Belleville and Nutley remember 9/11 attacks 20 years later

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BELLEVILLE / NUTLEY, NJ — Sept. 11, 2001, showed both the worst and best of humanity. The worst is obvious — even 20 years later everyone remembers the fear, pain and anger that was caused by those hateful individuals, the terrorists, who ultimately set off a chain of world events that led to even more death and suffering; we are still dealing with those consequences today. 

The best was displayed in the first responders who selflessly rushed into danger to save lives; in the people of all races and religions who lined up, sometimes for hours, to donate blood; in the residents of the tristate area who opened their homes and hearts to strangers; in the neighbors across the country who sent supplies; and in people far and wide in the global community who prayed for America and proclaimed their solidarity.

Sept. 11, 2001, changed the world. It brought terrorism home in a way few Americans had ever seen before. Twenty years later, our nation and her people are still trying to come to terms with this devastating tragedy. Here in Belleville and Nutley, the grief over that day remains palpable. Just a little more than 10 miles from New York City, Belleville and Nutley were profoundly affected that day.

Belleville lost three residents in the terror attacks: Antoinette Dugar, Harvey Joseph Gardner III and Harry Ramos, who was a New York City firefighter. Nutley also lost three residents: Robert Dominick Cirri, Dorota Kopiczko and Franco Lalama.

The events of that day and the weeks that followed are still also taking a toll on the first responders who went to Ground Zero. A number of the police officers, firefighters and EMTs who rushed in to help are now suffering from serious ailments, such as asthma, rhinosinusitis, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression and various types of cancer.

For many first responders, their memories of 9/11 and the following weeks remain incredibly vivid.

“I remember watching the news on the morning of 9/11 when I heard a plane had hit the World Trade Center. At that time, I thought it was an accident,” Belleville Fire Chief John Olivieri told the newspaper on Aug. 19. “As I continued to watch the live feed, I saw the second plane hit the south tower. It was then I realized this was not an accident and that we were under attack. I knew it was serious but could never imagine how this event would forever change our lives.

“On 9/11, both on- and off-duty members of the Belleville Fire Department rushed to headquarters, eager to be assigned to assist in any way possible,” he continued. “Department members were detailed to a number of locations, including Hoboken, Jersey City, Meadowlands and eventually Lower Manhattan — the World Trade Center. Our members spent many days following the attack at Ground Zero assisting with rescue and recovery. The events of that day and the lives lost will never be forgotten.”

Nutley Deputy Fire Chief Paul Cafone had been newly appointed to captain just prior to 9/11 and was off-duty that day.

“I got a call to report to work immediately for an explosion that had happened in New York. Nothing prepared me for what was going to happen in the next few days,” Cafone told the newspaper on Aug. 18. “When I got to work, I noticed that every single fire department member and every police officer in our department was on the front ramp of our building. We all soon learned of the catastrophic attack on the World Trade Center and that we, as emergency responders, were needed to help with the injured people who were in the building or in the area of the attack. 

“I was assigned to Engine 3 and sent to Jersey City to await victims being sent to New Jersey for care,” he continued. “We, as well as many other fire departments in the area, along with many ambulances, waited patiently all day for what we believed would be a steady stream of injured people we needed to transfer to local hospitals. But as each hour passed, no one was coming. The anxiousness and uneasiness began to set in as we all began to realize there might not be many survivors.

“Later in the day, we went to Clara Maass Hospital so we could assist with the decontamination of anyone coming over from New York. While there, we deconned only two people. Through the weeks that followed, the Nutley Fire Department was sent to cover mutual aid for the NYC-area fire departments that were on scene at the towers. As difficult as these days were, I am grateful to have been part of a team that helped in even a small way,” he concluded.

Belleville Mayor Michael Melham praised the first responders from this area who immediately took up the call — without question — to help the victims. In September 2001, Melham was a councilman and saw firsthand the response that came out of Belleville, despite the fact that everyone was in uncharted territory.

“The call went out to all first responders, and Belleville’s bravest and finest heeded the call,” Melham said in a 2018 speech, the text of which he sent to the newspaper on Aug. 16. According to Melham, the town needed to find a balance between sending as much aid as possible to New York City, while also maintaining enough resources to keep Belleville safe. “In the end, we decided to send nearly everything — every man, woman, every piece of equipment we could muster up. That night and into the next day, Belleville was protected by a skeleton crew, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“I recall Route 3 being closed to civilian traffic. I pray we never have to see what I remember that night, nothing but lights and sirens, in gridlock, trying to make their way to the Lincoln Tunnel. After all, as civilians were fleeing, our first responders were blindly going in,” he continued. “The township received a call that Clara Maass would be needed as a decontamination unit and triage center. The few firefighters we kept home to hold the fort quickly mobilized. My most vivid memories are of sitting in the front seat of a police car, stationed at Clara Maass, listening to the police radio most of the night.”

Just as people of generations past could recall with perfect clarity where they were when they learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor or President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, so too can those who lived through the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But future generations will not have that firsthand memory, making it crucial that memories of that day are preserved. This is where organizations like the National September 11 Memorial & Museum come in; additionally, this work can be done on the homefront by local historical organizations.

For Belleville Historical Society President Michael Perrone, memories of 9/11 must be recorded, as they are now a part of history, which has valuable lessons to teach those who are willing to learn from it.

“When the first plane struck the twin towers, I was working as an aide in the office of Assemblyman John Kelly on the second floor of the Nutley Savings Bank building. I was in the middle of a phone call when one of the other aides rushed in and said a plane had struck the World Trade Center. We watched the cloud of smoke in disbelief … and we watched it for a week,” Perrone recalled to the newspaper on Aug. 18. “The thing that I remember most was that eight weeks later, on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, Washington Avenue was packed with thousands of spectators lining the street to watch our Veterans Day parade. It was a sight I had not seen for years, at the normally sparsely attended parade — and sadly have not seen since. The one thing we learn from history is that we rarely learn from history.”

This year, on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, residents are encouraged to attend memorial ceremonies, which are being held at locations across the county, state and nation, and to remember the nearly 3,000 lives lost that day.

Photos Courtesy of Belleville Fire Department