Sioux Falls man remembers time in ‘the pit’ helping relief workers after World Trade Center collapse in 2001

Local News

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A native New Yorker now living in South Dakota knows what it was like in the aftermath of the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center towers. Steve Schwartz is a Vice President at Diamond Mowers in Sioux Falls, but 20 years ago he ran operations for Spirit Cruises in New York City.

“When I was a high school kid my dad worked on the 92nd floor of One World Trade Center, said Schwartz.

He would often have breakfast on the 88th floor with his dad. Like many New Yorkers, to this day Steve feels a special connection to the World Trade Center.

One of the city’s top chefs shared that New York spirit.

Hours after the towers came down Chef Don Pintabona knew he had to do something, so he organized a group of elite chefs.

“And he approached us on Tuesday afternoon, 9-11 attacks were Tuesday morning, by Tuesday 5 o’clock there was an effort to try to figure out how to help feed and provide rest for the relief workers,” said Schwartz.

As General Manager, Schwartz and others worked to get the Spirit of New York docked near Ground Zero.

“There is the Spirit of New York,” Schwartz said pointing to a photo of Ground Zero.

Within 72 hours, what became known as “Operation Chefs with Spirit” was underway.

The ship became a safe haven for the relief crews who were working around the clock.

“The heroics of the people who worked was clear, there were layers of soot, layers of debris on their uniforms. These were people who had been mobilized for 24 or 36 hours shifts and you saw the exhaustion,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz is one of the very few people living in South Dakota who experienced life in the pit, as they called it.

“There was a smell, there was a stench in the air that you will never forget, nothing that I’ve ever experienced before,” he said.

Schwartz says small fires burned and smoldered for weeks, and they had to wear masks because the air was so foul. While that created hardships it was nothing compared to the emotional toll.

“When we walked from the boat which was at the pier, just onto the Ground Zero pit, there were people looking for relatives,” said Schwartz. “There were walls of pictures, have you seen, and I can’t tell you, it gives me the chills and it brings the emotion today the people who were lost and never found.”

When Schwartz talks about his experience he is quick to point out he is not bragging, but he, like many others involved in the relief efforts, is proud he was able to help in some way.

“We did it because it was the only thing we could do from the minute this disaster occurred, but looking back over it. It’s 20 years and I don’t live in New York, I live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota now, but remembering this, as I said earlier is, to be an essential element of our role as Americans, so that it can’t happen again,” said Schwartz.

Schwartz travels back to New York City often where his family still lives. He has been back to the site which is now the 9-11 memorial, and calls it “one of the most impactful museums on earth.”

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