New York – September 11, 2001: A First-Hand Account


    Private collection of photos on Sept. 11 2001 by Yossie Yurowitz shows Chaskel Bennett evacuating patients in lower Manhattan before the Towers collapsed.New York – While for so many New Yorkers 9-11 are a distant but somber memory, for those were on scene memories of the devastating attack that shook our nation to the core are as vivid today as they were a dozen years ago.

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    Our Place director Yossie Yurowitz and community askan Chaskel Bennett were two of the many Orthodox Jews who raced to Lower Manhattan after hearing reports that a plane had struck the World Trade Center.

    “We were in the car together that morning heading to work and were running late because of selichos,” Yurowitz told VIN News. “We started hearing urgent reports coming over the Hatzolah radio but we thought it was a small commuter plane that got way too close. We waited to hear if more resources were needed. The Hatzolah dispatcher put out a second urgent call saying that another plane had hit the towers and asked for more members and ambulances. Clearly we were under attack.”

    The two headed into the city via the Manhattan Bridge, arriving on scene in less than ten minutes. Bennett, a Hatzolah member, parked his car just one black from the World Trade Center.

    “We figured we could help people,” explained Yurowitz. “We walked up to Broadway where we set up a triage center, lining up ambulances, bandaging people up and sending them off to the hospital.”

    Yurowitz said he began to realize the magnitude of the situation after seeing a man wearing an FBI jacket attempting to pick up a piece of metal that looked like an airplane part.

    “It was so hot that he jumped,” said Yurowitz. “I asked him if we were under attack and he told me he couldn’t answer.”

    According to Bennett, it quickly became apparent that they two had placed themselves in the center of a potentially hazardous situation.

    “I was very aware of the danger and tried my best to stay clear of the falling debris and plane parts that were falling from the building but it never dawned on me the sheer magnitude of the disaster until it was nearly too late,” added Bennett.

    Hearing reports from a police officer stationed nearby about a possible third plane heading from JFK to the towers, Yurowitz heard a loud noise and looked up, expecting to see another plane flying overhead.

    “There was a loud whooshing noise and I froze. I saw a huge mushroom cloud of dirt coming towards me. I looked to the other side and I saw the same cloud heading my way. There was nowhere to go. There I was in my suit and tie, carrying some of the Hatzolah equipment and I got down on my hands and knees in the doorway of a Hallmark store.”

    Yurowitz recalled the dust and dirt raining down everywhere.
    Photo of Sept. 11 2001 by Yossie Yurowitz shows Chaskel Bennett helping patients in lower Manhattan before the Towers collapsed.
    “I couldn’t breathe,” said Yurowitz. “I started wondering, ‘What were we thinking coming down here?’ How was I going to go home and explain to my wife that I was dead? I screamed Shema Yisroel at the top of my lungs. My whole life was flashing in front of my eyes, my wife, my kids, and I was thinking, ‘This is it. Do teshuva now. Say viduy now’.”

    After what seemed liked the longest minute, Yurowitz realized that he was still alive.

    “I stood up and the world went silent. It was like after a snowstorm when everything is totally still. My eyes were caked shut with dirt and I could barely open them. I could just make out the lights of the ambulance penetrating a little through the dirt.”

    Knowing he needed to find his way to safety, Yurowitz tried unsuccessfully to break open the door of the Hallmark store.

    “I pulled the door hard and the lock snapped like butter,” said Yurowitz. “I knew I had to get in to be able to breathe. I found a lady standing there, shaking like a lulav saying, ‘What just happened?’ But all I could think was, ‘I made it. But where is Chaskel?'”

    Opening the door again, Yurowitz called out to the street, and while several others found sanctuary in the Hallmark store, Bennett was not among them.

    “I ran out to the ambulance that was parked on the street,” said Yurowitz. “There were some Hatzolah guys in there but no Chaskel. All I can think is ‘What am I going to tell his wife?'”

    While the rest of the world may have been hearing news reports, at Ground Zero, information was scarce.

    “We heard they had struck the Pentagon and were going for the White House,” recounted Yurowitz. “We didn’t know there were planes. We thought it was missiles. The whole world was following the news but we knew nothing.”

    After being evacuated from the area by fireman, Yurowitz headed north, snapping a single picture of the second tower as it came down.

    “I knew I had to get out of there,” said Yurowitz. “I was covered in soot head to toe and I walked over the Williamsburg Bridge back to Brooklyn. I walked for miles. I had no clue where I was going.”

    While cell phone service was virtually non-existent that day Yurowitz found a message from his mother berating him for being on scene while he was crossing the bridge.

    “She said ‘I know you had no reason to be at the World Trade Center today but I know you were there. You are a husband and a father, you had no business going.'”

    Eventually Yurowitz caught a ride back to Flatbush. At 3 PM he drove to Bennett’s house to return his Hatzolah equipment.

    “His wife opened the door for me and said ‘Where’s Chaskel?'” recalled Yurowitz.

    “I started crying. I dropped his stuff, turned around and walked away. I didn’t want to be the one to tell her.”

    Unbeknownst to Yurowitz or his wife, Bennett was alive and well.

    “When the buildings came down, I literally ran for my life. I looked up and said ‘Hashem, I’m in trouble, please help me.’ And he did! As I was running away from the black cloud, a door opened up at the last second and I found safe refuge in a lobby of a building, 11 John Street, an address I will never forget.”

    The two friends were reunited later that day

    “He showed up at my door, looked at me and said ‘Where were you?'” said Yurowitz.

    After four showers to remove all the debris from his hair, Yurowitz, a member of Shomrim and the chevra kadisha, was ready to go back to Ground Zero that same night.

    “We had a meeting at Bikur Cholim of Borough Park,” said Yurowitz. “There we all were in our boots, all cleaned up and ready to go back in and find the bodies and do the taharas. Yanky Meyer, who now heads Misaskim, comes in and says to us ‘What are you doing here? You are not going to find anything, not even bones, for months and months.’ We looked at him like he was crazy but he was right.”

    Twelve years later, the memories of 9-11 are permanently etched into Yurowitz’s brain.

    “In reality everything took minutes but those minutes felt like hours. I can remember everything, even the weather it is all burnt into my brain. It is so vivid, until today, that it feels like it happened just yesterday.”

    Asked what inspired him to go down to the World Trade Center on that horrific day, Bennett responded simply, “It was a call to duty. Hatzolah members answer the call and Hashem takes care of the rest.”

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    10 years ago

    WOW!!!! MI kiamchu yisroel god look what we do for each other it’s time we all get together in yerushleim and do everything for you!!!!

    Ah Gimar Chasimah toyva..

    10 years ago

    They should ask people how they would feel if in 70 years people denied 9-11 ever happened, even as 9-11 survivors yet lived. And then point out that this is exactly what happened with the Holocaust. Any reader comments?

    10 years ago

    Unfortunately, very little public information (even after twelve years) has appeared in the print media, or on the cable and network television outlets, about the fabulous job that Hatzalah and other Jewish rescue groups performed not only on 9/11/01, but in the following months, regarding the recovery efforts. There was an article which appeared in the NY Times, which showed how food was being offered by frum people to survivors as they crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, into Brooklyn, on 9/11/01. In a book entitled “Report from Ground Zero”, the author actually referred to the Hatzalah ambulance, as the “Hezbollah” ambulance”. Also, I communicated with a member of Hatzalah who was at Ground Zero for weeks. He told me that although the local rescue groups treated them with respect, there were problems of anti-semitism involving some of the rescue workers from out of town, who never saw frum Jews before. He told me that some of those characters referred to them as “Arabs”. Yet, nobody ever reads about those accounts, in any publications about 9/11/01. Jews did participate in the rescue/recovery efforts, and they should be given credit for their efforts.

    10 years ago

    Seeing Josh Kellerman in the photos with his devotion to chesed for all human-kind makes me smile.