As about two dozen New Yorkers gathered Sunday on the East River Esplanade in Carl Schurz Park to mark the 21 years since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Upper East Side residents focused on a sense of community in the face of tragedy. The early morning ceremony, an annual event, was timed to begin when the first plane hit the North Tower that day.
Chris O’Brien, former Coast Guard serviceman and current UES resident, spoke publicly for the first time about his experience on September 11th. At the time, he was a reservist in the Coast Guard, working at the Fort Wadsworth base on Staten Island.
When O’Brien came into work that morning, he saw that “a shadow came through the office.” Looking outside, he saw smoke coming out of the North Tower and rushed to help coordinate evacuation efforts in Lower Manhattan.
In an “unprecedented” event, the Coast Guard commandeered the Staten Island Ferry, evacuating those fleeing Ground Zero, and set up triage centers on the waterfront, with “doctors coming out of the woodwork.”
Reflecting on his actions and those of other first responders and bystanders, O’Brien said that New Yorkers coming together to help each other was “the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen in the face of the most tragic thing you’ve ever seen.”
After the ceremony, O’Brien told Upper East Site that this event isn’t just about remembering, but about “forming stronger bonds” within the community. He said those bonds “were maybe always there,” but it “took something extraordinary to bring them to action.”
The Upper East Side was hard hit by the cowardly terrorist attacks, with 87 of the 2,753 men and women killed at Ground Zero coming from just three UES zip codes.
FDNY Engine 22/Ladder 13, the local firehouse located on East 85th Street between Third Avenue and Lexington Avenues, lost nine firefighters, now referred to as The Yorkville 9.
The Knickerbocker Greys, a UES-based youth organization, had six cadets at the event, not one old enough to be alive at the time of the attack. In a somber moment of reflection, the color guard presented the American and New York State flags, as the adults in attendance bowed their heads in a moment of silence.
John Philips, Community Board 8 member and owner of the diner The Mansion restaurant, told Upper East Site that the remembrance is a “catharsis,” and that as a neighborhood, the UES is singularly united in its care of its residents. “What happens to one of us, in a smaller part, happens to all of us.”
Philips stressed the importance of community action, saying that helping your neighbor “is not a notion, it’s tactile,” and that action “must start where you stand.”
Also in attendance were New York State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, representing the Upper East Side, who reaffirmed her pledge to assist 9/11 victims and their families; as well as Democratic State Assembly nominee Alex Bores, who said the community needs to “educate those who were too young to remember” the attacks.
Alex Coutinho, a Knickerbocker Grey cadet, told those gathered that his mother had worked in the World Trade Center, but thankfully wasn’t harmed that day.
Though he himself wasn’t born until well after the terrorist attacks, the 10-year-old says he still understands that the people responsible “wanted to challenge us as a democracy and as a country.”