September 11th remains fresh in memories of Michigan player and his family
Screaming came from the lobby of the New York City police headquarters. Unsure of what was going on, patrolman Tony Ferrara ran up stairs from the basement, grabbed his gun out of his holster and prepared for anything.
After six years in emergency services with training in scuba diving, SWAT team and counter-terrorism, he knew to expect the unexpected.
What he saw when he arrived wasn’t anything he needed his gun for. Instead, everyone was pressed against the window, staring and looking up. It was just before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.
A plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
While Ferrara lived in Staten Island with his wife, Linda, and his children, Toni Marie and John, now a junior Michigan offensive lineman, he worked at One Police Plaza, four blocks from the Twin Towers.
When he saw the hole in the North Tower, he sensed it wasn't an accident. It was a perfect, crisp autumn day in Manhattan. How could anyone accidentally crash into the building, he thought. The instincts he learned from his time in emergency services took over. He told a group of new police recruits to secure the building.
Meanwhile, Ferrara went downstairs to street level and looked up.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I see the second plane hit,” Ferrara said. “Before I could say ‘What the heck,’ it hit the building and the orange flame came out. I was so shocked for a second.”
Instincts took over again. He had been taught for years in terrorist strikes to always search for “the second bomb.” United Airlines Flight 175 hitting the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. acted as the second bomb.
'IT'S LIKE CHAOS HERE'
Linda Ferrara treated the morning like any other. Owning her own business, a court transcription service, she threw on her headphones and began to type. She had a deadline.
Then she heard a loud crash. She figured it was just another car wreck a block away. Those happened all the time. And she had to hit deadline. So she kept typing.
Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang. A friend called, saying a plane hit the World Trade Center. Terrorism never crossed her mind.
Where her husband worked did. She knew he’d be busy, didn’t want to bother him. So she kept typing.
Then the second plane hit. There would be no more transcribing. And her instincts took over.
“I’m thinking ‘Oh, my God, this is too close to where he is,’” Linda said. “So I’m calling over there, calling over there, calling over there. Couldn’t get through.
“Finally, and this is before the buildings collapsed, I did get in touch with him.”
The conversation they had is etched in her mind. It was the only time she ever heard her husband sound rushed or hurried.
He told her what he saw, that the plane hit the building, about the insanity and doubt and uncertainty that surrounded him in Lower Manhattan.
“He was just like ‘Oh, my God, Linda, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen in your life,’” Linda said. “’It’s like chaos here.’”
They said they loved each other and hung up. The towers were still standing.
STUCK AT SCHOOL
John Ferrara looked outside as he left his house in the Richmond Town section of Staten Island and even commented how gorgeous it was outside. He was in middle school at I.S. 24. Eighth grade had just started.
Two or three classes into the day, a classmate said she had just come from New York City. She started to describe what happened, but it was piecemeal.
Teachers were still teaching. Nothing seemed terribly wrong. And gym was next. He and one of his best friends, current Notre Dame center Eric Olsen, loved gym. The two biggest kids in their I.S. 24 class, they were nicknamed the Twin Towers.
“The teacher wouldn’t let us do anything,” John said. “We had to just sit there and he told us the nation was under attack. That’s all we knew. We were all starting to get like, ‘Well, what’s going on?’
“They made no announcements, didn’t want to get us all riled up.”
Parents started coming to get their children. A neighbor came to get Eric, whose father, Andy, was a New York City firefighter and whose mother, Joanne, was a registered nurse on Staten Island.
Linda kept John in school. The Towers had collapsed. Not knowing what was going on with her husband, with New York City, with the country, she figured the safest place for her son was school.
Plus, since the Towers fell, she hadn’t heard from her husband.
“Once the buildings collapsed, I started to panic and I started shaking,” Linda said. “My main thought was, ‘Oh, my God, he’s only four blocks away. The debris. God only knows what could have flown over there.’”
Lines weren’t getting out. She didn’t know if Tony had been dispatched to the buildings, if he was inside, where he was or what was going on. Cell phone towers were attached to the antenna on top of the Trade Center.
'GET EVERYBODY OUT'
When the second plane hit the tower, Tony looked across the street. The principal of Murry Bergtraum High School was outside, wondering what he could do.
Tony yelled, “Get everybody out.”
As they evacuated Murry Bergtraum, police headquarters was also being emptied out. Tony began directing people wandering from Lower Manhattan toward and over the Brooklyn Bridge. As he was doing this, he looked over.
The South Tower began to crumble and fall.
'I DON'T KNOW IF DAD'S OK'
John went to lunch, still unsure of what was going on, still confused about what had happened in Lower Manhattan.
Was the United States being bombed? Invaded? Teachers were vague. It took a trip down the green-tiled floors of his school to the bathroom to find out what happened.
He ran into his social studies teacher from the year before. She explained what happened. She told him it was terrorism.
“I was just scared,” John said. “Nervous for my dad’s safety and that he was OK. The next thing was just disbelief that something like that could happen because you think we’re America, we’re a strong country, nothing like that could happen.
“So you’re just in awe, not able to comprehend what was happening.”
The rest of the school day moved by in a blur. Linda eventually picked John up at the end of the day and a rarity, he got mad at her. Why she didn’t pick him from school like Eric had been. Like most of his friends had been.
He wanted to know what was going on with his father.
Linda apologized. Then, she lied.
“I’m saying, ‘Dad’s OK. Dad’s OK,’” Linda said. “At the same time, I don’t know if Dad’s OK. I spoke to him that morning but John was yelling at me, so mad at me.”
WAITING FOR A PHONE CALL
Linda drove home and saw a police car in front of her neighbor’s house. He was a lieutenant, so she told John to go into the house and walked next door.
She saw her neighbor, covered in white ash, and couldn’t believe it. Then she asked the question she needed to know. Had he seen Tony? Is he OK?
“He said ‘Yeah, I saw him. He’s OK. He’s OK,’” Linda said. “I was just relieved. And I was looking at him and at his driver. He must have been just chain smoking cigarettes, looking at the TV and he said ‘Linda, it’s like nothing you can imagine. Like nothing you can imagine.’ Just repeating that over and over again.”
A calm washed over her. She didn’t yet know that Tony had volunteered and shifted to emergency services. But she knew his tendencies.
In the house, her daughter, Toni Marie came home. The phone rang had been ringing non-stop, friends - both close and long-lost - checking in to make sure Tony was OK, that Linda was OK.
Eventually, overwhelmed and wanting to hear only from her husband, she stopped answering the phone.
Tony would call the next night. They wouldn’t see each other for two days.
Then, Toni Marie, all of 6 years old, walked downstairs. In all the commotion, Linda hadn’t talked with her.
“(She) said ‘Mommy, is Daddy alive? Is he dead? Did he die today,’” Linda said. “I didn’t even realize that I didn’t talk to her about everything. You’re in such a state that you didn’t.
“I was like ‘Daddy’s fine. Daddy’s OK. He’s just going to try and rescue people. He’s trying to help find people who are hurt today.’”
LONG SEARCH BEGINS
Tony ended his Sept. 11 shift at midnight on Sept. 12, having worked 14 hours throughout the day tying up ends at police headquarters.
He grabbed a quick nap, woke up at 6 a.m., put on his old emergency services uniform, went to the base and reported for his new old job.
“I went out on the first truck that morning of emergency service guys into Ground Zero,” Tony said.
He received his mask, his filter and assignment. Dig. Try to find people on the pile, alive or dead. Search for anything that could be found. The first day, they found a whole body. Sensors went off at the same time. People started running, fearing more debris falling.
He worked throughout the day Sept. 12 and instead of going home - he had taken the Staten Island Ferry to work on Sept. 11 and it still wasn’t operational - he slept at police headquarters again. That night, he called Linda. They spoke. He explained a little bit of what he saw and told her he switched back to emergency.
John got on the phone. Toni Marie yelled, ‘Hiii, Daddy.’
The next night, after borrowing a friend’s car when his shift ended, he saw his family.
“They came running out as soon as I pulled up,” Tony said. “You pretty much kiss the ground in front of your house and realize that you’re still here and this is what it means, everything in life.”
“We couldn’t even wait for him to get out of the car,” Linda said. “We’re like ‘He’s here.’ We rushed him and tackled him and hugged him. And thanked him so much.”
TRYING TO MOVE FORWARD
Tony spent two weeks at Ground Zero working for emergency services before transferring back to his post at police headquarters. As the days passed, the Ferraras found out about friends who died, coworkers, colleagues, one of John’s assistant football coaches as a kid, James Leahy.
It was the only funeral John went to. The only funeral Tony attended. They had known each other from the neighborhood as kids.
“I played with his son,” John said.
Slowly, the Ferraras healed. John went to Monsignor Farrell and started to attract college attention. Michigan was interested. So was Syracuse.
Now retired after 20 years on the force, Tony, 51, used John’s recruitment as a healing process. Through the excitement for his son, he found another way to do what emergency services taught him: Compartmentalize.
“You have to put it away,” Tony said. “Luckily, I had a great deal of help getting through that and a lot of therapy for me, a great deal of therapy for me, was watching my son go through what he was going through. Right after that he started getting recruited, he was going through his college stuff.
“The last four years at Michigan, it really, it kept me from having to look back. It might be a good thing.”
There are reminders, though. When Sept. 11 comes up, Linda sees the gregarious nature of his ability to story-tell go blank. He becomes emotionless, reflective instinct taking over.
Linda often drove as fast as she could over bridges when she goes to pick up court documents for work, still nervous about what could happen again. And when she’s in stadiums like Michigan Stadium, there’s always a reminder when the F-14s fly over.
It’s how she’s sure she’ll never forget what happened that day in 2001.
“We have those beautiful flyovers at the stadium, and they are absolutely beautiful, my knees go,” Linda said. “My heart sinks. That’s all I think of, these poor people that the last thing they heard were these jets coming into (the World Trade Center) and crashing. That’s what they heard right before they died, this horrible event that happened to them. I get very nervous, try to enjoy it because they know what they are doing, these F-14s, you know, it’s not the same thing.
“But I will relive that moment every time there is a flyover. Every time.”