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By Paul Bradley  /  
2011 September 5 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Standing Among Giants

R I  S  I N  G     F  R  O  M    9 / 11

Photo courtesy Thomas Volpe, BMCC

BMCC’s Fiterman Hall to open anew after day of destruction, decade of struggle.

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Standing Among Giants
BMCC’s Fiterman Hall Rises from Ruins of 9-11
By Paul  Bradley

Antonio Pérez, president of the Borough of Manhattan Community College, sounds only mildly boastful when he says the college’s new Fiterman Hall stands among giants.

See Fiterman Hall Timeline  |  POV: Antonio Pérez, President, BMCC

True, the building is just 15 stories tall, and is dwarfed by One World Trade Center, the lead building in the new World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan, which eventually will stand 1,776 feet tall, the tallest building in the Americas. And yes, Fiterman itself remains under construction, currently occupied only by hard-hatted construction workers, dusty equipment and lofty aspirations.

Yet Pérez believes BMCC has something worth bragging about.

“Those that we lost can’t stop us from moving forward.”

— Antonio Pérez
Borough of Manhattan
Community College

Next year, after the Fiterman construction teams have finished their work, the building’s doors will swing open for students in search of new beginnings and a chapter closely intertwined with the tortuous path New York and the country have traveled since Sept. 11, 2001 will close. BMCC will be whole again.

On that sun-splashed Tuesday morning a decade ago, when terrorists slammed hijacked jetliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, BMCC earned an unwanted distinction: it became the only college in the country to lose a building to a terrorist attack. Eight members of the BMCC community were among the 2,753 men, women and children who died in New York that day. Fiterman Hall, a former office building that contained about one-third of all classroom space at BMCC, was so badly damaged that it would never reopen.

Fiterman, in fact, had survived the initial attacks, despite being located just a block from the WTC. But at 5:20 p.m., when World Trade Center 7 collapsed in a unsightly heap, it tore an ugly gash into the southern and eastern facades side of Fiterman, located just across the street. The building was damaged beyond repair, part of it obscured by a pile of debris four stories tall. At the time, Fiterman had been in the final stages of a $64 million, top-to-bottom renovation.

As the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks approaches, preparations are under way to remember the people who died in the deadliest terrorist attack ever on American soil. A 9-11 memorial and museum will open. There will be solemn ceremonies in New York, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa. Stories of recovery and reconstruction will be told and retold.

Easily Overlooked

Amid the emotional outpouring, BMCC could easily be overlooked. But the construction of a new Fiterman Hall stands out as a concrete example of resolve, determination and commitment in the wake of the attacks. It may have taken close to a decade, but a new building has risen where the old one once stood, and plans are under way to welcome it back to the college.

For Pérez, the anniversary will be a day to both reflect on the past and look beyond the horizon.

“I am thinking about the future,” he said. “We have a building that was lost opening next year. We remember those who died. But those that we lost can’t stop us from moving forward.”

Photo courtesy Louis Chan, BMCC

BMCC President Antonio Pérez signs a ceremonial beam during a “topping off” ceremony marking completion of an important phase of the construction of the new Fiterman Hall.

The reconstruction of Fiterman Hall is an important milestone in the recovery of Lower Manhattan, the capstone of a decade-long process that was by turns frustrating and infuriating. The college has survived and even prospered after the devastating attacks. Its enrollment has grown to more than 20,000 students. Its profile is higher than ever before.

Looking back, Pérez said he saw opportunity in the devastation of a decade ago.

“We tried to look at it as an opportunity,” he said. “I think that this setback allowed us to be more creative. It allowed us to step back do some planning.”

That planning started in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. But first, on the day of the attacks, the college, at the direction of the Fire Department of New York, set up a triage center in its gymnasium. It was equipped with supplies from the school’s Nursing Department and staffed by doctors, nurses, police officers and firefighters. Few patients came. As that awful day unfolded, it became clear that there were few survivors.

Even as the rubble of the World Trade Center smoldered, Pérez, mindful that the educations and lives of 10,000 students had been violently disrupted, soon took to the television airwaves with a pledge: the college would reopen. The pledge became a promise as administrators, staff and faculty were enlisted to join in an effort personally to call all BMCC students to tell them the college would reopen on Oct.
1 – three weeks after the attacks.

“The mayor was hesitant about reopening, but we provided a concrete case,” Pérez recalled. “It was a leap of faith. I needed to provide students and faculty with something to look forward to. We picked a date, with not a lot of confidence. But we made it happen.”

The logistics were challenging. At the time of the attack, Fiterman Hall was serving 6,000 full-time students a day. The school’s business, technology and continuing education programs were about to move in. To make up for the lost classroom space, classrooms were carved out of the cafeteria, fitness center and dance studio in the college’s main building. The faculty lounge became a computer lab. Office space in college buildings was quickly converted into classrooms. Even the cafeteria became classroom space. The semester was extended to the end of December. Classes began running seven days a week, starting early and running late. The students returned in earnest.

“I think that what we found is if you offer classes seven days a week and never close, people will come,” Pérez said.

BMCC also leased space from nearby colleges. Eight trailers, each containing two classrooms, were shipped to the college campus and placed out on the street, where they still stand today.


Willing to Help

The trailers almost never made it to Lower Manhattan, Pérez said. Thanks to the police, they did. The portable classrooms had been purchased and quickly shipped from Canada. But when they reached the George Washington Bridge, the trucks carrying them were stopped for the lack of required paperwork. A potential disaster loomed. The Oct. 1 promise was in jeopardy. Pérez told the Port Authority Police about the snafu. Officers were dispatched to the bridge and escorted them into Manhattan, lights flashing, sirens wailing.

“Those are the kind of relationships you need,” he said. “As an institution, we knew people would be willing to help.”

Pérez credits the college faculty for keeping the college running during the tumultuous days following the attack.

“The key was our ability to have excellent faculty who were willing to teach at any time,” he said. “We had no trouble at all finding faculty to teach on a Sunday morning.”

But the path to getting Fiterman Hall rebuilt was not always smooth. Plans to demolish and rebuild it ran into years of delays and disputes over environmental rules and funding. Because the building was contaminated by debris from the World Trade Center, it had to be carefully remediated and deconstructed piece-by-piece. Until March 2009, Fiterman Hall had been a Lower Manhattan eyesore, surrounded by construction scaffolding and draped by safety netting.

The process was sometimes discouraging, Pérez said.

“I never imagined it would take so long,” he said. “For nine months, I watched the trucks go by my window take debris from the World Trade Center and take it out to the barges headed for Staten Island. When they found a body part, they would shut it down and ambulances would arrive. Over the years I became a little disillusioned. There was a point when it became a stalemate.”

Finally, in 2008, a funding package of state and city money and an $80 million insurance settlement, was assembled to allow the new building to be taken down and the new one erected. When it opens in fall 2012, the 400,000-square-foot building will house a first floor art gallery, 65 classrooms, 35 computer labs, 130 offices for faculty, several large assembly and performance rooms and a virtual library.

But more than educational facilities, the new building will embody the educational aspirations of the students who attend classes there, Pérez said.

“This college was a victim of 9-11,” he said. “We did not look to publicize that. We kept a low profile. But that building now stands among giants. The college has now been woven into the fabric of this city. When people come into the city, they can connect this building to their hopes and aspirations. It’s not just a college anymore. It’s part of the nation’s history.”

IT'S YOUR TURN:  CCW wants to hear from you!
Q: How can colleges like BMCC help communities recover from setbacks and disasters?
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