By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – Mike Pignataro, a Vietnam vet, thought his war efforts were over until Sept. 11, 2001, when he was thrust onto the front lines of what is now called the War on Terror.
The Purple Heart recipient, who lost part of his left leg flying in combat, recalls the shocking events with the introspection of someone who had already experienced hell only to face the same sort of devastation decades later.
On that early autumn day when terrorists brought the World Trade Center towers crashing down, Pignataro was a helicopter pilot for the New York Port Authority, a job he held from 1982 until retiring in 2004.
His initial assignment on 9/11 was to load body bags and fly over what became known as Ground Zero, searching for corpses.
“There were no bodies,” he says. “I changed to [delivering] emergency air packs for the firemen.”
According to eyewitness accounts, the explosions caused by airliners smashing into the towers – and the decision of terrified occupants on the highest floors to jump to their deaths – caused most victims to vaporize. Those trapped by fire were reduced to ash.
A native of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, the 64-year-old pilot moved to Rhode Island with his family five years ago and lives on the Exeter-West Kingston line. He is vice president of the board of the Quonset Air Museum.
Sept. 11 began in an unusual way: the Port Authority’s lone helicopter was down for maintenance and incapacitated.
“The rotors were off. We were watching TV and when we saw the first [plane] hit we wondered if it was an accident. When the second one hit, the mechanics scurried around and got the chopper up.”
Pignataro jumped into the pilot’s seat and took off, becoming one of the first to fly over the scene.
“By the time we got there, the towers were down.”
Eventually, he landed on a grassy area, a block-and-a-half away, in front of the Battery Park apartments.
“I got out of the helicopter and walked up to see everything.”
“I was amazed. You would never think that out of that whole complex you wouldn’t find a computer, a typewriter, furniture. There was nothing to say ‘There was an office here.’ There were only tiny fragments, bits of paper [like confetti.]
“The force was tremendous.”
As time went on and he worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, Pignataro’s actions as a responder blended with impressions of the scene.
Ten years later he can easily summon memories of the acrid odor.
“The burning underground kept going. A colleague came down with a rash from people he would assist coming out of the site and getting into the helicopter. They had dust on their clothing and it got on him.
“They gave us masks when we were walking around but a lot of people took them off. Who knows what they were breathing in.”
Pignataro belives the confusion of 9/11 – nobody was sure what was happening – contributed to loss of life. One Port Authority employee, a dispatcher, was attending a class on the 52nd floor of one tower and related what occurred.
“He was almost thrown out of his chair. He grabbed people and they made it out although everybody was told to stay put. It was bad information. A lot of people died who could have gotten out.”
He recalls the golden Earth globe still standing between what had been the Twin Towers.
“It sat dented in a field of debris.”
Authorities quickly began importing cadaver-hunting dogs and their handlers.
“I brought them from the Connecticut State Police,” he says. “The dogs were wearing booties because their paws were getting ripped up. We worked in 12-hour shifts, from 6 a.m. to 6 pm. I took eight police officers in the back and flew them to the Trade Center where I picked up the early crew I’d left behind and took them back to Teterboro [New Jersey, site of the Port Authority airport.]
“There were Port Authority personnel from the airports, tunnels, bridges; everywhere someone could be spared. We were still working overtime until 2004.”
The Teterboro facility was called into service as a staging area; at some point, FBI and Army personnel began sleeping in the hangar which housed 15-20 helicopters.
“I knew officers who were killed,” Pignataro reflects. “The executive director of the Port Authority and the director of public safety perished. Before 9/11, they’d been taken to the top of the towers to see the emergency helipads. I used to go up there and do inspections.”
During his Port Authority career, his missions involved other brushes with terrorists.
In 1993, when the World Trade Center was struck by a truck bomb and the mastermind, Ramzo Yousef, was captured, notes Pignataro, “I flew him into Stewart airport in New York. I picked him up at 2 a.m. from a military transport. He was hooded and shackled and put in the back of the chopper. They had me get close to the Towers and they took the hood off so he could see they were still standing.
“He said ‘We’ll get it next time.’”
He also transported Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as “The Blind Imam” a few times during his trial. Now serving life in a federal prison hospital in North Carolina, the former international al-Qaeda leader issued a fatwa against America and mentored the group responsible for the 1993 bombing.
Looking back, says Pignataro, the events of 9/11 and the aftermath had a profound impact on responders and support personnel
“It affected all of us. We were all depressed. I didn’t want to put a Christmas tree up that year but my wife said he had to do it for our daughter.”
And still, after his tireless efforts that continued for years as the investigation ground on and a whole new system of security measures changed America forever, Pignataro says, “I wish I could say I did more.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at mgs3dachs@ cox.net.