Rise of Freedom: Remembering, Reliving 9/11Jun 30, 2011
Philosopher George Santayana is known for the line, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This common refrain, and the burden of a past that no American wants repeated, weighs heavily on the shoulders of William “Bill” Dacunto.
Dacunto is vice president of operations for Silverstein Properties. He recently gave Fox News a tour of 7 World Trade Center, which sits just beside what was Ground Zero.
Silverstein Properties is building towers 2, 3 and 4 of the new World Trade Center and the safety innovations being incorporated in the construction are unprecedented.
Well, almost unprecedented. The building that is 7 WTC just turned five years old. It opened in May 2006, and it is what Dacunto calls the “prototype” for all the buildings at the new World Trade Center.
“The design criteria for the green features, life-safety features [of 7 WTC] are all being incorporated in every building being constructed at the World Trade Center site. So this is the prototype for everything being constructed there,” Dacunto said.
Dacunto is a serious man with a serious job. One of six kids, he grew up on Long Island in what he considers a typical middle-class world. His square jaw and fighter fit physique present the image of a man who shouldn’t be taken lightly.
He has worked for Silverstein Properties since 1987 and, despite his appearance, he swears he is known for his “sarcasm.” “It’s a special talent,” he said. “I have a T-shirt that says, ‘All of my facts are substantiated by my opinions.'”
It is a charming and disarming quality. Coupled with a calm but confident voice, he is obviously a man with a grasp of facts, experience and how important the two are. Silverstein took control of the Twin Towers and WTC roughly six weeks prior to the 9/11 attacks. Dacunto was at the property for months before preparing for the takeover and transition. It was a massive job.
“We started to come down here on a daily basis and start to do our due diligence,” Dacunto recalled. There were a lot of questions when it came to operations, like “How do they operate things? How much will it cost us to operate? What can we do better than they do?” Dacunto said. On the morning of 9/11, he and his colleagues were busy, but even before the attacks the vice president’s day started differently.
“Every morning we were up on the 88th floor of 1 World Trade Center,” Dacunto remembered. “We just so happened to have a breakfast meeting downstairs on September 11.” He and his coworkers were in the hotel between the towers when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower.
“As soon as that hit, people looked up and you could just see the horror on their faces. And within a few seconds, the entire ceiling of the restaurant came down,” Dacunto recalled. He didn’t see the plane and was puzzled. “I knew it was jet fuel, by the smell of it. I didn’t understand. It was total confusion.” “We calmly, actually, walked out of the restaurant. We felt bad, we didn’t pay the bill. We still owe them money for breakfast that day,” he said. That tinge of guilt over an unpaid check says something about the sort of man Dacunto is. What happened next and how the memory of it lingers with him speaks volumes.
People were saying it was a “Cessna,” but he knew, by the size of the hole, it was something much larger. Still, he and his coworkers set out for their offices on the 88th floor. They didn’t get far.
“We saw a woman who was burned by jet fuel come into the lobby and there was a gentleman with her and we went to get her help,” Dacunto said. But after getting help, first responders had sealed the building and wouldn’t let Dacunto back in.
“I really believe that woman saved our lives,” Dacunto said.He’s fairly certain that the woman was Jennieann Matteo, a 40-year-old from Brooklyn. She died several weeks later, one of the thousands.
Outside the towers, Dacunto’s confusion about what was happening and why the air was filled with the smell of jet fuel vanished as United Airlines Flight 175 raced over New York’s harbor. As Dacunto told me what he saw that day, it became clear he wasn’t simply remembering, he was reliving.
“It was low and you could hear the acceleration just before impact and the turning of the airplane,” he said. “That’s when, right before impact, I knew that it was terrorism.” The reality was simple and stark, “nothing would, could ever, be the same,” he said.
Across the street from building 7 the new towers of the World Trade Center are rising. And it is fitting that a man who witnessed the attacks will be responsible for the operations in Silverstein’s three office buildings.
They will be simply known as World Trade Center 2, 3 and 4. And while Dacunto will be responsible for keeping the lights working and the water running he is also responsible for keeping the thousands of people, who will eventually work there, safe.
In our tour of 7 WTC it was clear the past is being remembered. “When something happens you might need a plan B. We always have one here,” says Dacunto.
On 9/11 the impact of the airplanes blew fireproofing off the towers steel. But in 7 WTC the fireproofing is, “twice as thick and ten times adhesive as code requires.”
Another lesson from September 11th came from the damage done to emergency stairwells. They were enclosed in drywall and the planes impact made escape from above the impact zones virtually impossible.
“This stairway is twenty percent wider than code requires,” a fact Dacunto points out to illustrate the need to make room for first-responders coming up and occupants going down.
Additionally he says, “[the stairs are] located within a two-foot [steel] reinforced concrete wall to preserve the structure in the event of some sort of catastrophe. There are also other redundancies within this stairwell.” Emergency lighting with both generator power and battery power, smoke filtration and other things Dacunto won’t discuss.
“We have two fire command stations in this building,” he says. Dacunto adds, “there’s one in the lobby, but then there’s another one. I am not going to disclose where it is.”
Yet another lesson from 9/11 relates to emergency radios. Simply put they didn’t work properly because transmissions were blocked by the building’s walls and floors. In 7 WTC a redundant internal repeater system, within the concrete core walls, relays emergency radio transmissions and Dacunto points out it goes even further than that.
“In fact the system that we have, for 7 World Trade, covers a one-third mile radius around the building,” he says. In an emergency the building becomes an enormous transmitter.
Communicating between responding emergency units is one thing, but in the panic of evacuating a massive hi-rise building telling workers where to go is equally vital. What if the lobby is unsafe or fire crews are converging on one side of the building.How do you tell people where to go?
In 7 WTC, near the lobby, two emergency stairwells become four, and a system of signs and red and green lights lead people to the safe exit. All of this within what people at the site call the buildings “core.” This is how they are building the new World Trade Center.
Almost 10 years after a shower of jet fuel and the horror of seeing the South Tower struck Dacunto is a driven man. Like so many others at the new World Trade Center working here, rebuilding here, is far more than a job.
Coming back to work, at the World Trade Center was one of the greatest days in his life. For Dacunto it is only over shadowed by the love of his family and specifically the days his children were born and the day he was married.
“It was sticking your nose up at people who want to disrupt our lifestyle, which is everything to me,” he says. He adds, “we’re back and we’re better than ever. You can try to take us down, but you can’t.”
He also remembers why all this work is needed. Dacunto puts it this way: “It’s a sense of responsibility for those who didn’t make it, whether I knew them or not. I had a responsibility to get back here for them.”
People like Jennieann Matteo.