Portrait of a Merrick hero Local credited with saving wheelchair-bound colleague Sept. 11
By Howard Goldstein
It was 9:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, and the North Tower of the World Trade Center was bleeding fire and smoke. The pounding on the roof was pieces of the North Tower falling.
The towers had held up the sky in Manhattan, rising high above the U.S. Dept. of Labor building where the shocked workers stood at the window, and now they, and most of New York, and soon the world, learned that the sky can fall; that all things can fall.
High on the eighth floor, panicked workers rushed the stairwell, but Michael Mabee, of Merrick, and Victor Couvertier ran the other way. A wheelchair bound co-worker stood no chance of escaping unassisted, and in the instant after self-preservation battles morality, the two men found themselves hauling the crippled colleague up and taking him down to the basement.
A Port Authority police officer detained them, but after realizing that they were safer leaving the building, let them out through the garage.
Mabee carried his charge toward West and Murray streets. The sky rained fire and metal, but Mabee did not abandon his co-worker, stopping only once to help an elderly woman who had fainted before others could help her escape the area. Amidst the pandemonium, Mabee watched as a second plane struck the South Tower, and the mystery was over.
The Twin Towers were under attack.
Mabee took his co-worker to the safety of Greenwich Village. As the disabled man was tended to by rescue workers, Mabee watched the first tower crash to the ground. Then he ran back to the scene of ground zero, braving collapsing towers and the unknown future. For the next 24 hours, he helped at a makeshift hospital at Stuyvesant Hospital, and helped injured police officers and firefighters. It was a long time until he was able to get a cell phone call through to his wife, Fran.
A 39-year-old whistler blower for the U.S. Department of Labor and recent resident of Merrick, Mabee has been hailed as a great hero. An Army Reservist, Mabee was sergeant major in the 94th Regional Support Command out of Massachusetts. Mabee was awarded the prestigious Soldier's Medal by the U.S. Army and the Secretary's Valor Award by the Labor Department.
But Mabee doesn't feel like a hero.
"The real heroes were the firemen that day," said Mabee. "I'm deeply honored by the medals, but also feel a little guilty. Any of my soldiers would have done the same thing. I was just being a soldier."
Mabee was a police officer for 10 years, then a paramedic. He also participated in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, stationed in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. Mabee received sound training about how to remain calm during the most-trying catastrophes.
"Because I didn't panic, I was able to help. I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I'd just left. Victor was in the Navy and had the same sense of duty. We weren't going to leave until everyone was out," said Mabee.
Mabee credits Couvertier equally in the rescue.
"I remember vivid images," said Mabee, recalling the event, "but no sound. The last sound I remember was the debris hitting the roof. After that, I can't recall any sounds until Greenwich Village."
All of the buildings around the World Trade Center were destroyed when the towers collapsed. Had the wheelchair bound co-worker not been carried to safety, he surely would have died.
"I am very honored that the Army and Department of Labor think I did a good job, but again, I did what any soldier would do. The heroes who went above and beyond were the firemen walking up West Street at a quarter to 10."
"The image I'll never forget," he said, "was the firemen, rolls of hoses over their shoulders, looking up at the towers. The tallest buildings in New York are crumbling in flames, and the firemen look up at the insurmountable, then press on to the rescue. The pictures have been taken over and over, but I don't think any really captures the feeling of that moment. I watched the first firemen enter the building. No one thought then that the towers would collapse. They entered the building, and 10 minutes later, they were gone."
A year later, Mabee, who moved from Connecticut to Long Island in 1999, recalls that while the attack was hard to believe, he wasn't as shocked as many.
"I'm surprised a terrorist attack was so long in coming. We've never lived with this kind of thing before. Even in time of war, mainland U.S. was always assumed to be safe. We always thought no one could do this to the United States. In that way, I think we've lost our innocence. Hopefully, this has woken up the government and the people, though there is really no way to put any kind of good spin on 3,000 casualties."
In 1991, Mabee was a military police sergeant, and carried POWs to camps on U.S.-controlled ground in Iraq. He has dealt with enemies of the U.S. in close quarters, and may be called again to do so if the U.S. invades Iraq.
"Terrorists who want to do die, committing suicide to kill others, are incredibly cowardly. The firemen and rescuers who wanted to live, but risked death to save others were much braver than the terrorists. I think the terrorists thought of the people of America as weak. They thought the average American would do nothing but run in the face of the danger. I think the actions of average Americans to help show the terrorists they had no idea what kind of people they were starting a war with."
Mabee returned to ground zero every weekend after Sept. 11 until recovery was complete. He aided firefighters and other rescuers, and again claimed his contribution paled by comparison with those who searched for victims amidst the ruins. He also noted that all the rescue forces praised the Salvation Army.
"They weren't as visible as the firemen, but they were there constantly at ground zero helping out," said Mabee.
"Watching all the rescuers," he said, "really restores faith in human beings. What the actions of the terrorists took away, the firemen, EMS, police, Salvation Army and many average civilians restored. It makes you realize there is some basic good in people."