‘There was pandemonium’: RI commerce secretary recounts witnessing 9/11 attacks

Remembering 9/11

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Twenty years ago, thousands of people were forced to flee Lower Manhattan after two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center.

Among them was R.I. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor.

At the time, Pryor worked for New York City’s chamber of commerce, which was located just blocks away from Ground Zero. He remembers that day as if it were yesterday.

“I was out and about doing a few things that morning when the first plane hit,” he said. “People were pointing and there was pandemonium.”

At first, Pryor said no one had any idea of the magnitude of the situation.

“It was very confusing,” he said. “Rumors were flying that maybe a small plane had hit the tower by mistake, because that would certainly be a tragedy, but then the second plane hit and you understood that this was no error.”

To this day, Pryor said it’s difficult to come to terms with everything he saw that day.

“There were people alongside us who were covered in soot and had been through unimaginable trauma,” he recalled.

But even so, Pryor also remembers witnessing countless selfless acts that brought him hope during a time of darkness.

“Having been right there, I witnessed Americans coming into the city from everywhere, including Rhode Island, and standing near the disaster site, the pile, the frozen zone, and handing out water to rescue workers,” Pryor recalled. “Even individuals, volunteers from everywhere were going in themselves and trying to find survivors.”

Pryor said what helped him cope with the tragedy was being able to give back. In the years that followed, he went to work as the first employee of the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation, an agency that was created to help the city rebuild. He went on to serve as its president.

“It was so inspiring, we were so united,” Pryor recalled. “There is something about crisis that creates opportunity to bring ourselves together and achieve things we never thought were possible.”

Pryor said that sense of unity should serve as “an important reminder in the era of the COVID pandemic.”

“This pandemic has ebbed and flowed and there have been challenges upon challenges,” he said. “If we come together and we work at it, we will come out the other end and we will be stronger for it.”

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