It was one of those days when everybody recalls where they were and what they were doing. That day of infamy when two jet airliners crashed into New York’s Twin Towers, sending a plume of dust, debris and smoke through the streets of lower Manhattan - and reverberations around the world.
Karl O’Reilly was about half-a-mile away when the unthinkable happened. Not long out of college, he was just one of many young Irishmen in the Big Apple for the summer, looking to earn a little money in construction and taste life in one of the most vibrant cities in the world.
He could never have imagined he would get a ringside seat to the biggest, most dramatic terrorist event to occur in recent history. Nor could he have imagined that, a decade down the line, he would be involved in replacing the World Trade Centre which was destroyed on 9/11.
O’Reilly, who is from Kilskyre, Kells, is the project manager with Atlantic Hoisting and Scaffolding. The company’s job is to provide the hoist cars - otherwise known as the 'construction elevators’ - for the army of people and the many tonnes of construction materials that are used in the massive, multi-million dollar project to rebuild 'Ground Zero’.
Atlantic Hoisting & Scaffolding is a company owned by the Breslin brothers, John and Michael, who originally hail from Kells. They went to the US to carve out a new life for themselves and have since become an example of how an appetite for hard work and a 'can do’ attitude can lead to success in the US.
When the Meath Chronicle spoke to O’Reilly (31) last week, he was in his New Jersey home, snowed in after another big winter storm had hit the east coast of America.
He was still in contact with people over the phone at Ground Zero and, during the course of the interview, he had to break off to answer a call.
With this year being the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the push is on to complete the 9/11 Memorial which commemorates the thousands of people who died on that bright, crystal clear September morning when the hijacked jets were deliberately flown into the towers.
Atlantic Hoisting & Scaffolding have a number of contracts in the rebuilding process, which includes four new towers. They are involved in the construction of the memorial as well as Tower One, or the 105-storey Freedom Tower, as it is also known.
Work on Tower Two is due to start soon, Tower Three is at bidding stage while work on Tower Four is already underway, although Atlantic are not involved in that particular project. There is also a 'transportation hub’ included in the plans and work on that is due to get underway in the coming months.
O’Reilly often thinks of that momentous day when the skyscrapers collapsed and the world suddenly seemed a very different and dangerous place. “I was on a building up on 17th Street that morning, so I wasn’t that far away, probably about half-a-mile or thereabouts,” he recalls. “I remember being in my boss’s van at the time, we were just down having coffee, and we heard these snippets of news coming over the airwaves.
“Initially, we thought it was a joke, because we were down on the ground so you couldn’t actually see the towers, but we soon could see the smoke streaming out of the buildings.
“The one thing I will never forget from that day was probably the mass panic by everybody, nobody knew what was going on, that was the big thing. It was a pretty frightening event. We were well safe where we were but because nobody knew what was going on - we were in the middle between the World Trade Centre and the Empire State - and you didn’t know whether the Empire State Building was going to be next; we just didn’t know what could happen next,” he recalls.
“It was panic. We could hear the rumbles in the distance. After the second tower fell, the whole city was on lockdown. No movement in or out of tunnels or subways, or anything.”
Soon after O’Reilly came home, he gained employment in an Ireland where engineering-related jobs were in plentiful supply. The Celtic Tiger looked like it would live forever. But, despite the opportunities at home, O’Reilly looked west once again for opportunities.
In 2007, along with his girlfriend, Geraldine Fox, who is a handbag designer, O’Reilly moved on a more permanent basis to the Big Apple, one of the “fashion capitals” of the world.
“When it comes to fashion, there is London, Paris, Milan or New York. I don’t speak Italian or French too well, London was too close so we said we would give New York a shot. It was more coincidence that I was offered the chance to work in America sometime before that and I took it. We always knew we were going to move away and give it a shot. We left, even though the Celtic Tiger was going strong in Ireland,” he recalls.
Initially, O’Reilly was based in the US, working for an Oldcastle-based engineering company selling excavator attachments. Then, last summer, the opportunity came up with Atlantic Hoisting & Scaffolding. He obtained a working visa because he was sponsored by the company that initially employed him in the US.
By a curious twist of fate, he now finds himself working where the World Trade Centre once stood. “These opportunities come and go, and if you don’t take them, you could be regretting it,” O’Reilly says. “It’s a high-profile project and I was certainly interested in being part of it all.”
He says there are “a lot of Irish guys” employed at Ground Zero these days. Some are employed by Atlantic while others work for the many contractors and sub-contractors involved in the massive reconstruction process.
“That has been quite an eye-opener for me because I had been working outside the city where I wasn’t coming into contact with many Irish people and then when I went in on this job, and you meet so many. Even in our own company, there are a lot of Irish. A lot of the foremen are Irish. Basically, all the contractors that are there have a lot of Irish, which is good to see.”
O’Reilly has seen the effects of recession on New York. For a time, the wheels of commerce there moved slower than usual, but now there are indications that the city that never sleeps is on the move again.
There are plenty of things Karl O’Reilly misses about home - family, friends, playing football with Ballinlough. Yet he is constantly reminded of what he likes about New York - the variety and the weather, which can be biting cold in winter and stiflingly hot in winter: “At least I know what to expect.”
Then there’s the array of characters from every corner of the world which, he adds, is never less than fascinating. The pay is good and regular. The commute from New Jersey to Manhattan is usually easy. Since he moved across the Atlantic, he has become more interested in running and he took part in the New York marathon towards the end of last year.
“You’re not going to work on a 105-storey building at home, they don’t exist. Over here, you’ll meet every walk of life, it’s such a diverse city,” he says. “Anyway, a lot of our friends who lived in Ireland have now gone elsewhere looking for work.”
September 2001 was a bleak chapter in the history of New York, and event that sent shockwaves right around the world and spawned two wars in the Middle East.
Now, almost 10 years on, the work to rebuild that devastated area of lower Manhattan is well underway - and Meathmen like Karl O’Reilly, and others, are playing a major part in the high-profile process.