If you’ve been in Hoboken or Jersey City for the last few years, you’re lucky enough to enjoy the stunning view of the Freedom Tower from the waterfront. But many Hoboken residents who have been here for over 20 years remember the past views of the two beautiful Twin Towers, as well as the horrific tragedy that unfolded right before their eyes directly across the Hudson River on September 11, 2001, 20 years ago today.
Tom Molta was a first responder and literally one of the first to the scene at the Hoboken train station when victims of 9/11 came across the Hudson to safety on that tragic day. He has since retired, in 2010, as a Captain of the Hoboken Fire Department, and is now the Chief Officer at the Hoboken Volunteer Ambulance Corps (Emergency Medical Services of Hoboken).
^Tom Molta, retired Captain of the Hoboken FD and current Chief Officer of the Hoboken Volunteer Ambulance Corps
We sat down with Tom to hear his first-hand recount of the day that forever changed our lives as Americans. Here, he’s sharing his story of compassion, courage, and fearlessness — and how amazing our community was in bringing people together in a time of need. LISTEN TO THE PODCAST VERSION HERE.
The day started as any normal day. Tom had a meeting in police headquarters at 9AM in downtown Hoboken. But during the meeting, everything changed.
“When the first plane had hit the first tower, we actually could hear a loud boom, but it sounded more like a truck backfiring or a plank being dropped, rather than what it actually was.” But soon they were to find out, as one of the Hoboken police officers came in and shared the news that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.
Tom jumped into full, adrenaline-filled rescue mode: he and the officers went down to River Street where they could see what was going on. At the time, 111 River was under construction, with its workers standing and looking across the river at the towers.
Seeing the first plane’s destruction and already knowing how many people came to Hoboken from the WTC after the 1993 bombing of the towers, Tom quickly realized that they would to need to move cars so they could start treating people who were coming across the river to safety. At this time, it was just a bit past 9AM and the PATH was still running, so people were starting to trickle in from New York.
“I called for one former ambulance corps member we had on duty, he was a past Captain [Edward White – at ambulance corps], and we began trying to put game plan together on how to help everyone in the best and most efficient way possible.”
That was when second plane hit.
It was then that we knew we had to completely switch gears mindset-wise, that this wasn’t normal — it wasn’t an accident — our country was under attack.”
As the horror in downtown Manhattan unfolded literally in front of them across the river, more media reports came out saying that there were attacks happening around the country (some true, some false, as Tom explained). There was palpable panic in the air.
But Tom knew that he had to stay focused and keep everyone on track for helping those affected locally. “We were anticipating casualties coming through trains, but they were coming by boats at first. The first ferry probably had 600 people. They were all covered in debris and dust, with soot, smoke, and ash all over them.”
Normally, the Hoboken Volunteer Ambulance Corps has a mutual aid agreement with surrounding communities, meaning that when the city is in distress and in need, other ambulances come from other areas of Hudson County to help. “But in this situation, since Jersey City was a waterfront community as well, they were mobilizing the same way and couldn’t send resources to us,” Tom recalled. “We had to bring in additional resources, and mobilized the NJ State First Aid Council. But that took a while. We were on our own for first 45 minutes, which seemed like an eternity.”
Photo: Will Ferman
What then transpired was quite a quick turnaround of about 65 or 75 ambulances all around the state of New Jersey coming to Hoboken to help treat victims coming across the Hudson.
We were treating cuts and lacerations, smoke inhalation, broken bones, burns — you name it.” Tom and his team set up a triage area under the Hoboken train station, underneath the bus station, manned by EMTs and paramedics, nurses, and doctors which spanned for 24 hours after the initial attack.
“We transported 179 people to area hospitals for more serious complications, but a lot of people needed a bottle of water, for someone to hold their hand, tell them that everything was going to be okay. They really needed that psychological medicine.” Most went home, or left the triage area and went to their residences and had people picking them up.
Tom also noted that Hoboken’s fire department was documented as helping Hoboken earn the title of “the largest gross decontamination in the history of the fire service” on September 11th. This means that the fireman had set up a hose line and were washing people down as they came off boats and trains to Hoboken from the World Trade Center.
Ultimately, they treated over 2000 people in Hoboken.
“I’ll never forget that day; just being scared, just not knowing. Thinking it was an accident, and then when you realize you’re under attack, it totally changes your mindset.”
And even though he and the dozens of other first responders were helping many people and “just doing their jobs” as he would say, it’s something that has affected him for years to come.
“When the towers fell, we could see people jumping. There are some things you can never unsee, and once you see it you’re never the same.”
The first week after September 11, 2001, Tom shared that he still was trying to find some sense of normalcy after all that he had seen and experienced. “It’s part of your job. You react to it and do what you need to do, but we were all on heightened state of alert for the first week or so. Then a week and a half later, you’re finally trying to go back as a civilian life, and you don’t realize the emotional toll it takes on you.”
In fact, the moment where Tom realized how overcome with emotion he was about the situation was a personal moment he had with his 4-year-old daughter the following week. “I’ll never forget. My daughter was about 4 years old, she was with me at Pier A throwing rocks in the water. We were finally trying to find some sort of normality. She had her handful of rocks, and very innocently and earnestly looked up at me and asked, ‘Daddy, where’s the buildings?'” There were still plumes of smoke billowing out and rubble all around as Tom and his daughter looked on. Telling this story seemed to choke him up even at present day.
How do you answer a 4-year-old? All I could say to her was ‘Bad men knocked them down,’ and I can remember turning around so she didn’t see me crying.”
On the power of kindness from the Hoboken community
While there was much sadness in that day, Tom remembers the power of kindness and the outpouring of support in the Hoboken community. “You find in my line of work the unfortunate but awe-inspiring truth that it takes a tragedy to bring people together. People forget about their political affiliations and differences — and that day and days after, everyone just wanted to help.” The EMS received donations upon donations of clothes and food from local residents.
Our first responders were also taken care of. It was a beautiful thing. At one point when we were cleaning equipment outside ambulance corps, a woman who had to be over 80, baked cupcakes and brought them by.” The community’s kindness was something he’d never forget.
On the local businesses that came to Hoboken’s aid
When asked which businesses stuck out as helping, Tom recalled that the amount of support was overwhelming. He said that to name just a few businesses and people that helped that day and the days after, he was certain he would be forgetting so many people who pitched in. “The bar Texas Arizona became the command post/operations center following 9/11 for the next two weeks. We couldn’t have done it alone. There were so many. We had ambulances from as far as Cape May, Bergen County, ambulances from all over.”
He also remembered the people who ran CVS on Washington Street: two employees came with shopping carts filled with medical supplies and loaded up the ambulance corps. “Then a Poland Springs water truck pulled up and unloaded towers of cases of water.” There was also an outpouring of support from local and big corporations — they just showed up.”
On how we can honor those who lost their lives
“Right now, they are finishing putting the 9/11 memorial on Pier A — it’s important that the families and those that were affected have a place to go to honor their loved ones. It’s pretty amazing that each one of these trees that are being planted represents one person that had died who was a Hoboken resident. Hoboken had the most fatalities in the state of New Jersey.
On Saturday, September 11th at 6PM, a ceremony will be held in honor of the victims at the memorial. The memorial is aligned in the direction of the World Trade Center site and includes a steel beam base with a glass panel for each of the 56 Hoboken residents lost on that day. Each panel is engraved with a name and is illuminated at night. The memorial is located within the grove of ginkgo trees which are also aligned with the World Trade Center that were planted in 2002 as a living memorial. The perimeter of the grove includes steel plates on the ground engraved with quotes from those who were there on that fateful day.
^The new 9/11 memorial on Pier A
What it means to be part of a first responder community in Hoboken
“In a first responder community, please support your first responders. In Hoboken, we’re the last free ambulance corps in New Jersey, meaning we provide training, medical supplies, upkeep and rely on monetary funding to keep going forward to provide cutting edge training to help with relief during emergencies and disasters. And while we are safe today in Hoboken, tomorrow it could be somewhere else, and those people [who came to our aid on 911] would need help.” (Editor’s note: This means that any time you call 911 in Hoboken, it is *free* to be transported to the hospital and treated medically while en route. Not many communities can say they provide this.)
^Some of the current EMS volunteers at the Hoboken Volunteer Ambulance Corps —many who helped during the deadly Hoboken train crash in 2016
“While Hoboken had the most fatalities on September 11th of any city or town in the state of New Jersey, I try to look for the good in things…
…and what I’ve realized is that it takes a tragedy unfortunately, but it does bring out the best in people. The best was brought out in everyone in our Hoboken community that day. If people could be like that every day, we’d live in a better place.”
A huge thanks to Tom for sharing his story and to Will Ferman for the photos.