Home News Local News Tunnel to Towers Foundation to assist family of Artesia officer

Tunnel to Towers Foundation to assist family of Artesia officer

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Charlie Gussmann, a retired New York City firefighter, talks about the search for survivors and recovery of remains and artifacts from the rubble of the World Trade Center's twin towers after Sept. 11, 2001. Gussmann volunteers with the Tunnel to Towers 9/11 Never Forget Mobile Exhibit, which is on display 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Monday in Artesia. (Juno Ogle Photo)

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ARTESIA — The organization behind the traveling 9/11 memorial exhibit set up in the parking lot of the Bulldog Bowl has a purpose beyond educating people about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000 people in New York City.

A large crowd gathered for the opening ceremony Friday morning and to tour the exhibit, housed in an 83-foot trailer that opens to display photos, artifacts and video of the attacks. Artesia firefighters handed out large laminated cards, each featuring a photo and the name of a first responder who died that day.

At the ceremony, the Tunnel to Towers Foundation carried out another part of its mission — to help the families of fallen first responders — by announcing it would pay off the mortgage on the home of the family of Thomas Frazier, the Artesia Police Department officer killed in a wreck last month north of Artesia.

His widow, Allison, and their young children were the first to climb the ramp to view the exhibit that includes pieces of the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the equipment of first responders recovered from the rubble.

The foundation has also just begun paying mortgages for the families of first responders who have died from illnesses related to the attacks, and builds homes for survivors of military members who died. It also builds smart homes adapted for injured veterans and first responders who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. The homes have features such as automatic doors and lighting, and cabinets and stovetops that can raise and lower, all controlled by mobile devices or even voice.

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Being part of that mission is a point of pride for two New York firefighters who volunteer with the foundation. Thursday, retired battalion chiefs Charlie Gussmann and Ed Breen were part of the crew in Artesia guiding people through the mobile exhibit and sharing their experiences.

“This is an honor for me,” Breen said. “It’s such a good thing. The foundation has managed to turn something horrible into something fantastic. It’s an honor and privilege to be a part of it.”

For Gussmann, educating people about the attacks is important.

“We’re reminding people of what it is so they don’t forget. That’s our whole theme. We don’t want people to forget,” he said.

Gussmann and his wife were on vacation in Bermuda on that Tuesday morning nearly 20 years ago. With air and even sea travel halted after the attacks, Gussmann was not able to get a flight back to New York until Saturday morning.

“That Saturday afternoon I was on the pile,” he said, the pile being the rubble of the buildings. He told visitors about the hope of finding survivors.

“Then reality started to set in and there wasn’t going to be a rescue. There’s going to be recovery,” he said.

Gussmann’s battalion lost 20 firefighters that day.

Breen was a covering officer at the time, meaning he would move around to different firehouses to work for officers who were on vacation or otherwise not working. He had worked the day before, so he was also off on that day and was at his home in Queens.

“It was just luck of the draw I wasn’t working in one of those houses,” he said.

Hearing of the first plane crashing into the north tower, he headed for a firehouse in Brooklyn.

“So many people were evacuating across the bridge, we had to fight our way through the crowds,” he said.

“It was surreal. The people walking across were covered in white from the dust,” he said.

“I didn’t lose anybody from my company, but I lost a lot of guys I used to work with, and friends,” he said.

Visitor to the exhibit Payton Yates said he thought the exhibit was very moving. He said he was especially struck by a memorial to the 265 first responders who have since died from health complications of working at Ground Zero, the name given to the site of the destroyed towers.

Jackson Lantrip, 14, said he hadn’t learned much about the attacks in school, but had done some reading on his own. The exhibit was the first time he saw footage of the second plane striking the south tower, however.

Although not even born until several years after the attacks, Jackson said it did have an effect on his life.

“My mom, she’d scare me because she didn’t want me to be going on planes ever for vacations, and I never wanted to go on planes when I was younger than 10 because I was scared someone would crash it,” he said.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.