Michael Fabiano and Sarah Geis

Recorded September 26, 2007 Archived September 14, 2007 38:14 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: DDC000044


Michael Fabiano Deput Comptroller for NY/NJ Port Authority at the time of the 9/11 disaster talks about evacuating the building and carrying out his colleague John Ambrosio.

Subject Log / Time Code

what was your job for Port Authority at the time of the attack?
69th Floor of Tower 1/building 1
feeling the shock wave of building 2 getting hit by a plane
first thoughts
decision to get evacuation chair for John after the 1993 WTC Bombing
Camaraderie of escape
walking though smoke, sounded like bomb in the basement, white powder


  • Michael Fabiano
  • Sarah Geis

Venue / Recording Kit

Partnership Type



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00:04 My name is Sarah geis. I'm 25 years old today is September 26th, 2007 and

00:16 My name is Sarah geis. I'm 25 years old. Today is September 26th 2007 and I am in the Port Authority offices in Jersey City.

00:27 My name is Michael Fabiano. Today is September 26th. 2007. I am 54 years old and I am the controller Deputy CFO / controller for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. I was in the World Trade Center on 9/11. We were on the 69th floor. I was the assistant controller at that time and our story involves bringing John Abruzzo down and some of our experiences before and after while we were bringing John Abruzzo down who is wheelchair-bound during that there were ten of us that were involved in the NF process.

01:09 What a comptroller does. What what is your we are responsible for the financial statements for the Port Authority or the payroll pay in checks, issuing bills and The Ordering of the books in the port authority and making sure that all of controls on a place over the finances and how long have you had that job? Probably four years at that point in time as assistant controller. I spent my entire career. I've been in the Port Authority as of now 31 years, but most of my career has been spent at the various levels in the controllers Department.

01:47 So which Tower were you and where your office is in? We weren't our one. I was on the 69th floor facing the Statue of Liberty and Tower 2 is just to the left of us. So on that date we were sitting there. I was sitting there it was before 8 when I get into work. I can usually in a quarter to 8 and

02:14 Having coffee looking through my work in my emails and at some point all of a sudden I felt the whole building a loud noise and then the whole building lurched forward where you we came up out of the chairs literally up and out of the seat where you thought that the building was coming apart and have fun. We were going to topple over and then it bowed right back and once it bowed back you then started to see all the paper and class coming from the upper floors floating down. So and we immediately knew something was wrong because in 1993

02:57 We had a similar thing so weak at first reaction. I guess was to somebody set off a bomb. I was in the building and I left for lunch 5 minutes before so why was across the street in the Winter Garden cuz we're just finished at financial statements. So most of this group was there in 93 also that they will be talkin about today your head when you first lurched forward or was there no time for thoughts first thought was the building's going over toppling. It was such an amazing impact that you came up out of your seat.

03:40 And I felt like the whole desk was pitching forward, you know, the coffee cup obviously went spelling and then it bowed right back. So you knew you were okay, but at 4 that one split-second you had that Sensation that this thing was going to snap in half, but it didn't and at that point I immediately got up walked out of my office of the controller was a Peggy Zack was writing that came flying out of her office right next to mine and we immediately started to

04:13 Decide that we had to get everybody off the floor. There was no announcements or anything. So we immediately says she went one way and I went to the other way to make sure that we cleared the whole floor and told everybody to get off the floor. There were few people that amazingly we're on the phone kind of stunt. I guess by the whole process and talkin to people and you see somebody else packing a lunch. So you start screaming and get the hell out of here go and so we walked around I walked around the entire side even decide where all the windows were blown out. I didn't get to close checking every office to make sure everybody was out. Nobody was in there is one woman was talking on the phone. I had to yell at I hang up the phone and go and then on the as I got father around to the side where the actual love playing head head and I guess it was about 20 storage.

05:13 Elvis didn't know plane hit head right? I had a sense that it was something that happened didn't wasn't sure it was a plane. We were hearing different things didn't really remember too much about that cuz we would just focus instantly on getting around and making sure it was cleared out still thought probably could have been a bomb so

05:34 What clothes can get to close the windows? Cuz they were all wide open at that point and somebody else was in there and they kind of stunned and make sure that they left come on. Let's go get out and then we regrouped and we said okay now we got to get John because we knew from 93 the John had to get that John Abruzzo who's the wheelchair-bound had to get out of the building and we knew we had an evacuation share so somebody went got the evacuation chair activation check. It's basically something that we put in there the 1993 because they took John down in his actual wheelchair and it took him over five hours to get them out of the building. So at that point, we looked around organizationally for four chairs that you could put somebody in who is handicapped to be able to get them down the stairwells because they had

06:34 I have small wheels and run is on them to slide down the actual stairs. It literally slides down then we pick it up at the bottom turn across the stairwell stairwell was like scissors. So you going down and you constantly turning at the bottom of every 12 steps turn go down the next one turn do that. So we had people we decided that we would put them in the chair.

06:58 And take turns and it would like 10 of us to a caring people stuff and the other eight would taking turns in maneuvering John around so that we could move the steady pace and we just kept going down and taking our time because John's a big person and it's heavy work and it was hot. It was beautiful day and we were going down and we would let people pass us because we didn't want to slow anybody down from evacuating. So we saw let a lot of people past and as we were walking down I was talking a lot to Peggy cuz she was the control offices System Controller all the staff will management employees almost all Senior Management employees, which was amazing. They took him down.

07:47 Mike section managers were we're bringing them down and the first supervisor sons of them. So if we didn't make it out, the Port Authority would have lost almost the entire top structure of the control is department. So so what were you talking to Peggy about when you went down the stairs that we believe once again, it was terrorism right off the bat we knew it wasn't an accident. It was to clear. Somebody said it was a plane cuz people that seen things now and so we need immediately knew it was terrorism. There's no way you could not see those towels and it was a gorgeous day with no clouds. So we were discussing that as we were going down. We actually saw and individual on the way down who was turned out to be the FBI agent the one up,

08:38 Heat we mentioned it to him when he says yeah, it was a terrorist attack. So we knew that it was and we said we should have thought that anyway and as we were going down, we also saw some of the Port Authority police officers senior command that went upstairs trying to get to the top of the windows of the world. They were going up while other people were still coming down trying to get to the executive director was up as what windows on the world May 11th. So they were heading up and none of us knows people actually never came back down. So they never made it but we saw them going up was starting to come down and get out of there was smoke in the stairwells and no Panic absolute calm not a single person was screaming or carrying on it was maintaining order the fire department as we got lower you saw them starting to come up.

09:34 They were struggling to get up the stairs with all the gear and so we would continue and I weigh down making room as we went along to make sure that they could get up the stairs and get past us and we will step into the side to allow them the past letting anybody coming down go around us and

09:57 We were just talkin as we going down, you know telling jokes keeping it Lite, you know, tell him that one guy told you I needed to lose weight because it was hard carry him down and it was that kind of camaraderie stuff going on, but nobody really said anything about the incident or disgusted and detail at that point. We just concentrated continuing the move taking breaks moving, you know, as far as changing people off on taking John down a couple of times. We had to change their Wells Kosovo smoke conditions, or I don't think it was black but I think the smoke was coming up and it was getting kind of hard to breathe. So we went out believe I'm 44 and we changed over to another stairwell and this was all smoke on 44. So two of the guys went out and then we told me just how the wall walk around the wall make sure it's clear on.

10:57 The side that there's less smoke and they came back and it was less smoke. So we went out and then down a different stairwell and you know dust and so do all over and smell of smoke and then we were continuing to go down and once we got to

11:16 I guess 22nd floor somewhere around there. It seemed like the fire department was saying they had they were using as a staging area. I believe and they told us to leave John there, you know, they'll take care of him from that point on but nobody was leaving him. We took him down that far. We weren't going to leave them just on the floor for somebody to eventually come and get them. So we just can decide to continue on now.

11:44 And as we were going down, I guess we were in the stairwell when two came down. They will forget we were all confused on what floor would actually was on when we we felt it, but we were in the stairwells and in the whole building started to shake again and you didn't think that you were going to get out but you know, we said we actually said that Peggy and I said to you that we might not get out of here, but it was just that casual you knowing and nothing else besides that and kept focusing on what we were doing and just trying to keep moving down keep moving until you stopped but we thought it was a it was a fireman next to me and I actually said some what do you think they set off another bomb in the basement?

12:33 Do something. I figured it was a concerted effort of attacks, and we didn't know cuz it was no communication in the stairway and he said it sounded like it and it felt like it but I mean that whole stay away Shook and that was incredibly weird feeling to be in there and everything is shaking on you again that mean first we had the upstairs on The Bold and then down there and I figured that you know, my wife but also works in the building. So as I'm going down some of the thoughts that we're going through my head were there.

13:10 I'm sure she got out because we're taking a long time to get out and we're pretty close to getting out. So I assume that you made it out on the third floor now of budget management and budget apartment. And so but there was absolutely no communication. You didn't know and it was just the way you had to think about things then I'm sure she made it out because we were slowed up with John and we were taking our time trying to get him down and but then we got to the bottom.

13:47 And I guess

13:49 They started to they were holding us up at one point the fire department, I guess cuz the stairways will block the whatever and then at another Point seems like they they just started to move us real quick. I guess something came over get them out because they will now starting to think the one I guess was going to come down and they didn't know how much time they had and they just made the decision. I guess if the two starts with vak make sure everybody starts getting out of one too. Cuz a lot of firemen were in one and so we will getting hurt it down as fast as we could we were moving it was all water in the stairwells and smoke I guess from the sprinklers breaking in the pipes and then you came out.

14:33 And we were in The Concourse and all I remember was a fireman barking and back of my head saying move it move it. Nice as we are moving it. We all got split up at that point Peggy one way. I want another way. I wasn't carrying the chair at that time. And then it was the group calorie in that chair with John in it. So are we all got soul to spread?

14:58 And I do recall that I came out onto the West Street you had to go on there with the big guy a handrail area with Windows used to be and then there was a big wide bar or metal and out that way and you know, as you came out you actually saw a couple of bodies there and they will covered in the white powder our guest from to being down and that was one of the strangest things the white powder because everything was just pulverized it was dust, you know, you didn't see anything mass of wreckage or anything was dust all over the streets and then some of the pictures you actually see that so we came out and the first thing we did is I I came out onto West Street got past we're building one was to the corner and at that point I saw with Peggy was and I saw where the other guys were they were resting and that first thing I told him was keep them moving get them away from the building and so they kept

15:58 Going down West Street. I think they ended up running into the school with him with John wants Tower one Kingdom that the second one to come down and Peggy and I went over to the Port Authority police command. He went in to find out once again, where do we go to report to work? Where's the command center for, you know to get re-established, you know what business resumption and all of that so she came out and then is

16:30 She came out we actually short people who were coming out the windows and everything else at that point. We wearing out that long before one actually came down. So maybe 10-15 minutes so blur the most so we are lucky that we actually got out and

16:49 Once the building started to come down you started to hear that it's starting to compact on itself, which is a very strange time and you start running because you see all the fire vehicles in the emergency vehicles backing up down the road. So everything that was going in reverse and they were all starting to run until you start to this ain't go go go and we will run in down West Street Peggy went one way. I ended up going around West Street and at one point and you could just kept here in the building going and making these noises as its compacting on top of itself each of the floors, which was really weird. And at one point I said, I'm not going to outrun the building if it's tilting, you know, so I stopped the look.

17:33 Turn around and see how was coming down and was just basically pulling in on top of itself which you know until then I started trotting down the street cuz I knew it wasn't coming sideways, but after that and it was old down ice with a blanket around in the area for a while somebody and handed me a child small town while I was in the building and a short fireman sitting on the side with his head down and you know to shaking his head and I handed him the towel to wipe himself off and then I started to walk back towards where the towers were.

18:12 See if anybody who everybody was. All right, who was there and I actually ran into my wife's cousin who was a Port Authority cop who worked in Newark at the airport and

18:27 Set alarm and then I say that I think there are Scott and I'm not sure you know, but I got it. I'm so

18:36 He said yeah, I'm sure she got out just leave the area get out of the area and cuz I guess they didn't know what else was going to happen there. So I then at that point I saw some other people start walking up towards I guess the Empire State Building on West Street and we just kept walking up. We made it over to a circle line Ferry or halfway up that ran into some other people one individual was on I guess I want to say the 80th floor Myron Feingold and a couple of people there and they got down and they were telling us how they got them and they had to go through blocks stay away and everything else and we ended up on the ferry.

19:24 It took us over to Weehawken from Weehawken. I then walked through Hoboken and to the Journal Square Technical Center right outside the Holland Tunnel which is so we're out we have police command that as well as some of our offices for automotive in and Engineering staff and risk management. So we went there checked in. So what was going on and at that point senior command, I guess of Port Authority Chief Financial Officer and all of those people that got now cuz they have to leave when the Vista Hotel at the time when two came down so they got there. We'll go out running out but they've some of them were over there and everybody was just regrouping and so we decided that they decided that we should just go home at that point and then report first thing in the morning.

20:19 So I walked basically up the viaduct by the Holland Tunnel into Jersey City at one point somebody had a phone at work. And that was when we were at the pier waiting for the ferry boat. And at that point I was able to contact my mother Jersey City let her know that I made it out and at that point, I think she told me that

20:49 My wife had called somebody and they had called and they knew she had made it down. But my sister said that when she saw it on the news she came flying up. She lives down in Bayville down the shore in Jersey.

21:04 King Racing up by my mother's house cuz she thought seeing that they were going to have to take care of my kids. So my two children were

21:16 In in school at that point and the teachers were pretty good. They apparently called him out to the principal's office so that they didn't hear about it. And then they told him that you know, there's been an accident. They thought they were in trouble if they had done something about the lady who used to watch him during the day for us went and picked them up and that's some background on what happened with them. So, how old are your kids?

21:48 Let's see you sweat 6 years ago now so 1 is now 18 and + 14. So 12 + 8.

21:59 At that point then Bolton grammar school. What are their names Kristen and Allison?

22:06 My wife's name is Doris.

22:09 And so I walk to my mother's house.

22:12 All my friends she said we'll call him ring in the phone left and right but she has nothing to update them on. So at that point I got there and I got in touch with Peggy and she was I don't know how

22:31 Can't recall where I picked her up. She must have been a Journal Square. She came up to Journal Square. She got a ride to this building and I had my sister drive us my pick up Peggy cuz she lived in Rutherford where I lived and drive us over to

22:49 Back to the Rutherford and then I told Peggy that I would meet her I guess 4:35 in the morning, whatever it was and pick her up so we can report here and start to I guess get reset to stay in business basically and re-establish a business presents. And do you need anything about Peggy and you'll hear about her later? I think her brother was in town or two and they didn't hear from him and I didn't know what was going on. So she had all that drama going on and all we could think about 4.

23:25 Whatever was okay. We got to make sure we get the payroll out. We got to get our systems back up. And so we were in here the next day for 5:36 in the morning and we went down to the third and fourth floor where the order Department was.

23:44 Work too damn, did some of that computers and stuff to start us get ourselves free established cuz you had to make Debt Service payments that's on your bonds and everything so you don't default and so we they share their space with us another few computers. They had we were able to make reconnections with our system. The solar data was started to teleport on Staten Island. So we were able to actually make the payroll and pay everybody that Friday so path. We were hand-rolled 900 checks because they had no check stock. So we have people handwriting the checks and then the Port Authority employees. We got blank check stock and we're different system. It was then the past people and we actually issued paychecks to everybody on that payroll not survive.

24:42 80 something for 30 people didn't make it so everybody that we made the decision and everybody that was in the World Trade Center. We were not handing out checks. We will mailing all the check. So we contacted UPS everybody that was in the World Trade Center UPS came in they worked with us. We gave them all the check for Old World Trade Center employees and they were sent to their homes so that you weren't doing exactly what you said. We were just working on the assumption that the checks had to get out. Everybody need the money no matter what so,

25:20 Was there a moment in the whole the whole ordeal? I'm leaving the towers when you realize you were alive. And you were going to survive this never thought about it. Once you got outside you realize you you made it out and you know that felt good and then you saw that one coming down and you saying then again, you start running and you're wondering if you're actually gonna make it from that one and it but then you figure out okay, and then from that point on with us, we will almost lucky. I was almost Lucky in the sense that everybody else was sitting home watching it over and over. I never saw a really watched anything on TV because I was in here the next morning 5:30 in the morning war in here coming home, 10:30 11:00 at night and doing it again and again and again, so I missed most of people just staring at TVs and

26:20 Watching it. We were too busy. Just jumping back into the Work World. So it never ever stuck with me. I don't dream about it. I don't think about it. And I guess I compartmentalize things and I never deal with it. And I always it's never an issue for me where I have flashbacks or anything over it. I will tell you this though. When we first got back into this building when the trains come on to need some of the floor as we were on the third floor the feels like it vibrates a little and everybody was a little jumpy and the beginning getting used to it because of the vibrations in the building and and when the plane hit and all of that so it makes you nervous that is this one going to topple but you know, you just take things for granted that it wasn't meant to be as the way I look at it more of a fatalist kind of you if it wasn't for me, you know, it wasn't meant to be with me. So

27:17 And that's the way I looked at. It felt kind of awkward with people tell you a story that kind of stuff and actually the grammar school. They wanted me to talk to the kids. I found that you know, some of the side to choke up a little about that. I want to have the talk to them real short couple of sentences basically that you know, a lot of people at day did a lot of things that they've never have done before in their lives that you can make a difference. You never know. What's going to happen, you know, when but they'll come a point where you do something and people calling you a hero, but you're not and all that kind of stuff but you know, each person faces different things in their own way and you never know what's going to happen. So, you know just believe in yourself that you can make a difference in two things and that's what I basically said.

28:17 And I

28:19 That I don't like doing that, you know the Welling on yourself and things like that, but we just moved on and it was so focused on I'm getting the business up and getting the business up and it took awhile and it was a small group to begin with and then we started the other people trying to get more people in we will actually calling up the businesses we do business with telling us to send us copies of their invoices so we can pay them. They didn't believe it and you know, that was the farthest thing from their minds. But once again, it's that sense in culture we have here of you know, you always gotta make payroll you always got to make sure the bills are paid its control us Dept mindset, but you know, we tease John about it occasionally at that point, but then that

29:08 You just move on with life and everybody still in the Port Authority Peggy retired, but that's it. And eventually she can tell you her story, but things didn't work out as well on her family side for her.

29:23 So I guess when you realized you know, you said you thought it wasn't meant to be for you at that time. Is it change the way you live your life at all?

29:32 A little in the beginning you say you're going to think about things differently, but it's showing a chico right back to the same stupidity that you had before obsessing over the job and things like that things that should not be so important to you. If you haven't gone through that still remain important. I guess that's just human nature that you full back into the second Rapture. Hell, yeah, I had before of the work comes first the work comes first then and that never changes.

30:03 So that but when you first got out you were thinking that you wanted less emphasis on in your life. How could this be important? You knowing and do you need to reevaluate your priorities? The one thing that we did really all grapple with and we actually talked a little bit of monster sells about is what is our responsibility as an employee and a supervisor. Is it my job to save somebody or is it my job to worry about myself? You know, just when you think about how close it was for us to get out and almost not get you know is it's our job as management to actually have to help people like John or is that somebody else's job to do that? And and are we expected?

30:53 To do that as a management employee because it's never been discussed as these are things that just happen and you know, the Port Authority I think we asked those questions and I don't know that you never ever get an answer to that decision of what they going to do when it happens. A lot of people they knew they just bolted, you know, when others stayed around thinking about okay, we got to take care of John and it's just human nature and some people who you see as surprising that you think they were leaders. They're the first ones to go. Sometimes I'm down the stairs and get out of a situation versus others who step up that you wouldn't have expected. So you just seem different characteristics and traits and people not go to bed. No judgment on anybody, but the way people react to different things and

31:50 And how they dealt with that crisis situation some are you good in a crisis? Some people better than others in a crisis situation with us. It was like total time everybody going down and that's why I said even in what was stairwells that was the one common remote that everybody made that comment was no stairwells for everybody and you coming down 75 to stay or 69 flights of stairs. So

32:19 When did you see Doris again when I get home? I guess it was about 8.

32:27 And I want to know you see the neighbors peeking out looking out the window and stuff like that one of the thing and you know, it was awkward.

32:36 The kids and all of that part but you know, you're happy to see them and it was just I'm not an emotional person. So it was a hug and stuff. But at that point, you know, you don't know what to do and and and what's going through their heads and have it a deal with it. And and that's the one thing that we don't talk about it a lot, you know when it's just a little bit what you see sometimes when people say something which way you go out stuff like that at a building. How'd you get out and but not a lot we don't we don't dwell on that. We don't deal with it at all.

33:20 I guess that's the way we deal with it. We don't deal with it, you know and you just move on did your kids ask questions?

33:27 A little and the beginning not too much. You know, I think they were a little overwhelmed by the whole thing and people in school talkin to them about it. So they did a good job the teachers as far as talking about it with them and stuff like that. They recognized what happened. What what am I as a family we never sat and talked about it or anything, you know, you just moved on and if they have questions, we can't answer what I don't recall any long conversations or what if this would have had you know, what's nice now is we don't work in the same building and you think about those things down two parents who work in the same building what happens then both are gone and things like that and and that brought all of that to light my wife works over on Gateway in Newark now, so

34:22 And I'm here, but I guess eventually everybody's going to go back.

34:27 Ferocity, I don't think it'll be an issue. If it's for five years from now will be retirement-eligible so we can to make our own decisions at that point in time.

34:38 How long have you known John before September 11th from the time we started in the Port Authority. He's been in Revenue accounting and in control is so, you know, he's been a long time. They close personal friends or anything just hi John, but they don't know and that's what a lot of them. But when he's there, he's a he's one of ours isn't but he's controlling Floyd. We're going to get them out. You know, that's the way you're looking at and that's the end of it at least for me. It was and somebody says would you do it again? And he answers yes. I mean you do something because you feel you have to do and then that's the right thing for you to do. And in any situation when the fire drills go here. The first thing you do is everybody off the floor make sure it's the floors clean. Everybody got everybody that kind of stuff and

35:32 That to me that I just find it. That's my nature and that'll probably never change that it hasn't changed me in a way that it's about me first or survival or anything. It's I'm going to do what I've always done creatures of habit, I guess. So, what are you going to do when your retirement eligible? What are your plans will first of all make sure that there's enough money for school and the kids college and cuz the ones that sophomore in high school, so I have to get her at least four more years till I can probably go to get it out and then you know, I like golfing and probably a little more temperate climate than where in North Jersey and will probably with the real. Okay, at least I want to know where where do you can golf longer. I like golfing at this point in my life, but it and it's only something which started about eight years ago, but it's so relaxing and

36:32 I don't know how much my wife wants to get into the hot zones, but that's when we both go separate ways. Just deal with work. And once again, I'm totally absorbed in the job and everything else and that's human nature. I guess that's also your comfort zone. You know, you're working. That's how you continue to go on and you don't dwell on things. You just worry about what's next. What what the next issue is.

37:03 I would have a couple minutes left, but I just wondering you know, if your kids here. This is there any

37:10 At least I know you're not an emotional guy. But any anything you want your kids to know. Well, I think just that you know, as I told you there are no Heroes. They're just people who do what needs to be done whenever the time approaches and you have to make a decision in your life, you know, and then a hero isn't somebody is manufactured or anything and I don't consider myself a hero you just do the right thing when the opportunity presents itself to you again, and that they always at they never have to go through anything like this, but I think that I'm experiencing and emotionally it's all part of development and making you the person you eventually become so for them, they had their own experiences wondering about us and things like that. So from that perspective, I think you know, they grew is people to because they faced crisis of that early in their life.

38:06 Great. Thank you so much for coming in and talking with us today. No problem like you.