It began as a somber day for Tom Gowen, general manager of Kelle Chevrolet in Howell, NJ. And it got a lot worse.
The mother of one of the dealership's principals was being buried that day and the World Trade Center was not even on his radar screen the morning of September 11. But before the day was over Mr. Gowen was to play an important role in the lives of many survivors, bystanders and others who were fleeing the destruction at the tip of Manhattan.
Mr. Gowen was enlisted in the effort by Mark Leddy, a GM fleet sales executive who had gone to a ferry slip in Atlantic Highlands, NJ to see if his brothers would be among those who escaped from their desks in the World Trade Center. They usually took the Fast Ferry, a hydrofoil that runs from New York's financial district to Atlantic Highlands, NJ.
At the ferry slip, Mr. Leddy immediately thought that the first passengers who arrived in New Jersey might have no way to get home. He thought his position at GM would allow him to help. He called Mr. Gowen who had a GM fleet crew cab pickup that had been loaned to him and asked him to deliver it to the slip as soon as possible. Mr. Leddy also called his wife, Barbara, and asked her to bring her Suburban to the ferry slip.
Mr. Gowen said he would find a way to get the pickup to the ferry slip. He also volunteered a 15-passenger van. Without waiting for permission from the dealership's owners, William Johnson and Thomas Nicol, who were at the funeral of Mr. Nicol's mother, Mr. Gowen also rounded up an Impala and drivers for the three vehicles and dispatched them to the ferry slip.
At first the slip was deserted. Mr. Leddy says he was alone on the dock with the harbormaster waiting for passengers fleeing from the Manhattan inferno. By late morning the first ferry arrived with refugees from the stricken site, many of them covered with the white dust and black soot that rained down on lower Manhattan as the gigantic towers collapsed.
By then three of Kelle's contract drivers, Beth Clayton, Gene Gares and Marty Grisman, had arrived at the ferry slip to join Mr. Leddy and his wife. They would soon begin an all-day shuttle service.
In the big van, Ms. Clayton drove 13 people who lived on Staten Island. They broke into a chorus of “God Bless America” on the way home.
Gene Gares scooped up a Canadian reporter at the ferry slip and took her to a hotel in the New Jersey Meadowlands. Another man lived in Pennsylvania so Mr. Grisman took him to Mt. Laurel, in southern New Jersey where relatives met him and drove him the rest of the way home.
One of the survivors escaped from a building whose giant air conditioning plant was knocked off the roof of the structure by the wheels of the doomed airliner that slammed into the face of Tower One.
And so it went until late into that night as the impromptu shuttle service carried scores of relieved persons to homes or their own vehicles parked at other spots.
“We just helped anyone who came off the ferry,” Mr. Leddy says.
Mr. Grisman postponed an anniversary dinner with his wife to complete his shuttle duties. He barely managed to get home before midnight. His wife had a late dinner waiting for him.
On the morning after, when the drivers returned their vehicles to Kelle Chevrolet, Mr. Gowen tried to pay them for the work they had done into the night. All three refused. They even refused reimbursement for the gasoline they bought.
Mr. Gowen is modest about the assistance he and his drivers provided.
He says that, compared to what police, firefighters and other rescue workers did, “we didn't do very much.”
But the point seems to be that they did what they could. And didn't hesitate doing it.
Mr. Leddy's brothers never made it to the ferry slip. They did escape from their tower offices but found other ways to make it home to New Jersey.
However, Mr. Leddy says one of his cousins who also worked in the Trade Center is still among the missing.