Reflecting on the 20 year anniversary of 9/11, Mellano Farm Stand would like to share the personal experience of our Manager, Michelle Castellano, who experienced first hand and assisted first responders after the tragic attack. Below is an interview of her incredible story.
Why were you in New York on September 11th?
I was there for a convention. My family’s flower farm was going to have a booth at an international floral convention on September 12th & 13th. I have always loved New York City and so I jumped at the chance to go and even went in a few days early to visit my friend, Marjoel, and enjoy that city that I love so much! My co-worjer, Angelica, arrived on the evening of September 10th since we were scheduled to set up the booth on the afternoon of the 11th. On the morning of September 11th, we were up early visiting customers in New York’s wholesale flower market which is on 6th Avenue and 28th Street. It’s strange to think about, but after meeting with customers that morning we had planned to walk directly down 6th Avenue to the twin towers – it was Angelica’s first time in New York and we were going to go to the Top of the World for a quick drink and take in the city view before heading to Javits’s convention center.
Is that where you were when the planes hit?
Yes, we were out on the sidewalk of 6th Avenue talking to a customer outside his shop (George Rallis) making dinner plans with he and his wife when the first plane hit. If you are familiar with 6th Avenue, it is a wide street that looked directly at the original towers. From our view the plane hit behind the building, so when we heard it and looked up, we saw the explosion/smoke from behind. Obviously, everyone was shocked and confused, but you must understand that since none of us saw the large plane actually hit the building, there was a lot of confusion – most people assuming it was a traffic helicopter, etc. People started coming out of the local stores and people were turning on car radios. It took a few minutes to start to grasp what had happened and how to react, and then as we were all looking up at the smoke, etc. we watched the second plane approach the building and screamed as it crashed directly into the building. That is when fear and the need of immediate escape set in.
How close were you? Were you in danger?
No, while visually we had a direct view, physically 28th street is far from the World Trade Center area. Chaos started to ensue as everyone started locking up and getting out of the city. With no radio, no home to return to and no sense of what was happening, we walked into a sports bar that had TVs so we could watch the news and try and grasp what was taking place. It was then that my cousin Mike (who had a career in the army before returning to our family business) called to make sure that we were OK and directed us to get into our hotel. His advice was that terrorists are organized and there is more to come – probably car bombs, etc. so we needed to get in our room, fill the tub with water and put the mattresses against the windows. That is when we really realized that this was bigger than two airplanes. Our hotel, the New Yorker, was not that far but in the few blocks it took us to head back, the towers fell. My cousin’s warning really hit us hard and we were scared another building could be next, so we ran to the hotel, where the lobby was filled with clean towels and bottles of water and a sign telling us to help ourselves as the staff was all sent home. We hid in our room, watching the news like the rest of the world…feeling shocked and helpless.
So you stayed in your room?
We did for most of the day. And like everyone, we watched in terror as we started to piece together what had happened. There was a request for blood donations in the Manhattan area, since at that time they expected so many injured people to be immediately brought to the hospital. We jumped at the chance to help and went to the local hospital but were turned away. While the media was well-intended, the hospitals did not want the masses of volunteers showing up since they were still waiting for the flood of victims. There was still so much unknown about the repercussions of this horrible event. We went for a walk and it was eerie how quiet New York City was. It was a beautiful day, yet in the distance the smoke filling the air reminded everyone of the horror that lay south of us. And we just felt helpless.
On our walk we passed a Salvation Army headquarter office and went in to ask if there was something we could do to help. We met a wonderful woman, Mary-Sue Gray, and explained to her that New York was not home, there were no flights out, and after what we witnessed, we wanted to help in any way we could. She explained that it was still chaotic and dangerous, but that the next morning they were taking a group of volunteers into Ground Zero to bring water and emotional support for the crews working and if we wanted to help, she would welcome us to join her team. The next morning, we joined her team entering Ground Zero less than 24 hours after the towers had fallen.
Wow. What was that like?
Indescribable. As we walked closer and closer the landscape changed from normal New York city streets and shops to everything having a light layer of dust/ash. And the further we walked, the deeper the layer of ash. I remember passing cars with at least six inches of the powder covering the car…. almost like a layer of snow the morning after the first snowfall. I can still taste the air and as we got closer and closer you would choke on the air filled with dust and ash. While I was not familiar with the landscape at that time, I now know we set up our base in the bottom of the American Express building. A man by the name of Dennis had set up a table where he had sandwiches and snacks that he was offering to volunteers. The Salvation army dropped off our supply of water there and it became our base. I learned that Dennis was not part of the Salvation Army or any other organization. Rather, he was just a local guy wanting to help and had emptied a local mini market that had its windows and doors blasted out and brought the carts full of food here. His 2 brothers would join us later and soon the five of us became a team. At the end of the day Mary-Sue gathered up her crew to leave for the day, but we remained.
We would spend the next week working, eating, and even sleeping on the floor of the American Express building. We would carry buckets when they needed us to join the bucket line – and we would stop our work and silently lower our heads every time the bell rang indicating that remains were brought passed us – and we would carry water bottles into the piles to relief workers, and we talk to the relief workers who needed someone to talk to on their break. Supplies started to arrive via boat (the back patio of this building is on the river) and we started to receive not only more food and water, but socks and masks and glove, so we set up stations in the food court. The back patio became a rest area for the search and rescue dogs. It was an amazing thing to watch as everyone came together.
So you stayed at Ground Zero?
Yes, we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave even just to go back to our hotel and shower/sleep. Not only did we want to help non-stop, but because we had no official status to be there, we were not sure that if we left that we would be able to return. The area was secured for obvious reasons and without proper relief worker documentation, I am guessing we would be turned away.
I remember on the second or third day we were talking to some firefighters who had come from Rhode Island. So many workers from outside the New York area everyone came to help. They were exhausted and tired from working but had nowhere to go rest other than the floor like the rest of us. Angelica and I gave them our hotel key and told them they were welcome to go sleep and shower at our hotel. In hindsight giving total strangers your hotel key where all your personal items were including your wallet is not necessarily the smartest move…but this was different. We were all family down there working toward one cause, and if we could help each other…we did.
So did they use the hotel room?
They did! We know they did because upon our return a few days later there was a scribbled “thanks” on the hotel notepad, yet we never saw them again. We did see President Bush, Mayor Giuliani and Senator Clinton when they visited Ground Zero and the president took a megaphone and spoke to us all. I was standing next to the guy who yelled “we can’t hear you” to President Bush. It was an emotional time of everyone sharing anger towards to the terrorists and patriotism to their country. As I said – we were one.
How long were you at Ground Zero?
We were there about a week. By that time things were getting organized both in and out of Ground Zero. Flights were starting to take off out of New York, so we were able to secure seats on a flight back to California. And within Ground Zero, organizations such as the Red Cross and military had come in and set up professional aid stations and proper shifts of workers. While it was time for us to go, it was also hard to leave. It was fulfilling being able to help in this desperate time of need, versus feeling helpless.
And while we were “alone” in New York, we were never alone. Local friends reached out to see if they could house us. Floral customers wanted to take us in, and one even offered us their car to drive back to California since there were no flights or rental cars available. The floral industry was amazing to watch during this time of grief – both in and out of New York. And while I will never forget the horrors and sorrow of 9-11, I will also never forget how we all came together.
I have been back to New York since 9-11 and I always go to visit the American Express building. There is memorial there that I just love. A small fountain the lobby with drops representing the individuals from that building that drip at different times representing the individuality of each person but the ripples also show that we are all connected. My New York tradition is to get a coffee from the Starbucks in that building’s food court and sit by this fountain remembering. It is not as big and poignant as the 9-11 memorial that was built, but for me it is my place to reflect not only on those that died, but those that helped.
Can you believe it has been 20 years?
I really cannot. So much has changed since then. But also, so much has stayed the same. There are still horrible travesties taking place against humanity, but there is also unity and kindness coming from good people. Never forget. I certainly won’t.