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Letter: ‘A Lawyer’s Day on 9/11’

On 9/11 I was on my way out to Riverhead, Long Island for a pretrial conference in a high profile attempted murder case when the music on the car radio was interrupted by an announcement that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

My first thought was that it was an accident. I thought of the Twin Towers as invincible. After all, I had been on Vesey Street at a legal meeting in 1993 when terrorists first attacked the Trade Center. Back then we heard the noise and commotion below the County Lawyers Association but did know of the underground bombing.

When I arrived in Riverhead, I conferenced my case and learned from Court Officers that the Twin Towers had collapsed. I still could not believe it when the judge said it was a “tough day,” that “the world had changed forever.”

I was heading back to my office on the Long Island Expressway, which was closed. I was able to stay on because I have special judicial plates. The volunteer fire trucks passed me by. I waved and they did not wave back, no doubt aware of the life-threatening tasks that lay ahead of them.

When I got back to my office, I had a flight for Albany scheduled for the next day where I was to deliver an oral argument in the Third Department. I tried to call the Court but could not get through. All flights were cancelled and roads to upstate New York were also closed. I managed to get through to my adversary, a prosecutrix in Kingston. She would not consent to the adjournment, refusing to believe what was occurring in New York City.  I wrote to the Court and thereafter learned that the argument was adjourned for a month. I later won the argument and the case.

My big concerns were for my associate, who I had sent to the Second Circuit that morning to argue a case. He saw the attacks from the Circuit windows. A young man was bleeding, having escaped from the Towers. My associate carried him one hundred thirteen blocks to a hospital and thereby saved his life.  

My associate could not return to work. I got him post traumatic stress disorder counseling but he could not return to work for weeks and when he finally did return he would cry at his desk, unable to work. He later resigned from the Bar. He has never been the same. He is an African American who struggled to become a lawyer. He graduated from Columbia University and the University of Notre Dame Law School. His life, like so many others was turned upside down by 9/11.

That night I learned that the Mayor in our local community lost his son. He was a broker at Cantor Fitzgerald with a wonderful family. I rushed to the Mayor’s house. The words from the Mayor still ring in my ears: “Tommy, stay close to your family, look after them, love them.”

So many of my friends in downtown could not get into their offices and lost communication with the courts and their clients. The impact of 9/11 was felt far and wide.

My late father, not a lawyer, was 84 with a serious heart condition. He had worked at 195 Broadway at the old AT&T building and across the street at Westbury Electric. In the 1940s he had been president of the CWA in Manhattan. Unbeknownst to me he took the train by himself to Penn Station and walked downtown. He told me it was eight miles altogether. My father was a tough man who survived the Normandy invasion yet when he returned to his old workplace he wept at the foot of the World Trade Center, said his rosary and remarked that the terrorists had “almost ruined the country.”

I remember my brother-in-law, Edward Zeilman, a New York City fireman from Rescue Unit #4 on Queens Boulevard. My brother-in-law will always be a hero in my eyes. He worked the pile at 9/11 every day trying to find the remains of his comrades. When Mayor Giuliani wanted to reduce the number of fireman working the pile from 50 to 25, my brother-in-law was one of three firemen who resisted. He was charged but later they were dismissed. Eddy never sought the limelight or praise. He never filed a claim for damages. He is retired and living in Florida. But I remember him often having the children of deceased firemen for dinner at my mother-in-law’s home. Three months before 9/11 I remember waking to see my brother-in-law on the front page of The New York Times carrying a body bag filled with the remains of his former partner who died in a fire in Astoria on Father’s Day.

There is no doubt that 9/11 has changed all of us but the dead will not have died in vain if we renew, rebuild and learn from these last 10 years that the bond that we share as fellow human beings should bring us closer to those we lost and those of us who have grieved. If the dead could speak to us now they would tell us that. They would also tell us to enjoy our lives and be good to one another, say what you need to each day to those you love because you may not have a second chance.

Thomas F. Liotti
Attorney, Garden City Village Justice, Westbury