By Mara Sonnenschein, Senior Manager for Communications
Building engineer Frank Camporeale began working for the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in September of 1996, a year before the Museum opened. In 1996, Frank’s ‘office’ was a trailer on the construction site.
A year later, the Museum opened its doors to the public on a day that at the time seemed important to the Museum only in terms of its historical timeline: September 11, 1997.
Frank’s job consists of projects that keep the building safe and operating properly. From replacing track lighting to working on new construction, from elevator safety to electrical wiring, to assessing the HVAC equipment and making sure temperatures are properly controlled in our galleries, Frank knows the building inside and out.
Exactly four years after the Museum opened, Frank was at work like it was any other day, arriving between 7 and 8 AM. He started his day like he does every workday: Walking around the building to make sure nothing was out of order, checking the escalators and elevators, and checking the temperature and humidity throughout the building to make sure they were in the right range.
And then at 8:46 AM, the lights flickered.
For someone in Frank’s position, a flicker of lights is not something to ignore. He left the galleries and went to check in with Museum security. At the time, the Museum was just its original six-sided building (an extension was added in 2003). The entrance in 2001, where our security team was based, was a free-standing glass building.
As Frank headed over to the entrance building, he saw the security staff standing outside, looking north. He looked up and there it was: The fiery gash in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, smoke billowing out.
“We didn’t know what was really going on,” Frank said when he talked about it recently. “But we knew it was bigger than something like a helicopter.”
He went back into the Museum to get his camera. “People didn’t have smart phones with cameras back then.”
Once he was back outside, he took several photos of what he could see from the Museum, including the photo below.
Then people started jumping out of the building.
Frank paused as he talked about this, remembering. “And that’s when I turned my head,” he finally said. “And then I see the second plane come over us.”
The second plane flew over the Museum, banked, and smacked into the South Tower. “We didn’t just see it. We felt it,” Frank said. “The energy, the power of it. When that second plane hit, we were all outside.
“You have to understand, from where the Museum is, being by the water, we hear a lot of echoes from the Financial District, from streets in other areas. After that plane hit, you heard screaming, all in unison. People were running through the park.
“And then we heard the F-16s.”
And then it was 10 AM, and the first tower collapsed.
“My wife started calling me,” Frank said. But she couldn’t get in touch with him, and she was terrified.
“We didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t know if there would be another plane, how people would get out.”
But Frank said he knew he was going to survive. “You just have a feeling that you know it’s not going to happen to you. You try to keep your sanity. You try to keep calm.”
His reaction: To make sure everything was appropriately taken care of.
“The way the building’s designed, when mechanical equipment shut off, it’s a domino effect. Everything shuts. So I just had to go up on the roof to confirm that the vents and louvers were closed so there would be a minimum amount of dust and debris coming in from outside.”
The roof itself was filled with dust. Everything was white. But Frank made sure everything was closed up. The Museum building was as safe as it could be, thankfully, because then the order came to evacuate.
Frank recalled, “So, okay, how was I getting home to New Jersey? I have family in Brooklyn. I have family in Staten Island. I was just going to walk.
“But then they had the boats, the tug boats, and ferries, to evacuate people. And the Museum is right here on the river. So I took a tug boat to Staten Island. I met my brother, went to his house, and first thing there, I called my wife so she knew I was safe. We discussed how I would get home. Then I took a shower to get all the dust off me.
“Once I was in Staten Island, I met up with a friend and we drove home together, that same day. And on that drive, there was only one lane going home because there was so much reinforcement coming into the city. Heavy duty machinery: Payload, bulldozers, cement trucks. Somehow there’s a plan that goes into effect when a disaster strikes, and I saw that plan in action.”
Frank was back at the Museum on September 13 to assess the building, then went home for about a week. On September 20, staff members started coming back to clean up the building.
The Museum reopened to the public on October 5, 2001.
19 years later, Frank has also seen the Museum through Hurricane Sandy and now, the novel coronavirus pandemic. As New York City begins to slowly reopen, Frank – who has seen the Museum, and the neighborhood, and the city, reopen and rebound twice before – has a helpful perspective.
“Reopening is just the beginning,” he said. “But it’s a great beginning.”