To Preserve and to Learn
One Morning in September
by Edwin Jorge (Jamaica 1979–81)
Edwin Jorge was the Regional Manager of the New York Peace Corps Office and was at work in Building # 6 of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The building was destroyed when the North Tower collapsed. At a commemoration service held at Headquarters in Peace Corps/Washington a year after the attack, Edwin spoke about what happened to the Peace Corps Office. His comments follow.
ONE YEAR AGO TODAY, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I sat down at my office desk and turned on my computer. As the computer booted to life, I glanced up and looked out of the windows of my office on the sixth floor of the Customs House in the heart of the financial district of New York. From where I sat, I could see the corner of Tower One of the World Trade Center. I could glance across the street and see Building Seven of the World Trade Center, where New York City had its Emergency Center, and where the CIA offices were located. Since becoming Regional Manager of the New York Peace Corps Office, I always thought it was odd that our agency would be located there, at the very center of the financial world. I remember taking a sip of coffee. That moment and what I was thinking has stayed with me because it was the last moment in my life when everything was normal. And then the first of the two planes hit the Tower.
I knew it was a plane. And I knew we had been hit. Having served in the army as a Green Beret before joining the Peace Corps, I knew something was serious wrong and we were all in trouble.
It was 8:46 a.m. in the office and while we often have as many as twenty working out of the suite of offices, there were only two recruiters with me: Seetha Madhavan (Kyrgyz Republic 1998–00) and Doug Miller (Thailand 1990–92).
When the plane hit — and we had no doubt that it did hit the Tower — the whole building shook and immediately scraps of metal, glass, and parts of the plane sailed down passed my windows crashing onto the street below. I glanced out of the window and watched people fleeing from the wreckage.
“A bomb?” Doug asked, rushing to my office.
“No,” I said. “It’s a plane. Let’s go.”
We left the sixth floor by the stairwell and with others from the floor made it down to the glass entrance of the Customs House that opened onto the wide and beautiful plaza of the Trade Center.
I glanced out through the wide glass doors and the floor to ceiling windows. Nothing in my military experience had prepared me for what I saw — a swath of destruction had already fallen upon the Trade Center. Still, irrationally, I kept thinking: “I’m safe. I’m safe.” But with each step, the scene became much more horrific.
Already on the plaza I could see shapes of fallen bodies, the first victims of 9/11, chunks of metal from the plane, office furniture, showers of paperwork, and in the air, the smell of burning jet fuel.
With everyone else, the two recruiters and I turned from the plaza and moved quickly across the bridge to the Financial Center, then out through the Winter Garden onto the open courtyard that fronted the Hudson River. Looking up, I saw the gapping hole of where the plane had smashed into Tower 2. High above this gaping hole, tragic souls were leaping from the burning tower to their death.
But even then, even as I stood staring up at this towering inferno, I had every expectation of returning to the office that day. I turned with the others to search for a telephone to call my family, to tell those closest to me that I was okay, that I was alive, that everything was going to be okay.
Not until the second plane hit did I begin to realize the magnitude of what was happening to our city and country. Now I stood in the midst of total chaos – rushing crowds, people desperate to get away, to find a working phone, to find each other.
Still, I couldn’t get my family off my mind. My mother. My six year old daughter. It would take me hours before I could get in touch with them and by then they thought that I was among the ones who had perished. For my mother I was reborn on that day.
I HAVE NO CLEAR RECOLLECTION of what happened next, or in what order. What comes back to me now are bits and pieces of the day. I remember most how suddenly all New Yorkers began to work together as a family. Strangers gave each other their working cell phones to make calls, others shared bottles of water, I saw a woman in high heel standing in the middle of an intersection directing traffic, cab drivers stopping to fill their taxis with those who needed a ride.
It took me most of the day to reach my home in Queens, having walked across the city. A cab driver stopped at one point and get me a lift for the last several miles out of lower Manhattan. It was only then, safe in my apartment that I realized what had happened. But even then I didn’t know what to do.
I got a call from John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64) who had been the Manager of the New York Regional Office before me and he gave me the phone numbers of Peace Corps Washington and told me to call, to let them know that all the recruiters and staff were okay. I did make the call, but weeks later when we talked about that day, I didn’t remember him calling, or giving me the phone numbers at Peace Corps HQ.
I DO REMEMBER THE NEXT DAY. On the 12th, I got a call from Chuck Baquet, then the Deputy Director of the Peace Corps. What I remember most is what he said to me that morning. He said, “Edwin, we can’t let this get to us. We can’t let them win. We need you to get your office back up and running in two weeks.”
Sure, I told him. “Sure, Chuck, I can do that.”
And when I hung up, I thought: “How am I going to do that?”
Not only was I still in shock, but the whole city was. My staff was scattered over four states. I couldn’t get in touch with anyone. Our building — World Trade Center # 6, the Customs House — had been crushed when Tower 1 collapsed. Everything was lost. All our files, our computers, the phones and personal effects.
And the city was a logistical nightmare. The trains were barely running. Utilities downtown were a mess. 15 million square feet of office space had just evaporated into a giant cloud of gray dust. And I had just told the Deputy Director that I could get the New York Regional Office up and running in two weeks.
But the great thing about Chuck’s request was that it focused my life. It gave me direction at a time when I was preoccupied with my mortality. It reminded me, most of all, that the job we do — getting Peace Corps Volunteers into the field — was never more important than it was after September 11.
At the time of the attack, our office had over 300 new application in our files. It would have been easy to become overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding those files, but we couldn’t do that. Those 300 Americans wanted to become Peace Corps Volunteers. We couldn’t let them down.
And we didn’t. Through the hard work of many people in my office, and with the support of Peace Corps Headquarters, we were able to get back on our feet in what I now realize was a remarkably short time.
I began by calling a friend who found us temporary office space in a building he owned. We moved in within days of the attack. Then against all odds, I was able to find permanent space in a building not far from where our office had been. In less than two months, the New York Office was up and running. The recruiters were making new nominations by November.
But doing everything was its own nightmare. To get our mail, I stood on line at the post office for hours at a time, trying to find what had happened to it.
But through it all, the support we got was tremendous. I had 55 messages on my answering machine the first night of the attack, and for weeks, I had emails from people around the globe asking about us, wishing us well. Most important was the help and assistance I got from Peace Corps/Washington and the other regional offices across the country.
Since the attack, our office has had an almost 15% increase in applications over the past year.
This anniversary makes me realize how lucky I was, how grateful I am that no one from the Peace Corps was injured. My thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones, as well as with all of those people who made tremendous sacrifices.
The silver lining in this experience is the cooperation and support we got from so many people around the world — it mirrored that sense of community I felt in the city around 9/11. But the most valuable thing of all is the unity of purpose that we all share at this great organization — it has never felt so important. Thank you.
Prior to serving as Regional Manager, Ed Jorge spent 25 years with Spanish-language media in New York City, working in marketing and sales for two of the leading Spanish daily newspapers and for a Colombian television and radio company. He also ran the in-house advertising agency for a Latin communications group.
Ed has an MPA from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. He served in both the U.S. Army Reserves and the U.S. Navy.