It may have been a regular coffee date with his work friends and a lunchtime meeting that kept Michael Mulvaney directly out of harm’s way during the World Trade Center attacks of 1993 and 2001.
Mulvaney was buying his morning coffee in the World Trade Center concourse on Sept. 11, 2001 when he heard a rumbling that was all too familiar to him.
“When I was at the coffee shop in 2001, I heard the exact same rumble, the building shook,” he said. “I didn’t wait around to ask any questions. I knew something was wrong because I had heard the ambulances from 1993, I knew about the deaths and injuries. So, I just ran out of the Trade Center.”
Mulvaney was a former commissioner for the State Liquor Authority and licensed restaurants including the famed Windows on the World in the North Tower.
In 1993, the year that a van filled with explosives blew up in the parking garage under the North Tower, the SLA’s offices were located in the World Trade Center. Mulvaney was there again eight years later when another terrorist attack struck. This week he recalled both events.
Just after noon on Feb. 26, 1993, he was headed to lunch and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when the bomb went off, killing six people and injuring over a thousand. Mulvaney was hit by a door that was blown out, he said, recalling the cold February day.
“They were so busy getting the city back together between ’93 and 2001, that people actually didn’t talk about what happened,” said Mulvaney of the attack, which was carried out by radical Islamic fundamentalists. “It stuck with me because of the trauma.”
So, eight years later, when an American Airlines Boeing 767 crashed into the North Tower, Mulvaney knew to run and not look back. A survival instinct kicked in, he said. He got to his car and headed home to Forest Hills, where he has lived for 43 years, to check on his wife and two young daughters. Then, he headed to Rockaway and watched U.S. fighter jets fly in toward New York Harbor. By that evening, Mulvaney was back at Ground Zero to begin volunteering for several months of recovery missions.
“At night the streets were still burning,” he said. “If you were down there, you remember the tar was bubbling. There was nobody breathing good air.”
He was looking for friends, like FDNY Lt. Robert Wallace, who worked at Engine 205 on Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights but was stationed out of Engine 22 in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill that day. He was killed in the attacks.
“Those are the real heroes,” said Mulvaney. “I was just a witness to history.”
His heroes from that time include the church ministers in the area, he said, like beloved FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge, whose death was the first recorded in the Sept. 11 attacks. Mulvaney recalled the nearby churches, like St. Paul’s Chapel, which was 100 yards from the site and became known as the “Little Chapel that Stood” because it survived. The chapel offered aid and assistance in the weeks that followed.
Mulvaney registered with the Red Cross to aid in the recovery efforts from September through December. He said he would sleep at the nearby church and remembers getting a massage for an injury he sustained from one of the many volunteers who signed up for shifts at St. Paul’s.
But Mulvaney and some friends had a mission of their own. They got clearance for “pastoral care,” he said, receiving permission to hold secret Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to provide support for the first responders who were struggling to stay sober through the difficult times.
“The guys were trying not to drink during all this, and it was almost impossible,” he said. “That’s why we were there so long, from September 11th to December. We called it the Ground Zero Group. It was people that met every night at the World Trade Center while they were doing the rescue and recovery of the bodies, and they were finding friends and family.”
“They needed help. We all needed help,” said Mulvaney.
Mulvaney was diagnosed with three cancers, two of which were directly related to the effects of 9/11.
He still has flashbacks, said his wife, and this time of year can be very difficult for them. She would like to see the lives of those who survived being celebrated more. “The people that survived, how they’ve gone on, what they’ve been able to do in the 20 years since then,” she explained.
“I’m the luckiest guy alive,” he said. Mulvaney celebrated his 73rd birthday in July and his grandson’s second birthday last week. “These guys we talked about, they didn’t get to do this,” he said.
Mulvaney also served on Queens Community Board 6 for over 30 years, leading the Zoning and Land Use Committee.
One of his daughters now works out of the new World Trade Center Oculus. “It freaks me out, but I don’t talk about it because I’m happy that she’s happy with her job,” he said.
“I thank the guy upstairs,” he said. “I don’t believe in coincidences anymore; I just think there’s a plan. I don’t know what it is. It’s to do some kind of service.”