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NYC Transit workers recognized by 9/11 Museum, TWU Local 100

Oct 28, 2023

Two days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Mario Galvet, an NYC Transit electrical equipment maintainer, stood in what remained of the Cortland St. 1 and 9 subway station, amid the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center complex.

He and his crew had found that an antenna serving MTA train radios — a thick cable that ran the length of the tunnel — had been cut in two when a beam from the south tower’s 83rd floor plowed through the station.

“It went like a dagger,” Galvet recalled. “It hit that cable and severed it.”

What happened next can be remembered as a sign of first responders’ desperation to find anyone alive in the World Trade Center rubble — and the resourcefulness of the MTA workers at the scene, some of whom were honored for their work at a recent ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

Mario Galvet, an electrical equipment maintainer, assesses damage at destroyed Cortlandt Street station after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Victor Yermakov/Courtesy TWU Local 100)

The estimate of missing people stood on Sept. 13, 2001 at 4,763, according to then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who presided over a city plastered with home-made posters showing faces of those feared lost.

Anxious to find survivors in the rubble, officials approached Galvet’s crew with an idea.

The broken antenna branched off into the mess of steel and concrete and toxic dust that used to be the World Trade Center concourse. If it could be reactivated, maybe it could help locate the cell phones of any victims or survivors in the pile.

“We got together with some folks from the cell providers,” Galvet said. “They said ‘Hey, listen, we need to ping those phones down there to see if anyone is alive.’”

With the assistance of Galvet’s crew, technicians connected the severed end of the radio antenna to a series of machines to generate cell signals, trying to find any functional phone.

Transit workers are pictured during clean up operations after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York City. (Pete Foley/TWU Local 100)

“Unfortunately, after two, maybe three hours of trying, it bore no fruit,” said Galvet.

“Those [phones], there should have been hundreds of them down there,” he said. “They just said, ‘We’ve got bupkis here.’”

“In other words, the phones have been crushed, incinerated, pulverized,” he explained. “If that’s what happened to the phones, forget about the people. That’s when we knew we wouldn’t find anyone alive.”

After years of work, the final World Trade Center death toll on Sept. 11 settled at 2,753.

Galvet was one of the roughly 3,500 New York City Transit workers who were among the very first people to respond to the New York scene of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to union officials and former transit brass.

Mario Galvet, who designed the 9/11 medal for TWU Local 100, in 2017 in Brooklyn. (Angel Zayas/for New York Daily News)

While some, like Galvet, were tending to transit systems taken out by the attacks, others — like hundreds of MTA ironworkers and welders — got to work in the days after the attack cleaning and clearing debris as the first wave in a search for survivors.

“They were the first heavy equipment guys on the scene,” said Joe Hoffman, then the MTA’s senior vice president of subways. “We had trucks — a mile of trucks. Most of the burners [iron workers] were transit guys.”

“The transit guys spent so much time down there,” Hoffman told the Daily News. “They got almost no credit.”

Transport Workers Union Local 100 — which represents 40,000 of the city’s subway and bus workers and of which Galvet is an officer — has long argued that the work of its members has been left out of the histories of the days following the attacks.

Last year, Local 100 petitioned the national 9/11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero, arguing that its members were left out of the museum’s exhibits and narratives.

Bill Crowley, a New York City Transit worker, rests after his shift in rescue efforts at the World Trade Center on Sept. 12, 2001. (STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images)

Now, say union members and museum officials, that’s starting to change.

Last week, for the first time, the museum hosted Local 100′s annual memorial ceremony for workers who’ve gotten ill or died from 9/11-related illness.

“It’s an honor for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum to host this event,” museum president Beth Hillman told a gathering of transit workers last Monday. “The work that the TWU workers did on so many fronts afterwards has not been as recognized as other agency workers.”

Hillman said the museum had begun collecting artifacts and stories from transit workers who’d been on the pile, and would incorporate them into future exhibits.

“Now, using items and memories that were collected from TWU’s members, the museum will soon be able to share these stories with our thousands of daily visitors, including film, exhibitions and programming,” she said.

TWU Local 100 president Richard Davis spoke Aug. 21 at Transport Workers Union Local 100′s annual memorial ceremony for transit workers who’ve gotten ill or died from 9/11 related illness. (Evan Simko-Bednarski/New York Daily News)

Hoffman — the MTA’s top subway system manager — said he slept on the sidewalk for five days during the first week after the attacks, helping to coordinate the agency’s response.

He described the work as an all-hands-on-deck moment. “[Transit] guys were all over the place — there was no such thing as ‘union’ or ‘management,’” he said. “You couldn’t tell the difference between an executive and a track man.”

Hoffman attributed some of the agency’s quick action to preparations for a disaster that never came. A Y2K preparedness committee, convened out of fear that the year 2000 would shut down computer systems across the globe, had ensured that MTA brass had backup lists of where all its heavy equipment was located.

Workers at the site who cut debris into manageable pieces, sifted through rubble, and carried out other tasks were exposed to toxins linked to numerous cancers.

“After a couple of days, we started getting dust masks,” Hoffman recalled. “But even then, they broke after a few hours.”

“A lot of [workers] got hurt on the pile, and they kept working,” Hoffman said.

“A lot of them are still dying,” he added.

Emergency crews, including Transit workers (pictured front-left), work amid the still-smoldering rubble as the search for survivors continued on Sept. 12, 2001. (Maisel, Todd)

Hoffman said his crews worked the pile for a few weeks before they were told to hand off the job to first responders.

“The transit guys were great, and then all of a sudden they got told to get out of there,” he said. “They said only cops and firemen.”

Over two decades later, it’s unclear exactly how many transit workers have suffered a 9/11-related illness as a result of their time on the site.

TWU Local 100 spokesman Pete Donohue told The News that the union has awarded medals to 110 workers who came down with cancer or other illnesses stemming from their work at the site. Of those, Donohue said, at least a dozen have died.

The medal given by TWU Local 100 to its members who fell ill due to participation in recovery work after the 9/11 terror attacks. (Evan Simko-Bednarski/New York Daily News)

Eight transit workers were given union medals at last Monday’s museum ceremony. Two of the medals — in recognition of train operators Eddie Lee and Vincent Rizza — were given posthumously.

Lee died of pancreatic cancer in 2016, his widow Jocelyn told The News.

“When I had gotten the call that they were going to honor him, it was like a rebirth for me,” she said. “He was a good guy. Everybody loved him.”

“He was my baby brother,” Lee’s sister Carolyn said. “I loved him so much. I miss him.”

Joycelyn Lee (left) holds a medal given posthumously to her husband, train operator Eddie Lee, who died of a 9/11 related cancer in 2016. (Evan Simko-Bednarski/New York Daily News)

Hector Soto, a retired work train operator who spent nearly a year as part of the effort to rebuild the tracks around ground zero, called Lee and Rizza “my two brothers that I lost, that I’ll never forget.”

Though transit workers had been ordered off the pile after a few weeks, they still had work to do fixing tracks and tunnels downtown.

“This place essentially became my home for the next year — 12 hours on, 12 hours off,” Soto said of the World Trade Center site. “We were down there through the cleanup, trying to restore the subway system.”

Hector Soto holds his medal from Local 100. The 9/11 Museum hosted Transport Workers Union Local 100′s annual memorial ceremony for transit workers who’ve gotten ill or died from 9/11 related illness on Aug. 21. (Evan Simko-Bednarski/New York Daily News)

“I remember being on a work train with a hole in the [tunnel] wall, and you could actually walk to the footprint of the World Trade Center right from the tracks,” he said. “It was a pretty eerie feeling. We knew we could smell death.”

Soto said he developed cancer in his sinuses seven years after the attacks.

“I got some buddies who are no longer here, and I’m grateful that I’m still here to see my grandchildren grow and be with my family,” he said.

The event at the museum “opened up a lot of wounds,” the ex-train operator said. “I don’t know that there’s ever closure.”