harbor Lights because we were part of a larger group celebrating a classmate’s graduation party. It was a happy time and we were young.
Charlie’s family owned Harbor Lights. I was informed of that when it was closing time. Charlie locked the doors and our small party got to hang out After Hours. What a host. I remember his smile.
Charlie and Chris were best of friends. They hadn’t seen each other for awhile, and if I’m not mistaken were drinking Buds. Plus some Jameson Irish whiskey.
Chris was going to law school. Charlie was working in the city. They were catching up and it was obvious they were close. I didn’t know it at the time, but Charlie and Chris grew up best friends and Chris lived in a house across the street from The Harbor Lights.
A Battered Community Mourning
When Charlie died on September 11, 2001, with 2,996 others including my cousin Peter, Charlie was surely devastated.
The Rockaways suffered tremendous losses on 9/11. Tremendous. Rockaway was home to many cops, firemen and working professionals in the financial district 15 miles, yet a world, away.
Lots of people can say they knew someone who died on 9/11. If you were from Rockaway, you knew DOZENS of people who died on 9/11.
Two Months Later
Two months after 9/11 The Rockaways was still mourning approximately 80 residents. The number would climb. Every day at Ground Zero, two months later, they were finding and pulling bodies out of the still smoldering rubble.
I was there, at Ground Zero, for months and witnessed it first hand. As a labor consultant at Two World Financial Center, directly adjacent to Ground Zero, I had full area access. I walked over the rubble. The pile. The smell. You can’t imagine the smell. It was a war zone. Sometimes I still cough.
I would watch from the building as they pulled firemen out during The Holidays of November and December 2001. I’d put my head up against the glass window of some temporarily abandoned office of an accountant, lawyer, executive or banker and watch the moving ceremony they performed on-site as they handled the remains of a first responder.
I saw President Bush speak live from the pile. That was a rallying moment. The whole experience was emotional. We needed to get New York back up and running and I did what I could do from a building with a front row seat to the greatest amount of death and destruction this country has witnessed since Pearl Harbor.
November 12, 2001
Two months and one day after 9/11 Chris was still mourning Charlie — and all the death — on November 12, 2001. Undoubtedly, he was nursing some pain from the night before. It was the 2 month anniversary of 9/11 and the Memorials were still ongoing.
Chris was at home — across the street from Harbor Lights — asleep in his bed, when at about 9:16 a.m. EST, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed on his house killing him. You read that right. A plane crashed on Chris.
I was in the city at the time. Two World Financial Center was evacuated when alarms went off. We didn’t know what the hell was going on. People were saying we were being bombed. It was terrible. Sheer terror. I’ll never forget the relief in finding my younger brother (we were working together doing the labor consultation) and us booking ass down 15 flights of stairs, two at a time, with 200 Polish laborers. We were in the middle of a battlefield.
Nowhere to Run
Several thousand working men, and a few females, stood on, wait for it, Liberty Street in Battery Park City. The whole area felt under siege. We stared up at the cocoon of tall office buildings waiting for planes to collide into the buildings and for debris to rain down upon us.
Which direction would we run? My brother and I stayed close together. We’d survive this attack. I knew where to go because I once had an apartment 3 blocks from this very location — it was devastated on 9/11 — and knew the area well.
First sound, and then sight, of an airplane in the sky. Then, in the reflection of a glass tower skyscrapers 40 stories up was a plane and, dammit, it looked to be headed into the building in front of us. As tense as I’d ever been. Microseconds later, it was clearly headed in a different direction. We were safe.
Twenty minutes of pure anxiety later, we got the “All Clear.” A plane had crashed. But it was in Rockaways. Nowhere close to me, or so I thought. The fear it was terror related but a terrible strain on the rest of the day.
Still Mourning November Morning
Chris didn’t experience that terror. He was sleeping soundly in his basement. He was in mourning that morning. In peace when he died.
Imagine the odds. Charlie died on September 11th when a plane crashed into his workplace at the World Trade Center. Chris died on November 12th, two months and a day later, when a plane crashed on his house, across the street from The Harbor Lights.
I didn’t know any of this at the time. I was working virtually around the clock at the building adjacent to Ground Zero, trying to get it open so New York could get back to business. My wife, a 9/11 Survivor haunted by fate and circumstance, appraised me to the story of Charlie and Chris and a NY Times a few days later. It really hit me. Holy shit. I was with those guys four months earlier at Harbor Lights in July 2001.
The Twin Towers
I had a few beers and some Jameson shots with Charlie and Chris and the small group gathered at Harbor Lights. It was a particularly memorable experience because they were great guys but also because drinking in a landmark bar after hours like that was something special. It was out of the ordinary for me.
When I left them, the sun was just starting to rise. I heard birds chirping and smelled the beach community morning. I desperately needed to walk it off. I headed up to Beach Channel Drive.
Jamaica Bay was like glass. It was already starting to get hot. This particular spot on the promenade offered unobstructed views of the Twin Towers (15 miles away) and JFK Airport (6 miles away).
I’ve seen the Twin Towers from many, many angles. My old apartment was so close I didn’t need to turn on the lights at night to read a book because the Towers were 5 blocks away and luminescent. It was a stunning view.
This morning, July 2001, the sun glistened off the buildings. Between the reflection of light off the building and the bay the blues, oranges, yellows and reds were blinding and breathtaking. It was about as tranquil and serene a moment I’d ever had. There was no traffic, no people. Just silence and me admiring about the greatest sight I ever saw. The morning glory of the Twin Towers from The Rockaways.
About two years ago I wrote the first version of this story. I wrote it in one page. It was a writing assignment for my Chicago Writers Group. One reader, a journalist, was overcome with emotion. The title of that first piece was “The Harbor Light” and the bar was the focus of the piece.
Last year, around this time, September 11, 2012, I was having some scotch (my wife buys me a nice single malt every year around this time for my birthday) and decided to write a more fleshed out version. That’s what you do with stories. Again, the piece was more about The Harbor Lights pub.
Hurricane Sandy Destroys Harbor Lights
I thought this story was was finished. Or, close to finished anyway. Two guys I drank with one random night died a dozen years ago in truly horrific circumstances and incredible odds.
My story wasn’t finished. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy destroyed Harbor Lights.
It’s really crazy, actually. If you ask someone from Rockaway tto pick the Top 3 Terrible Events in modern New York history, 9/11, the plane crash and Sandy are it.
Sandy was devastating. My childhood home was wrecked. Summer houses I lived in were wrecked. My old apartment building in Battery Park City, near the World Trade Center was flooded with water.
When I learned The Harbor Lights, neighborhood landmark and beloved family institution for 30 years and subject of my piece, was gone I just couldn’t believe it. I still can’t. Harbor Lights was a solace in a community rocked surreally hard with tragedy beyond belief.
Harbor Lights survived the death of Charlie. By just a few yards, Harbor Lights survived Flight 587. Harbor Lights didn’t survive Sandy.
Amazingly, the American flag did. Imagine that. Complete devastation from an out-of-control fire caused by Sandy’s wrath. The flag from Harbor Lights is unscathed.
Many, many thanks for all your support.
Written by: @JimLysaght