Lifting NY spirits

The Tribute in Light illuminates the sky over the Brooklyn Bridge and the lower Manhattan skyline in honor of those who lost their lives during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)
The bank of lights creating the Tribute in Light are set up by members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 in the weeks preceding the commemoration of 9/11. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

Editor’s Note: Journal reporter Mike Gallagher was among a handful of Journal reporters and photographers who traveled to New York in the days and months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

As they have every year since 9/11, electricians in southern Manhattan have done the grunt work to assemble the Tribute in Light — the iconic public artwork that sends two towers of light into the night sky in memory of the men and women who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon.

They have spent days hauling heavy cables onto the roof of the Battery Parking Garage south of the new World Trade Center and in sight of the Statue of Liberty. They’ve brought up banks holding 88, 7,000-watt xenon lights and set them into two 48-foot squares in the same orientation as the Twin Towers that were reduced to rubble. The lights have been connected to the cables and the cables to the two generators parked eight stories below.

The culmination of their work will be on display beginning at dusk Saturday when they hit the switch.

Kevin Flynn headed the electricians working the Tribute in Light until his retirement. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

Kevin Flynn was there at the start, the first foreman on the Tribute in Light project. Now retired, Flynn was the union shop steward at the Verizon building where electricians and members of the Communications Workers worked under arduous conditions to restore electric power and telecommunications to Wall Street after the attack.

And it was Flynn who — in November 2001 — guided Journal photographer Richard Pipes and myself around Ground Zero, introducing us to Red Cross volunteers and people working at and around the site. It was our second trip to New York after 9/11 to report stories for the Journal.

In the early years of the Tribute in Light, Flynn worked with Michael Ahern and his production company to make the vision a reality. The display was first switched on six months after the attack and now lights up the New York skyline from dusk to dawn beginning at sunset on Sept. 11.

“We had to do something to uplift the spirits of the people,” Flynn said in an interview last week.

Flynn, who went out of his way to help us because he said he feels a special attachment to New Mexico having attended the College of Santa Fe in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was at the Battery Parking Garage last week — passing around a cellphone to the electricians for long-distance interviews with the Journal.

To a person, those working on this year’s Tribute in Light said it was an honor.

Frank Leonard from Five Star Electric assembled the team, choosing electricians who have connections to 9/11 and to construction of the new World Trade Center. Leonard said his older brother, a member of the New York City Fire Department, died of cancer attributed to his work at Ground Zero.

“The guys start calling me as September approaches asking to be on the job,” he said.

Leonard said, “It’s not a walk in the park. Those cables are heavy.”

This is the first year an apprentice, Jonathan Lazo-Estrada, will work on the Tribute in Light.

Lazo-Estrada is in the third year of his four-year apprenticeship with the IBEW, which he started a few years after he served as a Marine Corps lance corporal in Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013.

“I’m very grateful for the honor, it would be an honor for any New Yorker to work on this,” Lazo-Estrada said. “My father worked on The Pile after 9/11 operating a payloader to haul away the debris gathered by the bucket lines.”

Being chosen for the crew is an honor and George Tencic, one of several journeymen electricians who have worked on the tribute for the last 10 years, pushed to include Lazo-Estrada.

“If anyone should be here, Jonathan should. He’s the guy who deserved to be here for his service,” Tencic said. “I told them if the spot was already taken, he could have mine.”

‘True honor’

When Flynn retired, the foreman’s job was turned over to his friend Mickey O’Connell.

In the days after the 9/11 attacks, O’Connell worked on The Pile in the bucket brigades moving rubble one bucket at a time in the hopes of finding survivors. His sons later joined the Army and were deployed to the Middle East.

“When the lights get energized there is a profound sense of honor and sadness for the loss of the people in those attacks,” he said.

When O’Connell retired three years ago, he was replaced by Billy McCann. McCan was an apprentice electrician when he started working on The Pile on Sept. 13, 2001.

“When I got there, we didn’t even have buckets,” McCann said. “We used our hands and one time I turned around and there was Mickey (O’Connell) handing me a garbage pail.”

It is a “true honor,” McCann said, to work on the towers of light.

The business manager for IBEW Local 3, Chris Erikson, said the COVID-19 pandemic almost forced cancellation of the tribute last year.

“There was an uproar,” Erikson said. “The first responders, fire and police, were very upset. The financing was found, and the tribute went on as scheduled.”

‘Hell of a view’

It normally takes a 40-member crew of a dozen electricians working with stagehands from Michael Ahern Productions to set up and operate the Tribute in Light display. This year’s work was interrupted by the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which caused flooding in New Jersey and many parts of New York City.

After the electricians finish their work, the stagehands manage the production elements of the tribute under the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

Many of the electricians who set the lights up this year have worked on the project for 10 years or more. They also worked on the Freedom Tower, the informal name for the 1,792-foot-tall One World Trade Center tower, which was built on the site of the attack.

Christian Baerga was at the “topping off” of the Freedom Tower, putting the Federal Aviation Administration beacon on the top of the building with other electrical workers and they were talking about how to honor the 21 electricians from Local 3 and Local 1212 who died on 9/11.

Baerga said one of the welders working nearby said he had high-grade engraving tools and volunteered to put the names of those who died on the base plate of the beacon.

“We got the official list of those who died from the Local and those names are now on top of the building,” Baerga said. “ Most people don’t like being that high up, but it is a hell of a view.”

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