by Steve Clare, Editor Prost Amerika
I didn’t set out this morning to write a 9/11 piece. It’s not something we normally do on this site.
However you cannot escape that the fact that the date is no ordinary day in New York City.
The 12th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center heralded a significantly higher police presence on the streets with those officers, greatly more visible and slightly more formal in their tone than any other day.
Sometime about 4pm, when all the necessary things of the day had been done, I looked up into the sky and saw the new shiny building that now dwarves the rest of Lower Manhattan.
One World Trade Center was gleaming in the September sun.
A voice in my head said three simple words “You otta go”.
Heading down to the area, there initially seemed a quiet tranquility to Battery Park.
Most of the people walking around seem to be mothers or nannies to the wealthy wheeling children around. There was the odd backpack too but no idea you are within yards of the most famous and eagerly awaited construction site on the planet.
Battery Park had an air of tranquility but a quick turn to the east saw the foot traffic begin to thicken.
Still, with the 9/11 Memorial Tours being closed for the anniversary, New York’s Lower Manhattan seemed atypically quiet. One turn north and all that changed.
Outside O’Haras Bar, stood a man in a kilt holding bagpipes. Initially, I concluded he was a Celtic busker who played for the tourists. That conclusion was soon shattered by the appearance of a second kilted piper, then a third.
Inside O’Haras bar, the purpose of the gathering became evident. Blue shirted members of the New York Fire Department lined the bar drinking quietly and even soberly, greeting each new arrival with solemn dignity.
Outside the bar, the blue shirts were less evident, being replaced by men in full kilt and sporran, each tweaking their own pipes. The age range of the pipers suggested one stayed in the band longer than one stayed in the fire brigade, with some greying and those elderly pipers resplendent in their regalia.
The insignia on the drum revealed the band as the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes & Drums Band which was formed in 1962 and is the largest fire service pipe band.
While other players mingled and greeted fresh arrivals, Pipe Major Jerry Brengel of Engine 287 tuned up and occasionally piped. Short in stature, the Pipe Major displayed all the hallmarks of someone who took his music seriously and who carried the weight of the band on his shoulders.
As the numbers gathered outside, it became clear that it was more than a New York event.
Firemen bearing the insignia of fire brigades from as far away as Florida and Germany looked on.
One man looking on with more emotion was Mike Somma, who had crossed the Hudson from his base with the Jersey City Fire Department.
Somma held his pipes, perhaps for a jam session later, but watched on in admiration as the members of the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums played.
It had started to darken and under the striking lights of the new World Trade Center building, he told us what the annual gathering of piping firefighters meant to him:
“It means a lot for those of us that were here that day, and the months afterwards working the pile, and you know trying to recover not only our brothers but people that we knew, friends, family members, neighbors, so it means a lot.
It means a lot to come back every year. We’ve done it every single year since the first anniversary year.”
Many of the pipers were clearly retired firefighters, and Somma who is still an active firefighter, explained that for those no longer active, the pipe band provided a great way to stay part of the community:
“I’m sure it means a lot to them you know, the brotherhood, the camaraderie. Getting back into the old ways, its actually good for them to stay active, and this is one of the ways [they do that].”
As the sky darkened, the lights in the tall buildings over Lower Manhattan became increasingly prominent. One building more than any other summed up why the firefighters and a crowd of over 500 who had gradually gathered were present.
The massive World Trade Center building towered over buildings that towered over us.
Speaking in emotional tones, Somma spoke of what the appearance of this new spike into the skyline meant to him:
“It actually means a lot. It means that we’re gonna come back, and we are back.
It’s a beautiful thing to look at the skyline, especially for us in Jersey City. We look over and we see these buildings. They, the iconic ones were taken away but we put something back, and make it look even better.”
The pipers marched, just around a corner, where they played some old piping favourites such as Amazing Grace, an appropriate an anthem for the occasion as any, given one of the old spiritual’s lines.
The hymn has as perhaps its most famous lyric, the line “I once was blind but now I see”.
It provoked memories of television pictures where New Yorkers fled through the invisibility of the dust cloud hurtling down the streets as the buildings collapsed, juxtaposed with the vision from the very same streets twelve years later, by which time a great vision had arisen in the place of the fallen building.
As dusk approached, the pipes fell silent and the men of the Emerald Pipe Band broke into all four verses of popular Irish Folk song, “the Wild Rover”, seemingly an anthem for the Irish Pipe Band.
The song spread as some in the crowd joined in, with their song taking on the air of a defiant anthem.
My route home took me past the construction site where a second building will arise. Work was going on into the night. The 9/11 Memorial Museum may have closed for the day, but not work on the replacement. Well beyond 8pm, work was going on and the cranes toiled.
Lights emitting from the place where the old buildings fell lit up the night sky. but nothing was so bright as the spirit, camaraderie and determination of men like Brengel and Somma who overcame the loss of so many friends and colleagues to congregate in the shadow of destruction, and defiantly play their pipes.