After surviving the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Phil Boffa’s life centers around his family now. He wishes he could say the same for his coworkers that didn’t survive.
By PTSDJournal Staff –
Every September 11 Phil Boffa makes sure he has something to do. He’ll go to church. He might go to the cemetery to visit his parents’ graves. He might work around his yard. He might even go down to the beach near his South Jersey home. A guy who is good with his hands, Boffa has even ordered things online to be delivered to give him something to put together.
“I make sure I have a project that day,” Boffa says. “That day is all mine.”
What he will not do? Phil Boffa will not go to work.
It was 14 years ago when Boffa was at work during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in downtown New York. He was one of the thousands of people who showed up at their jobs. The day American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the North and South Towers, killing over 2,000 people. Two other flights, American 77 and United 93 were also part of the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil. American 77 flew into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., while United Flight 93 crashed to the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after brave passengers tried to subdue the hijackers. The stories have been told and the country honors the first responders and victims every year. Boffa, a survivor of Tower 2, or the South Tower, has his own way of reflecting and mourning. He stays to himself. “The TV is my worst enemy,” he says. “It’s always on. They replay the whole morning. I just can’t do it.”
Every year since the attacks he gets the same feeling around mid-August. “It’s like a cold,” he says. “The first day, you feel a little itch in your throat. Then you get a cough. And all of a sudden you know you’re going to get sick and you just have to deal with it.”
It’s that time of year and Boffa knows he’s in the midst of dealing with the memory of the attacks, and the miraculous way he survived. There are many ways Boffa could mourn. He could do anything he wants. Because he is alive. His life spared by an uncanny coincidence he still can’t figure out.
It’s a tale that starts with a car loving Staten Island, New York teenager who wanted to be a mechanic. “My mother said, no. She said I really need to get into the business world,” Boffa says.
This was back in the late-70s when in Boffa’s words everything was “Wall Street.” After attending Baruch College in Manhattan he got a job with Irving Trust Bank. It was on Wall Street and the company put Boffa in their Officer Training Program. “I worked in what we called ‘The Vault’. It was in the basement, below ground two to four levels.” The Vault was so deep Boffa says the subway trains were above his location. He worked for over a decade with Iriving before taking a job with the Bank of Tokyo as an Operations Manager for their overseas accounts. After working for the Bank of Tokyo, Boffa worked for a New Jersey company, JM Huber. A few years later a headhunter friend called and told him Fuji Bank was looking for someone to run its Human Resource department. “After my second interview, I had the job,” Boffa says. “I think they saw I worked for the Bank of Tokyo and figured I knew a little about the Japanese culture and their ways of thinking.” Boffa did a lot of Visa work and hiring locals to work as clerks or administrative positions. He had a team of six or seven to serve over 2,000 people. “It was a really good company and they did very well,” Boffa says.
Fuji’s offices took up four floors in the South Tower, occupying the 79th to 82nd floors. Boffa said the company had a collegial atmosphere where the staff was not just colleagues, but friends. He and his boss, Brian, hit it off because of their love of cars. Boffa was into antique cars. Brian liked muscle cars. “Car guys are a special breed,” he says. “Once you know you’re car guys, you just hit it off.”
A TYPICAL DAY
Going to work that morning Boffa says it was a typical beautiful early September day. He got on the 6 a.m. train in Middletown, New Jersey with the regulars. The group of ladies who were bird watchers and talked about the birds they saw. The guy who always talked about sports. No one really knew each other, but they bonded because of their daily commute. When he got to his office around his usual time of 7:30 a.m., Boffa made sure he spent a couple of minutes with Brian as the staff started trickling in. His office on the 82nd floor faced toward Jersey City overlooking the Hudson River. He remembers standing in his office when everyone heard a big noise. “I turned around to look out my window and all I saw were flames coming around in front of the window. You could feel the heat,” Boffa says. “I was probably six to eight feet away from those long windows. You could actually feel the heat, and in a second it all disappeared. It came around and just disappeared. Some windows were cracked and we were like what was that? You saw all these papers flying and just didn’t know.”
Boffa immediately looked out on the floor. Everyone was standing wondering what happened? Boffa says he noticed one employee, Sonia, making a beeline for him. He knew Sonia was with the company back in 1993 when a van loaded with explosives blew up in a garage under the World Trade Center. News reports suggested that attack could have been just as devastating as the plane attack, but the bombers placed the explosives facing the ground instead of facing up, so the major force of the detonation exploded down to into the ground. Boffa said after the noise Port Authority officials quickly came over the intercom system and told everyone a plane hit Tower 1 and to remain in the building. He recalled PA officials repeating the order a couple more times. “At this point, I’m thinking it’s not my building and why should we be worried about anything,” Boffa says. “We had no staff in building one. It wasn’t that unusual for planes to fly low in the area. Where I was you saw Army airplanes or helicopters flying all the time. It was no big deal. I always saw planes going back and forth so now you’re thinking a plane hit the building, maybe a small plane.”
While all of this was happening, Boffa noticed Sonia getting closer and closer. “She had to go through the admins, the compensation person, Alicia, her best friend, and she came right up to me,” Boffa says. “Come on, Phil, we’ve got to get out. I got to go. I have to leave.”
Boffa’s instinct was to calm Sonia down. He reminded her the authorities asked everyone to stay put. Boffa also knew as the assistant head of HR he had to worry about all the employees, not just one. He couldn’t panic and leave. Besides, Brian called him and told him the executives were meeting on the 79th floor and they needed to go to the meeting. He told Brian that Sonia was panicking and wanted to leave the building. If he caught the regular elevator to the 78th floor, he could get on the express elevator to the first floor, drop Sonia off and make it to the meeting. “I told Brian let me take her down, and I would come right to the meeting,” Boffa says. “You catch the right elevator and you can go down and back in three or four minutes.” When he and Sonia got to the elevators, Sonia told him she wanted to take the stairs. “I’m like, I’m not walking down 82 flights of stairs, you have to be nuts.” Sonia insisted. Boffa relented. He remembers going down the stairs with very few people. Once he got to the 69th floor it hit him to call his wife and let her know he was all right. “I told her something was going on, and she said, ‘Yeah, I heard,’” Boffa says. “I told her it wasn’t my building and I was going to stay here. I hung up. Then, once back on the stairs, baboom!”
Boffa says the building started shaking. His first thought was the plane that hit Tower 1 fuel tank must have exploded. All of a sudden Boffa says the ceiling started falling and lights are flickering. “Now, we’re running down the stairs. I noticed these huge cracks in the wall, five to six inches of cement split. We couldn’t visualize what was going on, the lights went out and it got so dark you couldn’t see your hands in front of your face. People are panicking now and running. I know the stairs are 10 steps. I started running down five, and jumping five. Running five and jumping five. Sonia was ahead of me and we got to the bottom floor. It was congested and people all over the place.”
Boffa says when he got outside the building he saw all these bucket seats and flames going in different directions. He couldn’t figure out why bucket seats were all over the place. He ran over to the Century 21 department store and when he looked up he could see both buildings burning. That’s when he realized the bucket seats were from airplanes. He still didn’t know a second plane had hit his building. Among all the chaos, Boffa said he walked up Vesey Street to Broadway. “I remembered one of my old bosses lived on 14th street off 23rd,” Boffa says. “I decided I was going to go there.” Once he found a subway station, Boffa had to jump a turnstile because a train was coming. He got on the train and was somewhat amused all the passengers were staring at him. “I thought somebody was going to turn me in for jumping the turnstile,” he says. “Then I realized they were staring at me because I was covered in soot. That train had come in from Brooklyn so they didn’t know what was going on.” Boffa eventually made it to his old boss’ apartment.”
He couldn’t get any cell service. His wife had already seen Tower 1 and Tower 2 collapse. She immediately went to pick up their three girls from school. The last time she talked to Boffa he told her he was staying at work and would be all right. He finally got through to his wife after he called from his old bosses landline. “When she heard my voice, she was relieved,” Boffa says, voice cracking. “That was it. I was alive.”
Boffa was able to catch the last New Jersey Transit train out of Penn Station.
When he got to the Middletown stop, he says police and EMT units were waiting for passengers. “They were there in case anyone needed medical help, I guess,” Boffa says. When he walked off the train, Boffa noticed something unusual. About two-dozen cars were parked sporadically around the parking lot. “I thought that was strange because when you park in a lot you normally park right next to another car,” he says. “These cars were all over the place.” Boffa couldn’t shake the site out of his mind, even while he got in his pickup truck and drove home. “My wife and kids were waiting for me on the porch,” he says. “I got home.”
The comfort of seeing his wife, and daughters, Emily, Ann Marie and Christine, gave Boffa a sense of relief he still cannot explain. It also gave him a purpose. After the exhilaration of knowing he was alive and with family, Boffa realized he still had work to do. He immediately got on the phone and started calling Fuji executives and co-workers. He reached out to Sonia and found out she was all right. He remembered the bank had a backup location in Jersey City. The facility would become his new office. He set up shop and started calling co-workers, hospitals, and police stations. He called Brian. He called Sonia. Sonia was trying to reach Alicia. Two days had gone by and they were getting no answers. “Every day I caught the train to Jersey City I would notice those cars were still parked in the same location,” Boffa says. “That’s when it hit me, they were all gone. All those cars were people from the area who died. I also realized Brian and all of my coworkers we could not reach were gone, too.”
Boffa was now one of the highest-ranking Fuji official to survive the attacks. He believes the executives meeting on the 79th floor, the meeting he missed, had to see the second plane coming right at them. His next job was to start doing the paperwork and processing the workers comp cases. He says Fuji officials were very compassionate to all the survivors, and allowed him time to grieve and console others. “After telling people you’re alive, you get to see your kids, you have a lot to live for, I think it helped me cope,” he says. “I never saw a doctor or talked to anyone. We had grief counselors available for employees and they would ask me to go to lunch or if I wanted to talk? I told them, take care of the people. Make sure the people are ok.”
It took a couple of years for Boffa to clear all the workers comp documentation. Once he was done, Boffa knew his career with Fuji Bank was over. Too many memories. He ended up working with a New Jersey realtor company. He liked the shorter commute. It allowed more time to spend with his wife and girls. He now does HR for a New Jersey Design firm. Boffa also found solace in his first passion, cars. After the first anniversary of 9/11, Boffa found the strength to go into his garage and fix up his Uncles’ old ’59 Oldsmobile. “I was born and raised with that car,” he said.
The car enthusiast in him took over. He now has a ’57 Chevy, a 1968 Chrysler 300 convertible, a ‘79 Chevy Monte Carlo and his latest addition, a 1955 Chevy pickup. Restoring and working on the cars got Boffa thinking, too. A founding member of the Staten Island Antique Automobile Club, Boffa got the club to start adding charities to their car shows. “It was a way to give back,” he says. “My wife’s theory is I have to be happy to make others happy. So I do whatever I have to do to make me happy.”
Wonder what that will be today?