The United States is observing another anniversary of 9/11, a date that will remain as a reminder of why the U.S. went to war. 9/11 is the new century’s Gulf of Tonkin. It is not just one day. It is now an era.
As with the raid on Pearl Harbor, the repercussions and the rescue missions lasted for weeks afterwards. We see much about the cops, fire fighters and EMT’s who sacrificed their lives at the scene and their colleagues and compatriots who searched for days for survivors after the destruction. Respect to them all.
Respect, too, to the rescue dogs that searched loyally and fearlessly. But I—we—cannot forget the dozens of Union Iron Workers who left their jobs in New Jersey and Manhattan to help search and make way for searchers in all that tangled steel, cement, wires and rebar. And, the toxic dust.
For me, two Mohawk iron workers come to mind, two Mohawk iron workers who answered the call to search and rescue. These two were part of dozens of iron workers who went to help, most from Union Locals 440 and 361. One is my brother-in-law and the other was a brother, a friend to the end: Eric Sunday and Brad Bonaparte. Exceptional men in their own right.
Eric, a man among men. A fighter, a hard worker and a respected man who overcame many of life’s challenges.
Brad was a man of reason and observation. Brad was an artist first. His iron-working skills reflected that. His eye for detail made him a man to hire and trust. His love of life, and family was a driving force in his life. He did not fear much; he, too, was respected; he was resolved in his understanding and love of the culture in which he was raised.
Like Eric, Brad had a distinct love for his extended family and the Nation of Mohawks. I met Brad during the time he was searching for survivors. He showed up at a Native American Music Association sponsored Blues Fest in Tribeca that I helped organize. We had a good time that night.
For days after the destruction of the seven buildings that comprised the World Trade Center complex, Eric and Brad walked, crawled and burned iron to find survivors. With no fear, they both worked 12-hour days to find those who were still alive. Not long after rescue efforts began, it was observed that the dust and smoke were very toxic. Experts predicted a steady growth of illnesses among surviving victims, rescue workers and others within the areas where the clouds of smoke and dust drifted, into homes, stores, subway platforms…lungs. After fighting a devastating illness for years, Brad lost his battle with cancer in 2010.
Eric later described his arrival on the scene. Blood, body parts and dust were everywhere. It was a slippery mix. So much life just vaporized into mist and moisture leaving behind only traces of their existence. That is what it was—the stuff they mercilessly leave out of the documentaries. After some hard hours during the initial search, Eric found a survivor, a female office worker.
I know only a little about the building of that massive Trade Center. My father was working for Koch construction, the company contracted to put up the steel. My father was the Superintendent of Welding. Not a weld was made without him knowing. He was a tough guy, and a fair boss.
Dad took me up on the job twice while it was under construction. Once when I was 12 years old and they were on the 60th or so floor. And again when I was 15 years old, the 86th floor.
The third and last time I was on the Towers was when I was 19 when my pals and I had a weekend leave from the Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune. At its upper heights, the weather was very different. The building was designed to sway 14 feet in heavy winds, measured at the top of the towers. You could feel the leeway.
My father would describe days when it was a nice breezy fall day on the ground, up above, it was either sleeting or snowing in winds that would push men around. When it got like that, they shut down the job for the day.
The construction job was insured by Lloyds of London. And they were very meticulous in their surveillance of the daily job. Not a hair out of place. For example, all welds were X-Rayed.
In 1993, some radical Islamists thought that 4,000 pounds of explosives would be enough to bring one of the Towers down. My Dad said, “It is going to take a lot more than that to bring them down.”
Death and injury was not foreign to the Trade Center complex. Today, men work with harnesses are tagged to cables so if they fall, they won’t fall far. In the 1970s, if you fall you fall long and land hard. If a column, or beam was being placed back then and your hand, fingers or leg was in the way. Well, try not to let go of your other grip.
An electrician, in his hour of despair, jumped to his death in a successful suicide attempt from the 82nd floor. My Dad said he found one of his lungs on a ladder on the 12th floor.
When folks jumped from the burning buildings, the explosion from their impact and their splintered bones were shrapnel to those who were near by. The impact sounded like explosions. And, they were.
Eric was working on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. The first of the jets flew down the Hudson, low (900 ft) and fast and passed across the river from his work site.; it came over so low they stopped and watched as it bashed into the tower. They took pictures, not knowing – like everyone else – what actually was happening. As with everyone else, it seemed to be some sort of horrible accident.
Then, the second jet came and it crossed their work site and hit the Tower 2. His work crew literally dropped what they were doing and got in their cars and raced towards Manhattan.
Working another job, Brad was already in the area.
They and other Mohawk iron workers went to work before the smoke cleared and began removing debris looking for survivors. They set to cutting iron, and signaling the cranes that eventually showed up to lift the girders, the beams and the cement.
Because of his heroic efforts, Brad died from cancer thanks to the dust and debris he inhaled. (See Leslie Logan’s column). He left behind his children and wife and a large extended family. He was considered a culture bearer, someone who carries our bones and he shared it in his art.
On an ugly day, these two Mohawks joined many of their brethren and many other men and women with heart and courage. That ugly day that has now dragged on for an ugly decade-and-a-half, with moments of heart and courage, but not yet defined by them. It comes down to this: Are the ceremonies and remembrances of 9/11 a prayer for peace, or a commitment to war?
Brad and Eric made their choice in an instant. Now comes the time for us to decide. When is enough, enough?
Ray Cook is ICTMN’s op-ed editor.
This story was originally published on September 18, 2015.