“I was a Hatzolah member at the time,” he says, “and I was also a chaplain for the Port Authority Police Department. We were in the 66th on an arrest situation.”
But whatever matters he had to attend to took a back seat to the news that was coming in on the radio.
“At about ten to nine,” says Yanky, “breaking news came in that a plane had hit the tower.”
As a chaplain, Yanky knew that he had to be at the scene. He started driving towards the World Trade center, still unaware – like the rest of us – of the magnitude of what was about to happen.
“While I was on the Gowanus Expressway,” he says, “I actually watched the second plane fly right into the second building. It happened right in front of my eyes. Now I knew that this was no accident.”
While the rest of us sat glued to our radios, listening in shock to the unfolding events, emergency personnel knew that there was work to be done. Yanky describes the scene at the site.
“It was chaos big time,” he says. “Unfortunately, we had to stand there helplessly and watch people jump out of the building. I’ll never forget that. At one point, one of the chiefs told me, ‘Let’s get to the command center.’ We saw big chunks of metal falling from the sky. At the time, we thought a third plane had hit the building.”
Yanky followed the police chief to the Verizon building across the street.
“We made a human chain,” he remembers, “and walked through a closet that cut across to the back of the building. That’s how we got out.”
As soon as he knew he was safe, Yanky called his wife to tell her that he was okay. But the worst was yet to come. The second building was starting to come down.
“I was standing on West Street and tried to run to the water, but the cloud was following me and it was getting closer. A super of one of the buildings in Battery Park City must have seen me. He dragged me inside the building and took me to the basement. It took me three quarters of an hour to cough all the junk out of my lungs.”
Bechasdei Hashem, he was able to breathe again. Now came the difficult task of setting up emergency services.
“You have to understand that this was the first time such a thing ever happened,” Yanky points out. “Nobody, even in the city of New York, had ever seen anything like this before. Things were being set up as we went along.”
Originally, the campus of Manhattan Community College, several blocks away from the Twin Towers, was set up as an emergency room. Yanky was asked if he had access to medical supplies.
“I told them that I just need two police cars to get me across the bridge and back,” he said. “So we went to a medical supply place in downtown Brooklyn, loaded up a truck with merchandise, and then came back.”
Unfortunately, the supplies were not really needed. There were very few “survivors” of the attack, except for the ones who managed to escape in time. Nevertheless, all emergency personnel were at the scene, ready for anything. At the time, the sense of uncertainty was high. One never knew if another plane would strike, or if another building would come crashing down. Yet, they all performed admirably under the pressure.
“It was a long, long day,” says Yanky.
Several other buildings did come down eventually. Those included WTC 7, the Hyatt, and a local church. But by the time that happened, those buildings were already evacuated and there was no loss of human life.
As chaplain for the Port Authority, Yanky’s work was just beginning. He spent the next few months traveling back and forth to “the pit,” whenever human remains were found.
“They never removed anyone unless a chaplain was present,” says Yanky. “So we had to suit up and go down there countless times. We would have to say the Keil Moleh Rachamim in English for them.”
Yanky remembers once being called down because a “Jewish” person was found. It turned out that the individual was wearing a Star of David necklace – certainly not solid proof that the person was a Yid.
“There were many, many shailos that came up,” recalls Yanky. “We tried different things, like checking if someone had swiped their ID card that day, to verify whether he was actually in the building so that his wife would not remain an agunah. This was going on nonstop for months.”
Yanky says that he and his colleagues were especially careful to show their appreciation to the police department.
“We used to bring them supper once a week,” he remembers.
He also attended memorial services for fallen police officers and fire department personnel. It was his way of saying, “We’re all in this together.”
Have we learned anything over these past ten years? Are we better prepared today than we were in 2001? In a certain way, we did change. Some of us are certainly more vigilant than we were ten years ago. And there’s no doubt that we lost some of our innocence at that time.
On the other hand, we are well aware that our destiny is not in our hands and that everything is orchestrated up in Shomayim.
“There’s only one Hakadosh Boruch Hu,” says Yanky, “and that will never change. The same Ribono Shel Olam Who allowed it to happen then will decide what the future will bring.”
But Yanky, who works closely with the top brass of the police department to this day, advises us in one area.
“Let’s not forget,” he says, “that we are living in a medinah shel chessed. We should never forget what the emergency agencies, police and fire departments are ready to do on our behalf. They’re ready to jump in and help us out at a moment’s notice. Sure, we have a lot of our own volunteers. But if anything ever happens on a large scale, we turn to them for help. Let’s remember to appreciate them and thank them whenever we can.”