When the airplanes smashed into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, throngs ran from the burning buildings. Rafael Hernandez ran toward them.
Hernandez, a New Yorker who had been a firefighter in his native Mexico, approached a group of firefighters and flashed his Mexican firefighter identification, which he carries religiously. With no protective gear other than a vest he was handed, Hernandez climbed the steps of the North Tower as people streamed downward past him, desperate to get out.
"It was chaos," says Hernandez, 47, who had been in Manhattan that fateful morning with friends who were visiting from Puebla, Mexico. "I saw a pregnant woman whose water had just broken. She was crying for help. I carried her down about two dozen flights of steps, and my back was starting to kill me." Outside the building, he flagged down an ambulance and got her inside.
After, as he crouched down, his back aching and eyes stinging, he heard a rumble. Moments later, the North Tower began to collapse. Then the South Tower crumbled. Even so, Hernandez went back to the site and became one of hundreds of immigrants who played a key role in rescuing people and cleaning up the debris that choked Ground Zero and surrounding buildings.
Now through mid-October, the impact of September 11 on Hernandez and other immigrants is featured in " Renewing Our American Dream After 9/11," an exhibit at the Tribute World Trade Center Visitor Center near Ground Zero.
Exhibit Highlights Immigrants’ Contributions
Despite the backlash against immigration after the attacks, exhibit curator Meriam Lobel hopes those who see the exhibit realize that immigrants, like the rest of the country, were traumatized by the tragedy, and that many acted heroically in response.
"The message is that immigrants are very much a significant part of our lives, particularly in this region," says Lobel. "The title for the exhibit came from what people expressed during our interviews with immigrants for this project. They talked about the American Dream—how they came for the opportunities for their families, how deeply committed they are to their lives in this country."
People from 80 different countries were among the nearly 3,000 who died inside and near the towers, Lobel says. "Immigrants are made to seem like ‘the Other,’ ‘the Outsider,’" she says. "But as they proved and the exhibit shows, they’re very much a part of the fabric of our culture and our country."
Their embrace of the United States and feelings of compassion for the victims and their families, Lobel says, spurred many immigrants to dive into efforts to help in the recovery in and around Ground Zero, even at their own peril.
Sitting a few feet away from the exhibit—which highlights 12 people who emblemize the various roles the foreign-born played on September 11 or who later offered assistance to immigrant communities—Colombian Jaime Munevar, 53, talks about the dangerous conditions under which he worked after the attacks and the images that haunt him to this day.
"The worst thing was hearing the cries of people who were hurt, trapped—hearing their last sounds of life and not being able to help them," says Munevar, who had just left work at a local restaurant on September 11 and helped at the site that day and for months afterward. "But I felt compelled to help, as horrible as the sounds and sights around me were."
Near the towers after the attack, Manny Papir, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s deputy chief of staff, put aside thoughts of his own safety to steer people away from the towers.
"The thought in my head was that I’d never been in a war zone, but this must be what it feels like," says Papir, 47. "A panic set in, but the kind of panic that says, ‘Let’s get ourselves together, let’s help each other, and let’s get these people out of here.’"
Papir, who is Cuban American, moved groups of people away from the area, then returned and gathered more groups, taking them to a safe point and directing them toward Midtown. Occasionally, he was forced to pull rank.
"I got into a verbal fisticuffs with one police officer who was covered in debris," Papir remembers. "I ordered him out of the area. He was gagging, he was ashen. He said, ‘I’m not leaving.’ He said his duty was to guard the South Tower, which had collapsed already. I said, ‘What South Tower? It’s gone!’ It was a testament to him that he didn’t see the danger around him and say ‘I’m out of here.’"
At Their Peril
Munevar is one of the dozen immigrants featured in the Tribute Center exhibit.
"I didn’t give a [second] thought to helping," he says. "This was my adopted country. I had survived violence in my homeland, and now I’d survived this. I noticed that cleaning contractors were looking for people to help clean up near the site, so I signed up."
But safety procedures for the workers, many of them day laborers and many of them undocumented, were lax at best. Many worked around mounds of dust with no protective equipment. The luckier ones got small paper masks.
"The immigrants would come with buckets of water and a big sponge and wipe dust off shades and window sills," says Maria Alvarez, who spoke with many of them while covering September 11 and Ground Zero for the New York Post for months after the attacks. "I asked them in Spanish, ‘Where’s your mask?’ They just shrugged. They didn’t want to think about it.
"They had a job to do, that’s what they were focused on," says Alvarez, 49. "They were needed to work, they wanted to help, and they needed work."
At Ground Zero, Mexican firefighter Hernandez, was handed different color spray-paint cans. His job: if he saw a body, heard signs of life, or saw remains, he was to spray a mark on it—one color meant someone was injured, another meant they were dead, and so on.
"We saw things no one should ever have to see," says Hernandez, sitting next to Munevar at the Tribute Center.
Elsewhere in Manhattan, Juan Alamo, 70, a Cuban immigrant, went to the nearest Red Cross office to volunteer to help with whatever they needed.
"There were thousands of people there, signing up to volunteer," says Alamo. "I love this country; I wanted to do something. I wrote a check and asked them to call me if they needed help."
A few days later, the Red Cross summoned him and his wife, a German immigrant, to a former World War II military base where they and about 80 other volunteers folded 5,000 U.S. flags into triangles and placed them in boxes.
"They were to be given to families of people who’d died on September 11," Alamo says. "No one knew how many people had actually died at that point."
Alamo and his wife also devoted many days at Ground Zero to helping people who’d lost their jobs or loved ones fill out paperwork.
Ronaldo Vega, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, worked on the rescue and recovery effort at Ground Zero and is now director of design for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, currently under construction.
"During my service at the disaster site, I was proud to encounter many Latinos who played key roles in the recovery effort," Vega says. Many are suffering the consequences.
Munevar and Hernandez are among the hundreds who suffer lung problems and other ailments because of exposure to the toxic dust caused by the towers’ collapse. They suffer from asthma, sleep apnea, and gastric reflux. Hernandez sleeps with an oxygen mask on.
Many of the immigrant workers formed groups to give each other support and advice on how to get various forms of assistance and treatment. For the undocumented, obtaining financial aid has been particularly challenging.
Some, like Alamo, Alvarez, Vega, and Papir, have become volunteer tour guides at the Tribute Center, teaching visitors about the events of September 11 and the lessons to be learned from them.
"The heroics didn’t end after the towers collapsed. They went on for months, and they’re still going on in the rebuilding," Papir says. "I hope that, from an emotional point of view, we never forget."
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