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Pulled from the Wreckage 10 Years Ago


UC Communications Chief Has Story to Tell About 9/11

Literally pulled from the debris, Lynn Tierney went on to help establish a Tribute Center in lower Manhattan to honor those who died on Sept. 11.

(September 5, 2011)

Lynn Tierney, associate vice president of communications at the University of California headquarters in Oakland, is writing a memoir about her experiences in New York during the terrorist attacks. On Sept. 11, 2001, Tierney was the deputy fire commissioner of the New York City Fire Department.Enlarge

Lynn Tierney, associate vice president of communications at the University of California headquarters in Oakland, is writing a memoir about her experiences in New York during the terrorist attacks. On Sept. 11, 2001, Tierney was the deputy fire commissioner of the New York City Fire Department.

Lynn Tierney, associate vice president of communications at the University of California headquarters in Oakland, is writing a memoir about her experiences in New York during the terrorist attacks.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Tierney was the deputy fire commissioner of the New York City Fire Department. All of the firefighters she traveled to the World Trade Center with on that infamous day died in the tower collapses. Tierney sought refuge in the loading dock of one of the towers when the first tower fell. She had to crawl to safety through a blinding cloud of ash and debris, holding onto the belt of her assistant. She doesn't mind talking about those experiences because, she said, the more people learn about that day, the more they can understand it.

"At the very worst time in our history, I saw the very best in the people who responded," she said. "That whole day whether you lived or died was a matter of happenstance and a few feet. I have grasped how short life is and how precious and how you should live it purposefully every day."

Tierney helped immortalize the heroes of this national tragedy as president of the Tribute Center, a lower Manhattan visitor center that serves as both a tribute to the fallen and an educational center that opened in 2006.

She arrived at the University of California in February, 2009. She oversees the media relations, internal communications and marketing and communications groups.

This is an excerpt from one of Tierney’s book chapters:

The Boat

About two days after the collapse we began to get calls from families looking to go to Ground Zero. There were so many questions playing in the minds of people who had missing loved ones. Everyone had begun to hear the words “recovery” instead of rescue and they couldn’t accept it. They had seen destruction on TV and because they had to have hope, many convinced themselves that under those towering ruins there must be pockets of refuge where their relatives were holding out waiting for rescue. I would get a call from a mother or a wife who would tell me, “Look Lynn, I know a lot of people didn’t make it, but my guy is different. I know he’s down there, under a slab, maybe near a parking lot where he could have crawled into a car. He can make it and we have to get to him.”

There was an absolute rejection of the possibility that their loved ones could be dead. These were firefighters; they knew about collapse and they knew about survival, so did their families. It wasn’t that the families weren’t being realistic, it’s just that fire families are dealing with a different knowledge base and exposure level than other families when it came to collapse and also there was a different skill set in their loved ones, so they had full confidence that their guys could protect themselves, protect others and make it out!

We drew up a plan to run escorted tours to the site twice a day. We made up a script that tried to prepare families for what they’d see: “ This will be a chance for you to see the site close up and get a better understanding of the rescue and recovery challenges.” We asked them to bring extra clothing, having noticed some of the people in mourning were always cold and their teeth were chattering. It was likely shock.

The families were brought in by boat, along the East River and around the tip of Manhattan to a ferry terminal within walking distance to Ground Zero. On the first trip, I think we were as nervous as the families

It was impossible to remember everyone’s name or who they were related to, so I would simply approach each person and ask who they were looking for. I didn’t say, “Who did you lose?” because I knew some were sure their loved one was still alive. They’d say brother, uncle, husband, son, nephew.

The boat rides took about 15 minutes, enough time for conversation and trading information. The atmosphere was animated, anxious. There was anger. It was a palpable growing anger at how families had been notified, where they were getting their news, who at FDNY was and wasn’t being responsive and so on.

The reality was that they were furious that they’d lost their loved ones and were looking for someone to blame and there wasn’t really anyone. It was all compounded by the fact that people were beginning to get bodily fragments of their loved ones back and no one on earth was ready for that. Some talked awkwardly about giving DNA samples, part of the identification process; about searching and finding a toothbrush or comb and turning it into the police and getting back a homicide case number. How was it possible that on a fine fall day out in the middle of New York harbor the talk turned to DNA?

Many were embarrassed by such talk. I did my best to reassure them. Never in our lives did we think we’d be in a group of people brought together by a tragedy like this, I said. “There is NOTHING you can’t ask, NOTHING you can’t feel pissed about, NOTHING is too weird or crazy to feel.”

Before we stepped off the boat, I warned them that there might be a tremendous smell. It was clearly the smell of death, but it was also the remains of hundreds of pounds of rotting produce and meat from the restaurants. We told them it was the remains of a nearby Burger King and that they should not be alarmed. We thought lying was better than telling the truth in this instance.

One or two firefighters helped escort the group to Ground Zero. When the rescue workers still digging for remains saw us coming, they lined the street, placing their hard hats over their hearts. The families were so touched. Looming in front of us was the awful sight. The ragged remains of the façade, jutting eight stories out of the ground, the collapsed hotel with its two-story windows intact, mountains of jagged steel and all covered in ash and soot as fine as silt. Smoke and steam still poured from the debris. The first reactions were generally gasps of surprise, followed by tears. The minute they saw it they knew…NO HOPE. Many shook their heads in desolation and realization.

Many of the women, mothers especially, needed a shoulder to cry on, an arm for support. Some of the people tried to go closer and we had to hold them back lest they step on glass or steel or trip. The FDNY chaplain called everyone together for prayer. He asked God to witness the anguish of these families and to give them peace by letting them know that the ones they loved had no more pain, no more worry. He implored those who felt so moved to call out, to say goodbye to their loved ones, to set them free to go to God.

Some balked, even after 14 days not wanting to give up hope. Others cried out…”Good-bye, my son” … “Daddy, we miss you.” Some of the rescue and construction workers broke down with sobs. Firefighters took bouquets of flowers from the families and placed them on the wreckage.

Back in the boat, few words were spoken. All of us lost in our own thoughts. Many of the wives whispered to me that their father, or father in law, had been so angry on the way over but were now sleeping. For many, it was the first time since September 11th that they had been able to say goodbye, to finally let go. They needed rest now.

As time went on, the family visits became routine, though no less emotional
We learned to watch for teenagers who would become especially disturbed as they approached Ground Zero. Some would turn and run for the boat when they saw the ruins. They couldn’t take it.

One day a steel worker grabbed a lanky 17-year-old, running full tilt in the direction of the boat, and just crushed him to his chest and let him cry and scream it out. I stood back, thinking he needed a man’s strong arms around him. After they separated, I took the boy to the boat and offered him some water. He told me that he’d known that his Dad was missing but was sure he was alive till he saw the wreckage. At that moment he felt his Dad leave him. “Somehow it’s better to know,” I said. “He would want you to know and begin to deal with it rather than falsely hope.” “You’re right,” the boy said. I kept thinking, why does a 17-year-old have to go through that?

One afternoon on the boat, I encountered Sandra Burnside, an oncology nurse whose firefighter husband, John, was among the missing. She quickly let me know that she felt abandoned by FDNY. She was furious at the department for being maddeningly uncommunicative. She had yet to receive official notification that John was missing. Nobody could tell her how the search for his husband’s remains was being conducted. Most hurtful, someone from the department had reached out to his parents but overlooked her. Once she got home, she intended to write a really harsh letter to us.

Well, I said, if you write it, I’ll get it, so why not just tell me about it.

On the night of 9/11 she was frantic for information. She called FDNY’s offices, but to no avail. She finally got through to her husband’s firehouse, Ladder 20.

“I’m the wife of John Burnside,” she said, “and I want information about him or I want to know where to go for it.”

The guy on the phone sounded completely overwhelmed. “Look, Miss,” he said, “I don’t know what to tell you, all notifications from this house are being handled by the union delegate and you are going to have to call back and talk to him.”

“My husband IS the union delegate,” she screamed into the phone.

We both had to laugh at the absurdity of it.

Some quick fact checking helped explain most of what went wrong. John Burnside, very typically, had failed to update his paperwork after he and Sandra married five years earlier. He had moved into her apartment after their wedding but neglected to tell us that he had a new address. His firehouse kept file cards on each of its guys in a recipe box, and John’s card listed his parents as emergency contacts. But there was no mention of a Sandra Burnside. As far as FDNY knew, she did not exist.

The outdated records aside, she was exactly the kind of person we might miss the first time around: self reliant, not much involved with firehouse goings-on, not seeking financial help right away. No excuses, I said, but you are a little too independent for us to be all over you right now.

Sandra, a beautiful blonde with a great smile, became a great ally. She helped me track down widows in situations similar to hers, and they became one of my favorite groups. At my request, she joined the family advisory board we established to represent her class of surviving family member.

We ran the boat service for about 4 months. By that time everyone had been to the site, there had been memorial services, the harbor was reopened and the 9/11 families organization had opened a family only viewing room on the 20th floor of an office building opposite the site. Families could go sit, reflect and leave pictures and mementos that would be preserved and not get lost in the rubble. Many celebrated birthdays, anniversaries or weddings by going to the family room just to be close to the one they lost.

When we built the Tribute Center a few years later, we contacted all the families and asked them to donate pictures and /or mementos of their loved one so they could be on display for the entire world to see…much like they had in the family room. It is by far the most moving exhibit at Tribute.

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