Kevin Zraly. Photos by Stefan Radtke
Twenty years after September 11, 2001, three local survivors share their stories in hopes that no one will ever forget.
Racing toward an emergency on the heels of a fire truck was nothing new for David Handschuh. As a photographer for The Daily News, covering “spot news” — events as they happen — he was no stranger to unfolding drama. In fact, Handschuh knew the firefighters on the back of the rig in front of him. They waved to each other as they barreled down the West Side highway.
Handschuh would never see those men again. Eleven firefighters from Rescue One would perish on 9/11. In fact, Handschuh himself narrowly missed being killed. To this day, he gets together with the men who carried him to safety from the rubble of the collapsed towers.
“I regularly meet with the rescuers, and we hug and cry and go for beers,” he says. “There is nothing I can do to adequately say ‘Thank you’ for allowing me to live.”
Handschuh, a Bergen County resident, was the first staff reporter of a New York newspaper to arrive on the scene. He’d been on West 23rd street when the first plane hit the North Tower. The Trade Center site was dangerous. Chunks of airplane came flying down. People began jumping from the building. Handschuh kept shooting pictures. His photos from that morning are iconic, including one of FDNY Assistant Chief Jerry Barbara looking up at the burning towers, dwarfed by their size. Chief Barbara, too, would lose his life that morning.
There are also pictures of Handschuh himself on 9/11. In one, he is being carried by Jim Kelleher, a police officer from the 13th Precinct, and Charlie Wells, a paramedic chief. Handschuh is covered in gray dust, his leg shattered and bloody through ripped pants, his face contorted in pain. He’d been pulled from fallen rubble by firefighters from Brooklyn Engine Co. 217. Buried alive, Handschuh heard, “Don’t worry, brother. We’ll get you out.”
After a grueling recuperation, Handschuh returned to work. He asked to be reassigned, to features, because “I wound up never wanting to photograph anyone dead or dying again,” he says.
The emotional recovery is ongoing. Sometimes Handschuh looks up at the sky and sees the airplanes flying into the towers all over again. And while photographers don’t consider themselves first responders, Handschuh says they do suffer work-related trauma. “We’re not handling the bodies, but we’re smelling the smells and seeing the death.”
Even before 9/11, Handschuh had been advocating greater recognition of journalists’ mental health challenges. He has enormous respect for the men and women who document war, genocide, school shootings, and other atrocities.
“The people behind the photographs, who stood there and took them — when the sensible thing would be to run like hell — put themselves at personal risk because they considered it more important to inform the world about what happened,” he says.
Handschuh’s photojournalism career has taken him to wonderful places, as well: the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium, presidential campaign planes, the Radio City stage (photographing the Rockettes) and famous chefs’ kitchens. He’s walked among penguins in the Antarctic and seen the Northern Lights. Lately, he’s been photographing birds, something he once couldn’t have imagined.
“I’m lucky, blessed. Maybe it was karma, fate, faith — I don’t know what it was. Maybe it wasn’t my time.”
The 20th anniversary of 9/11 will find Handschuh down at the site (he hasn’t missed one commemoration since 2001). Later, he and his son (himself now a first responder) will visit the grave of Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan friar who died in the attack. At night, Handschuh will watch the twin blue lights thrusting skyward. Those lights, he says, represent the 3,000 lives lost, as well as the towers, reminding him of life’s fragility.
Even two decades later, the physical injuries from that day flare up, but Handschuh says he’s grateful to be “alive to ache.”
“I’m lucky, blessed. Maybe it was karma, fate, faith — I don’t know what it is,” he says of his survival. “Maybe it wasn’t my time. Three thousand people. It’s all so ridiculously unfair.”
He was supposed to be there. Glenn Vogt, then the general manager of Windows on the World, had a 9 a.m. meeting on the 106th floor with his assistant, Christine Olender, scheduled on 9/11. Though it was only September, the two needed to plan for New Year’s Eve — a huge night for the famed restaurant at the top of the North Tower.
Vogt’s is one of many twist-of-fate stories from that day. Normally, he left his Croton-on-Hudson home in the late morning, after driving his kids to school. But, as he got ready for an earlier departure, his son Taylor asked if he could wait just a few minutes, while he got dressed. The boy was quick, and Vogt dropped him at school and headed to the city. That small delay saved his life.
Olender, though, went in early. Unbeknownst to Vogt, she was frantically trying to reach him. His cell wasn’t working as the crisis unfolded, so Olender called his home. She told Vogt’s wife, Merry Anne, that the staff was getting no instructions and desperately needed him. She called a second time, saying they were having trouble breathing and asking if it was okay to break a window. Olender’s third and final call was from Vogt’s office, to say it was unbearably hot, that the floors were bucking and the ceiling falling.
Meanwhile Vogt, increasingly anxious, was driving to work. By then, he’d heard that a plane, maybe a small one, had hit the building. Police barricades were everywhere, but because of his job, he had a pass allowing him access to the building in an emergency. He remembers parking on the street, putting his car’s convertible top up, and checking his reflection in the rearview mirror as he straightened his tie.
When he arrived on-site, chaos was unfolding. He began walking through the door to the North Tower and realized that the two-story windows on either side were blown out. As he stepped through the broken glass, someone’s body landed next to him. The firefighters in the lobby told Vogt it wasn’t safe for him to stay.
Dazed, he walked to West Street, where he watched the second plane hit Tower Two. He still remembers the noise.
“It was so loud that I almost couldn’t hear anything,” he says. “I felt like a ghost. It felt like it wasn’t real.”
Vogt can’t describe what he saw — or talk about Olender — without crying. Twenty years feels like yesterday, and he says he probably suffers from untreated post-traumatic stress.
The months that followed were a blur of trauma and mourning. Some 79 people associated with the restaurant died that morning. In addition to the regular staff, there was a construction project in the dining room and an event being set up on the 106th floor.
Dazed, he walked to West Street, where he watched the second plane hit Tower Two. “I felt like a ghost. It felt like it wasn’t real.”
Vogt attended more than 40 funerals — at churches, synagogues, and mosques. He helped set up “Windows of Hope,” a fund to help the 110 families — including 65 children — who lost someone who’d worked at the restaurant. Ultimately, the fund raised $30 million. All the human-resources records, including payrolls, were lost in the attack, so Vogt and a few staff members painstakingly combed through claims.
Helping survivors was cathartic and healing, Vogt says. Eventually, he resumed working. Over the past 20 years he’s managed many restaurants, including Crabtree’s Kittle House, Patroon, and Butterfield 81. Today, he’s the owner and managing partner of RiverMarket Bar & Kitchen in Tarrytown.
Ask him what brings him joy, and Vogt immediately describes his family. When he does, his entire demeanor changes…his shoulders drop, a smile emerges, and a tenderness fills his face. He describes his kids, Taylor and Grace, now 30 and 28, as “nothing short of amazing.” He overflows with pride, gratitude, and love.
For Vogt, the anniversary is a more private memorial, one in which he communicates with other survivors with whom he’s remained close. “Everybody is on Instagram or Facebook, and we always commemorate it with each other. We share memories of the people we knew. Someone will post Christine’s picture, and everyone will hit ‘Love! Love! Love!’”
Kevin Zraly has a problem with the word “anniversary.” Yes, it commemorates a particular date. But it’s often followed by the word “celebration” — far too upbeat a connotation for remembering the horror that unfolded on that day in September.
Anyone who knows wine knows Kevin Zraly. He was the wine director of Windows on the World from its opening in 1976 (he created the wine list) until the restaurant’s destruction in the terrorist attack in 2001. Zraly also founded and ran Windows on the World Wine School and has authored eight authoritative books on wine and food.
Zraly’s website lists his bona fides for all things vino, including the coveted James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, but his bio makes no reference to the attack that killed 73 of his coworkers. It’s not that Zraly wasn’t profoundly affected; 9/11 is just a subject he rarely discusses, at least publicly.
That morning, Zraly, who lives in New Paltz, was on his way to a business meeting in Hyde Park when he got a call from his assistant, Gina D’Angelo-Mullen (now director of marketing at CareMount Health Solutions), suggesting that he pull over. Once he did, she related what was happening in the city, piece by horrific piece. Zraly’s return to the site afterward was traumatic. In one day, he bought 72 mass cards. “The smell in New York is something that we’ll never forget,” he says. “You could also taste it. I still smell it.”
At first, Zraly kept going full tilt. He relocated the wine school to the nearby Marriott Hotel in Times Square. He began compiling a book, to be called 107 Stories — a reference both to the location of the restaurant and the stories of those who worked there. His 2003 edition of Windows on the World Complete Wine Course listed every colleague who died in the attack, and proceeds benefited Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund, the fund he and surviving colleagues had launched for employees’ families.
Then, Zraly himself collapsed. First, he fell sick with a severe case of shingles, which doctors attributed to stress. “Maybe it was the voice of God, saying, ‘Take it easy,’” Zraly says. He lost his sense of smell — no small setback for a wine expert. No longer able to face his book, he turned over the material he collected from more than 350 people to Tom Roston, who would go on to write The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World.
“I said, ‘Tom, go upstairs, to the closet. There are Pandora’s boxes that I haven’t opened,’” Zraly recalls. “I put everything away. I had to bury it.” Next, Zraly’s 4-year-old daughter, Annabel, was diagnosed with leukemia. Zraly would spend the next four years shuttling to and from Sloan Kettering. (She is well now and recently graduated from college.) While Annabel was in treatment, the family’s house burned to the ground. His marriage didn’t survive this Job-like series of events.
This September, Zraly will be at the top of Skytop Tower, overlooking the grounds of Mohonk Mountain House. “It’s a religious experience.”
Somehow, Zraly bounced back again and resumed his relentless pace. He ran the wine school until 2016, where he educated more than 20,000 students. He continued teaching on the road, online and in TV appearances. The year before the pandemic, Zraly’s work brought him to 60 different cities. Recently, he released the 35th edition of Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, which has sold more than 3 million copies.
Zraly attributes his resilience to his family, a solid foundation from which he grew up in Pleasantville. Yet, the pandemic enforced a pause. He continued to teach online and to write. The less-frenetic schedule found Zraly taking singing lessons (he already plays guitar), cooking, cutting his lawn with a push mower, taking photographs, and cycling to watch the sunset every night. He treasures his four children and, at 70, muses, “I’m smelling the flowers, literally and figuratively.”
This September 11, Zraly will be at the top of Skytop Tower, overlooking the grounds of Mohonk Mountain House, in New Paltz. It’s a place he’s known for 50 years. Alone, he meditates and remembers.
“It’s a religious experience,” Zraly says. “I always look at it this way: That was my first tower.”