Administrator walks the extra mile to help first-responders

By Stefano Fasulo, associate director of graduate student affairs September 10, 2021

Headshot of Stefano Fasulo

I was beginning my third year in the School of Communications’ journalism program at Hofstra University on Long Island. While getting ready for my 9 a.m. class, my roommate yelled out to come look at the TV. Still, 20 years later, the scene that played out seemed surreal; an action movie with special effects.

The first plane struck a tower and, moments later, a second plane. Several of us ran to the university library, took the elevator to the highest floor, and I remember being able to see the towers across the skyline, smoke pouring out like two industrial smokestacks. I called home to just let my family know I was on-campus and ok.

Not knowing what to do, or how to react, I was on autopilot as I walked to class. Some of my peers were running frantically to leave campus. I could hear others in tears talking on the phone, trying to find out if their friend or relative working in Manhattan were safe. As I entered the building, I saw my classmates and professor in the lobby of the Communications building standing around the TVs; it was very clear he had been crying. His words were barely audible, but he told us class was canceled for the day, and until further notice.

A group of friends and I got together, strategizing how to get into Manhattan to help in any way we could. The Long Island Railroad was no longer an option going into the city; however, being in Nassau County, we convinced another friend to drive us into Queens as far as he could (police were in the process of shutting down roads to non-essential personnel).

We made it as far as the Queensboro Bridge by car, then went on foot across to 58th Street (or 59th). The walk/run downtown was very, very strange. Some areas seemed deserted, as if abandoned completely. As we got closer, of course, utter chaos with lights and sirens became brighter and louder, with air getting thicker with a burning smell. We asked people if they needed water, or the need to use our cell phone, basically, help in any way as we made our way downtown. Officers and first responders were everywhere, keeping us to a stop around the East Village. From there, we just kept walking around to offer help to whoever needed it.

The days after 9/11 proved to be intense on a college campus that had a lot of international students, particularly for those from Middle Eastern countries. I remember seeing/hearing students use hateful, degrading language to describe another student as they walked by them. Or when friends and I ran to help a student who was being physically assaulted.

I remained persistent with volunteer efforts after the attacks. Two or three weeks later, a family friend was able to get me volunteer shifts in the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan. I assisted with providing first-responders, military personnel, and security relief and meals working at Ground Zero. Though it was an honor, a highlight, it is still very difficult thinking about the men and women as they came back to the facility. Although two decades ago, I can still remember their facial expressions and the smells – that burning smell - still unable to shake it.

Fast forward, I landed a job at CBS News after graduating. That fall, I was assigned to a team with a task to create a 9/11 anniversary piece. As I scanned raw video for the project, I thought of those that were in and around the towers. I thought of the officers, first-responders, volunteers, and those that lost their lives or their loved ones.

My experiences of 9/11, mated with the sounds and imagery from those raw videos, put a lot into perspective. One thing is for sure, I witnessed and learned how in times of great adversity, humanity can put aside differences to help each other “get back up.” My only advice, or “wish” – and this is just me – is that we don’t wait for tragedy to strike to find out what society is capable of.

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