For the past three years, the oral history project StoryCorps has recorded nearly 800 interviews from relatives and friends of people killed seven years ago today, on September 11, 2001. These recordings will eventually be preserved as part of the National September 11 Memorial Museum’s permanent collection. We hear some of these voices and speak to StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, as well as Norene Schneider, whose brother, Tommy Sullivan, was killed at the World Trade Center. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Memorials are being held across the country today to mark the seventh anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people. In Washington, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are attending a dedication of the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.
Here in New York, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain will meet and lay a wreath together at Ground Zero. Tonight, Obama and McCain will speak at Columbia University in a nationally televised forum about civic engagement and service.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin our coverage of the 9/11 anniversary by playing audio recordings from the StoryCorps September 11th Initiative. For the past three years, the oral history project StoryCorps has recorded nearly 800 interviews from relatives and friends of people killed on September 11th. These recordings will eventually be preserved as part of the National September 11th Memorial Museum’s permanent collection.
The founder of StoryCorps, Dave Isay, joins us here in our New York studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dave.
DAVE ISAY: Hi, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about StoryCorps, in general, for those who aren’t familiar with it.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. StoryCorps is a very simple idea. We opened five years ago, and we built a booth in Grand Central terminal, where you bring a loved one, a parent or a friend, or even your bus driver to do an interview about their lives. You sit in this booth — the lights are low — for forty minutes, and you look each other in the eyes and ask about one another’s lives and tell someone how much you love them by listening to them. At the end of forty minutes, two CDs are burned. One goes home with you; the other goes to the Library of Congress to become part of this oral history of America.
And the idea of StoryCorps — there are kind of many underpinning kind of ideas of StoryCorps. One of the ideas is that our stories, the stories of regular people, are as interesting and as important, if not more interesting and more important, than the kind of celebrity nonsense we’re bombarded from all — everywhere we look, twenty-four hours a day, and the idea that people want to know that they matter and that they won’t be forgotten.
When StoryCorps started, I had a feeling that we’d see a lot of people come in who had a loved one who was very ill to record their stories, and we did see that, but we also saw something I didn’t expect, which was families coming in to remember a loved one who had passed away and memorialize them in that way. So when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation asked us to open a booth down at the World Trade Center site, it made a lot of sense. And we opened a booth for families to come and remember loved ones who were lost on September 11th and also for rescue workers and survivors to come in and tell their stories.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you introduce us to the first clip?
DAVE ISAY: Sure. I think what I’m going to play first is actually clip number one, which is Chief William Feehan. And this was actually from before StoryCorps. This was one of the inspirations for StoryCorps.
William Feehan died at seventy-one. He was the oldest and highest-ranking firefighter to die on September 11th. And he had done — he had been interviewed by his son a couple years before his death. And Bill Feehan, his son, is a friend of mine and gave me this tape on September 11th, and we put together this tape along with Chief Feehan’s favorite music for his memorial service. So this was kind of one of the inspirations before StoryCorps started. On September 11th, this was put together. It’s Chief Feehan, his father — Chief Feehan’s father was a firefighter. Chief Feehan’s son John is a firefighter. And these are Chief Feehan’s own words, talking about being a firefighter, put to his favorite music. And that’s clip one.
CHIEF WILLIAM FEEHAN: When you have a department whose men and women are expected to be ready at any moment to put their life on the line to go to the aid of a stranger, even when it means that you may put yourself in dire peril, I don’t think you can pay people to do that job. There has to be something beyond money that makes them do that.
The whole department exists for one reason: the whole department exists simply to serve the people of the city. And I know that everybody hears those kinds of things, and it sounds — and it sounds kind of corny, it sounds a little hackneyed, perhaps, but that’s the reason this department exists. And the thing that sets the firefighter apart is that it’s he or she who, when the bell sounds, has to go and be ready at any moment to go in harm’s way and to do whatever is necessary to help the person who called them.
This department is rich in tradition. It’s rich in history. You know, we’ve had 127 years of paid fire department in New York City, and in that 127 years, we have lost 752 people. That’s an awfully large number. And I don’t think anybody who understands this business and understands this department — I mean, I think we all have the same wish, that that’s the last, that we’ll never lose another. But I know — I mean, I know as soon as I’m sitting here that no matter what we do and no matter how well we train, no matter how good our equipment is, no matter how hard we try, no matter — no matter what, there will be a 753rd.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Feehan made this recording of his dad, William Feehan, of course, before September 11th, when William Feehan died. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Dave, I’d like to ask you, in terms of the process of collecting the interviews, these were all people who came to your booth? You didn’t go out and try to find them to do the interviews?
DAVE ISAY: Yes, people — people come to our — we made an announcement three years ago that we were opening this booth and then, two years ago, that we were going to try and collect one story for every life lost, and it’s 2,981 lives lost, at least one story for each life lost. So, family members know about us.
And when — we’re a human service. It’s very difficult to come into this booth and make these recordings. When families are ready, they come in by themselves or with a loved one. Most — we’ve done 20,000 StoryCorps interviews in total across the country. And most people come in in pairs. We actually found that a lot of September 11th families come in by themselves. And when they come in by themselves, they’re interviewed by a facilitator, someone who works with us. So, families come to us and make a recording about their loved one who passed away.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip you have of Norene Schneider talking about her brother, and then we’ll be joined by Norene Schneider live.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, Norene was the — Norene and her mom Arlene were the first people to record in our booth down at Ground Zero. And they came to remember Tommy, who was Norene’s brother, who perished at Windows on the World on September 11th.
AMY GOODMAN: This is the clip.
NORENE SCHNEIDER: He was always very smart, a very bright boy. When he was five, we went into a candy store one day, and the man had a sign: “Pretzels, two cents each, or two for five cents.” And he said to the man, “That sign’s not right, mister.” He said, “It’s two cents each or three for five cents.” So the man said, “My sign’s not wrong.” And Tommy said, “Well, then I want one for two cents and another one for two cents.” He didn’t want to give him that extra penny. So, maybe he was cut out for finance, even at that age.
AMY GOODMAN: Norene Schneider, her brother Tommy Sullivan, killed at the World Trade Center on September 11th. Where was he, Norene? And welcome to Democracy Now!
NORENE SCHNEIDER: Good morning, and thank you for having me. Tommy was having breakfast at a meeting at Windows on the World.
AMY GOODMAN: He worked there?
NORENE SCHNEIDER: No, he worked on the New York Stock Exchange.
AMY GOODMAN: There were — what? It was a breakfast of some 500 people? I’ve met a lot of the workers at Windows on the World —-
NORENE SCHNEIDER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —- who survived, —-
NORENE SCHNEIDER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- those who maybe were scheduled that morning to work but then got pushed over to the afternoon. A number of them set up a new restaurant called Colors, a worker-owned collective, where they come back together. But tell us about that morning.
NORENE SCHNEIDER: Well, every Tuesday — he was a floor broker on the New York Stock Exchange, and every Tuesday they had a meeting to meet with the American Stock Exchange brokers, just to talk about the business. So it was just their regular, you know, Tuesday morning. The funny thing is, is that Tommy was supposed to have surgery the week before, but he didn’t want to miss that meeting, so he made sure that he went in, you know, for it. He was having surgery the next day.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And your decision to participate in the StoryCorps interviews, how did you feel about that, about sort of bearing what you knew about your brother and his stories?
NORENE SCHNEIDER: I think one of the things that I looked for when all this began was the best way to have him remembered. You know, the thing that bothered me the most was that people didn’t know who he was as a person. You know, so when I met Dave and, you know, he talked about the project, you know, I fell in love with it, because I said this is the best way for people to know him the way that I do, and who better to tell his story than me?
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you, Norene, that morning?
NORENE SCHNEIDER: I was home. I called in sick, only ’cause I worked across the street, so I wasn’t there. I wound up there later on during the day. But yeah, I worked at 200 Liberty, which was right across from the World Trade Center.
AMY GOODMAN: And you just happened to be sick that day?
NORENE SCHNEIDER: Just happened to be sick that day, so…
AMY GOODMAN: And when did you learn about what happened to Tommy?
NORENE SCHNEIDER: I watched it on TV, and I knew that he was at that meeting. So I hopped into my car, and I just hoped, because their meeting normally ended at 8:30. So, in my head, he was already down, already on the street, and I was just going to go and get him. So I drove down to Jersey City to try to, you know, get as close as I could to him.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the bonds that developed among the families of the victims over time — have you stayed in touch with, over these last seven years, with some of the other families?
NORENE SCHNEIDER: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. You know, people don’t understand the way that we feel. So, we have our own little family now. Yeah, so I’m very good friends with some of the other sisters, because they get, you know, the way that I feel. And my mother is friendly with some of the mothers. And we’ve formed our own little group, you know, of people that get along.
AMY GOODMAN: What will you be doing today to honor this day?
NORENE SCHNEIDER: We’re going to go to the site after this, and then we’re having a ceremony for him later on tonight.
AMY GOODMAN: We at Democracy Now! are just blocks from where the towers of the World Trade Center once stood. In fact, we were broadcasting Democracy Now! when the second tower was hit. The first tower hit at 8:46; that was right before we used to record Democracy Now! at 9:00. The second plane hit about 9:02. We had just begun the broadcast.
We, ironically, were doing a special that day on another September 11th and its connection with terrorism: September 11, 1973, when Salvador Allende died in the palace in Chile, as the Pinochet forces rose to power. And then everything outside overwhelmed what we were doing.
Well, a year later, on September 11th, 2002, we had a many-hour broadcast in our studio here at DCTV, where we broadcast from, Downtown Community Television, a hundred-year-old firehouse, which, by the way, on September 11, 2001, Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno, who run this community media center, opened the doors to help people who were running from the World Trade Center, getting them water, allowing them to use the phones. But a year later, lots of people came to our studio, and one of the people offered this song. She was Odetta.
ODETTA: [singing] When my way grows drear, precious Lord, linger near. When my life is, oh, almost gone, hear my cry, hear my call, hold my hand, lest I fall. Take my hand, precious Lord. Lead me home.
AMY GOODMAN: Odetta singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez, on this very solemn day, on September 11th. Seven years ago, the planes hit both towers of the World Trade Center and took them down. Almost 3,000 people died.
Dave Isay, our guest, radio pioneer, founder of StoryCorps, with a special project, the September 11th Initiative. Continue on the journey, Dave.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. We’re going to play a clip now of Monique Ferrer, who came into StoryCorps to remember her ex-husband Michael Trinidad. Michael was — worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. He was a telecommunications specialist. And this is Monique remembering her ex-husband.
MONIQUE FERRER: I met Michael at a Halloween party. I was fourteen, and he was sixteen years old. And when I saw him, I knew that he was going to be my boyfriend. And we got married when I was nineteen. And we were both kids. We really didn’t know what next, you know? Party, get married and, you know, now what?
When we were divorced, I remember the kids telling me that their father confided in them with a secret, and they didn’t want to tell me. And I’m like, “Well, what’s the secret?” And they said, “Well, Daddy still loves you. He doesn’t want us to tell you.” And I said, “Well, I know. I’ve always known. And I love him, too. But Mommy and Daddy have gone their separate ways, but we’ll always be a family, and we’ll always be your mom and dad.”
On 9/11, I remember getting up to take my daughter — she had a doctor’s appointment, so my daughter was home. At 9:04, I got a phone call, and it was Michael, and he was calling from the 103rd floor. And the first thing that he said was, “I’m calling to say goodbye.” And I said, “Why? Where are you going?” And he said, “Well, I’m in the building that was just hit by a plane.” He just wanted to tell me how much he loved the children. And he says, “You know, I also want to tell you that I always loved you.” And I said, “I know. The kids told me.”
And I’m remarried, so my husband was next to me, and I asked my husband to get on the phone. And I thought maybe my husband could talk him into finding an exit. And when my husband got on the phone, he asked my husband if he would be my children’s father. And my husband said, “You’re going to be coming home. You’re going to be their dad. And I’m their dad, too.” And he’s like, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
And my daughter was there, and she saw me becoming a little hysterical. And I didn’t know whether to put her on or not, because I didn’t know how he would react. He thought she was at school. You know, even though we weren’t together anymore, it just really breaks my heart that he’s not here for them. And as much as he used to drive me crazy, he was my family and my best friend.
AMY GOODMAN: Monique Ferrer, remembering her [ex-husband] Michael Trinidad, who died on September 11, 2001. He worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. They lost hundreds of workers, close to, was it, 900 workers, at the World Trade Center on that day. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Dave, you have about 800 of these interviews of family members, and you’re hoping to get all 3,000 of the victims, some family member or other, to talk. Can you tell us about the next interview we’re going to hear?
DAVE ISAY: Sure. This is — well, part of what — as Norene said, part of what’s important about StoryCorps to families is that it gives people a chance to remember who their loved one was, not on September 11th, as a child or as a brother or as a boyfriend. And this is Richard Pecorella, Richie Pecorella, who was engaged to Karen Sue Juday. Karen worked as a secretary at Cantor Fitzgerald. And he came in to talk about their really incredible love affair, and he starts his story at a NASCAR race, where they met each other in Pennsylvania.
RICHARD PECORELLA: A friend of mine gave me tickets to a car race. He says, “Why don’t you go to an Indy car race?” He says, “Get out of New York for awhile. Just go have a good time. You’ll enjoy the race.”
I went to the race and, you know, sat down, and I’m looking around. And all of a sudden, Karen comes in, blond curly hair, big smile on, and sits down next to me. And she says, “Hello.” I say, “How you doing?” say, “First car race.” “First car race? You’ve never been to one?” I said, “No.” “Ah, I’ll tell you all about it.”
I knew, as soon as I looked at her, that she was the one. It was magical. I can’t describe it. I couldn’t tell her that, but I was like a fifteen-year-old again. I got all google-eyed and didn’t what to do or say and stumbling, wasn’t like me at all, wasn’t the typical macho Italian guy from Brooklyn. I says, “Maybe you’d like to go to dinner after the race? She goes, “You know what? Maybe I will.”
When I met Karen, somehow she relaxed me, and she showed me how to live in a city of stress without the stress. She just taught me patience. I had very little patience. Basically I was, you know, one of those guys who rolled down the window and screamed at the drivers when they weren’t driving the way I thought they should be. And she toned me down. She showed me to be nicer to people, give it a second thought before you start yelling. And I’ve carried that with me.
Any time we did a driving trip, it was always an adventure, even a short trip. We would go to her brother’s house quite often, and it became a joke later on. We would get frisky in the car and would decide to stop at a motel along the way. And her brother would be waiting for us to get there in two hours, and we wouldn’t get there for five hours. But our best trips were to Las Vegas. We just — she loved it there, and I loved it there. We just got back from there two days before she was killed. And we were going to get married there the following June.
Other than her going to work, there wasn’t a time we weren’t together. Every morning, Karen would drive with me to my office, and then she’d take the subway from my office one stop to the Trade Center. I worked in Brooklyn, so my window, across the East River, I could see the Twin Towers.
So I’m doing some work, and one of my workers comes in and says, “Richie, I just heard that the Trade Center got hit with a plane.” I turn around, and I see the building burning. And I took my office chair, and I threw it at my window. And I’m going into shock, I would imagine, so they brought the nurse up. The nurse says, “Sit down,” and she gives me a bottle of water. I have the bottle of water, and it’s — I mean, it’s in my hand, and my hand is trembling so much that it’s splashing all over me. I couldn’t even hold the bottle in my hand.
I miss her eyes. Her eyes sparkled to me. One day they were blue; next day they were green, depending on how the light hit them.
Karen, I’ll always be in love with you, and I will see you again. I will do enough good to make it up there.
AMY GOODMAN: Richard Pecorella, remembering his fiancee Karen Juday, as we turn now to ten-year-old Frankie DeVito remembering his grandfather Bill Steckman.
FRANKIE DeVITO: We used to play Peter Pan, and we used to use the screwdrivers as swords and pretend I was like Peter Pan, and he was Captain Hook. He always used to be in the garage fixing up things with Cousin Mikey. And he also promised me he’d take me to his work once, but that’s not going to happen.
DIANA DeVITO: I know you were young when it happened. You were only in kindergarten. But is there a time that you were the most scared when all that was going on?
FRANKIE DeVITO: I didn’t know that something happened until I came into the living room, and you were upset. You said there was something wrong with Poppa. That made me scared. I remember that Mikey told me that planes crashed, and he wasn’t coming back.
DIANA DeVITO: Was there anything you did that made you feel better to go to sleep at night?
FRANKIE DeVITO: Going up to Grandma or my parents and giving them a hug, resting on their shoulder. And sometimes when I’m in my room, I pretended that Grandpa was right there and nothing was wrong. And my teddy was right there, so that helps me.
DIANA DeVITO: Do you think you’re different now than you were before we lost Poppa?
FRANKIE DeVITO: Yeah, I think I’m different, because being in certain places, when I’m in a happy time, just somewhere in my mind, he just won’t get out of there. He’s just stuck in my mind. And that makes me a little sadder where I am. And I have dreams with him. I always imagine us like seeing each other again and being really happy as a family, without being sad or anything on September 11th.
DIANA DeVITO: If you could talk to him right now, what would you want to say?
FRANKIE DeVITO: I love you, and there’s no other grandfather I’d rather see than you.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave, tell us about ten-year-old Frankie DeVito, who we just listened to.
DAVE ISAY: Well, his grandfather worked for NBC and was working the night shift and was in charge of the communications tower on top of the World Trade Center. And he came with his mom to do that interview.
AMY GOODMAN: Ten years old.
DAVE ISAY: I think he’s — I think he was seven when he did that interview.
AMY GOODMAN: Our last clip?
DAVE ISAY: This is John Vigiano, Sr., who came to StoryCorps with his wife Jan to remember their sons John, Jr., who was a firefighter, and Joe, who was a policeman, both of whom perished on September 11th.
JOHN VIGIANO, SR.: There were a couple of days each year you were allowed to take your children to work, and Joe loved it. That was his birthday present, that he would come spend the night in the firehouse. We’d have a cake, and the guys I work with, they would take a milk container, and they’d cut out the facsimile of a building, and they’d put it on the top of the cake, and then they would light it up. And they would tell Joe to put it out, and he would throw a pot of water on it. The birthday cake was a little soggy, but this is what he wanted.
Joe started dating a young lady whose father was a police officer. And he’d come home one day, and he says, “I’m taking the police test.” I says, “Joe, you’re only seventeen years old.” But he passed the test. And when he graduated, they assigned him to Brooklyn South, where I started my career.
On the other side of the room, my son John wanted nothing to do with police or fire department. He wanted to be the next Donald Trump. He was going to make a million dollars and take care of his mother and father. But in 1984, I came down with throat cancer. He noticed then how the New York City Fire Department, specifically my unit, they took care of us. And he says, “I’m going to become a fireman.” I says, “You’re kidding me. Firemen don’t make millions of dollars. How am I going to live like a king?” But I was very happy, very proud. My father had been on the fire department, and he was the first one to be issued badge number 3436. And when John decided he wanted to be a firefighter, they reissued it to my son John. So, the badge was only used by two.
Both the boys would call me when they were working, talk for a few minutes, and I’d say, “Alright, be careful. I love you.” John would always call around 3:30, 4:00. And that particular night, September 10th, I says, “Look out for your brother tonight.” And he says, “OK. I love you.” I says, “I love you.” Joe called me in the morning and told me to turn on the television, that a plane just hit the Trade Center. And he says, “I’m heading south on West Street. This is a big one.” And I just says, you know, “Be careful. I love you.” He said, “I love you, too.” That was it.
We had the boys for — John for thirty-six years, Joe for thirty-four years. Ironically, badge number 3436. I don’t have any “could’ve, should’ve or would’ves.” I wouldn’t have changed anything. There’s not many people that the last words they said to their son or daughter was “I love you.” And the last words they heard was “I love you.” So that makes me sleep at night.
AMY GOODMAN: John Vigiano, Sr., he lost his son John, Jr., a firefighter, and Joe, a policeman. They both died at Ground Zero.
Dave, what is happening now with the project?
DAVE ISAY: Well, we’re continuing to collect interviews, and they’re all going to go into both the Library of Congress and the September 11th Memorial & Museum. And when that museum opens up, you’ll be able to listen to these stories and look at these pictures, and understand, the — you know, that the tragedy was so enormous, you know. And I think the only way to really comprehend it is to break it down to the individual stories and individual lives. And, you know, there were 3,000 human beings lost, 3,000 lives lost, and we want to do our best to remember all those lives. And that’s, you know, one of the — we talked earlier about the idea of the underpinning ideas of StoryCorps, and one of the underpinning ideas is that every life matters, and that’s what we’re trying to do with this.
You know, I think that — I was thinking on the way over here about September 11th. I was also downtown, just a couple blocks away from here. And we in New York — I don’t know what it was like elsewhere in the country, but something did, as — you know, it’s been talked about before, but something changed here in New York, just for a couple of weeks. And it was almost a state of grace, where people didn’t fear each other anymore. And I think that with StoryCorps, if — which I think is born out of love instead of out of hate, which is what obviously the destruction of the World Trade Center was born out of — if we, through StoryCorps and through listening and through Democracy Now! and really having real conversations and really respecting each other and recognizing that every life matters, if we can just nudge the dial just a little bit towards that state of grace that we were in after 9/11, it will be — we’ll be in better shape as a nation.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And for those who want to be able to reach StoryCorps?
DAVE ISAY: Our website is storycorps.net, and you can listen to 9/11 stories and many, many other stories from StoryCorps that we’ve collected all over the country. And we’re just — you know, we’re just getting started. We’ve done our first 20,000 stories. We’re hitting our fifth year anniversary. But, you know, we’re going to grow this into a national institution that documents and defines who we are as a nation. And we want this to be accessible to everybody who wants to participate, so, again, we can look people who are important in our lives in the eyes, people who work hard, people who live lives of courage and kindness, which is really who we are as Americans, and honor them by listening to them.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dave Isay, thanks so much for being with us, for doing this project, for documenting people’s lives, which make them live on. And congratulations on the new little life in your family.
DAVE ISAY: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to the world, Izzy.