Editor’s note: After the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, we spoke with survivor Chris Hardej, who had family connections with our area, for an article in Woodstock Times. Ten years later, we spoke again for a retrospective that appeared in that paper. We checked back in with Hardej [pronounced ‘Hardy’] for Hudson Valley One this week, on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.
“I always knew how lucky I was with regards to 9/11,” says Chris Hardej, 20 years after the twin towers collapsed after being struck by hijacked passenger airliners. “2749 were lost at the World Trade Center, not to mention the Pentagon and Shanksville. I was fortunate being on the 82nd floor that the plane actually climbed above me [hitting somewhere in the 90s]. The buildings were built to withstand the impact of a plane. Being in the underground mall after descending 82 flights of stairs, as the first building collapsed was not ideal, but then again I was protected from falling debris…I was probably the last from my office to make it out of the Trade Center complex alive when my building came down behind me.”
Two decades have now passed since Hardej, a Bensonhurst resident who, at that time, was 41 and had relatives living in the Shandaken area, told the story on the day after the tragedy of how he walked down all 82 stories, made it to the underground mall of the World Trade Center as building No. 2 came crashing down. He managed to get several blocks away before building No. 1 collapsed. He then walked over the Manhattan Bridge on foot.
Ten years later, in 2011, we called again, and he explained that one of his regular activities was giving tours of Ground Zero as it was being redeveloped and featured a nearly complete Memorial to those who perished in the event.
“Probably about four times a month, I give a tour,” said Hardej, in 2011. “It’s probably part of the healing process, but I do it more to keep the memory of 9/11 alive. Something I probably didn’t tell you last time is that three of my co-workers (at the Metropolitan Transportation Council of the New York State Department of Transportation) did not make it out. This is a way for me to share my story with a lot of people…”
We agreed at that time to talk again in still another ten years.
“I seem to be in a good place,” Hardej (pronounced Hardy) says now, two decades down the road. “Over the years I gave tours for the Tribute Center, which is a project of the 9/11 family association, where I spoke weekly in honor of my three fallen co-workers. COVID did stop my participation in the tours, but I hope to get back to them in the near future.”
The view from the 82nd story
Chris Hardej, of Bensonhurst, was sitting at his computer with his back to the window on the 82nd floor of Tower No. 1 at the World Trade Center Tuesday morning when he heard a “semi-long swooooosh, like an air rush and it rocked the building, like a thump, but didn’t knock me out of my seat.”
He remembers the times. “Besides the experience that I went through, I missed the goriness as everything outside was covered with dust. Two days later, I did go in on my scheduled National Guard day. I remembered seeing the American flag everywhere, on every overpass as you could feel the sense of patriotism everywhere.
“I deployed (with the Guard) two weeks after 9/11 with a renewed sense of resolve with the Global War on Terrorism. I did get to tell a first-hand account to the troops overseas and recall seeing the first wave of planes go into Afghanistan. Now with recent events, it looks like we rolled back the clock 20 years.”
I asked Hardej how he marked this 20th year milepost.
“On the anniversary, the reading of the names on the site is reserved for the family members,” he said. “I gather at O’Hara’s Restaurant and Pub, a block away at 8 a.m. and listen to each name. At the last moment of silence, at 10:28, I cry like a baby, and then I’m good again until next year. I did notice how one girl lost her father before she was born, and I was thinking how it’s been a whole generation. The morning is all about those no longer with us. In the evening, I go out with my wife, daughter and son in law to celebrate me being here today.
“As for my personal life, on the military side, I retired from the Air National Guard as a Lt. Colonel. I still work with the Metropolitan Transportation Council with Jan and Larissa…if you remember, they are the coworkers that I helped out September 11. We gathered at the waterfront this past Friday and scattered roses into the Hudson to remember our three fallen comrades.
“My daughter was 10, and now she’s 30. She got married two months ago. I’m looking forward to the next chapter in my life for what that may bring. With pending retirement, I still plan on going back to the WTC and giving tours post COVID. I also am a Vice Commander of the Michael A. Rawley Jr. American Legion Post 1636 in Park Slope in Brooklyn, back to where I was born.”
Ten years later, Chris Hardej recalls that tragic day
We had spoken, amazingly, the following morning, after the now 51 year old Brooklynite had walked down 82 stories, 82 flights of stairs in 1 World Trade Center, reaching the lobby as building 2 collapsed, forced a tremendous rush of air and debris that blew out store windows and threatened to collapse the ceiling before he escaped, on foot, over the Brooklyn Bridge.
How has he changed since living through the tragic events of that infamous day?
“I’m just a little bit more informed as you hear stories from fellow docents,” says Hardej. “Obviously people change over time, but I tend to be a very traditional type of person. I just notice I’m getting older…Fortunately as time passed, my health overall has not been severely impacted by 9/11. I still go to Mt. Sinai for my annual checkup…they have a 9/11 program where they keep track of everybody.
“Many things could have gone sour that day. That plane, he was probably looking for maximum impact, went over my head. Being down in the mall was lucky as I didn’t get hit with debris. And the timing was such that I was able to get out of my building. But I still often remember the three coworkers that I lost that day. It’s hard to believe it was 20 years ago.”
We agreed to talk again, this time maybe only in five years.