On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Rita Schwartz was running late for a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. The woman she was meeting decided to leave.
That woman was one of the last people out of the restaurant, Schwartz said, before two airplanes that had been hijacked by Al Qaeda operatives hit the Twin Towers.
Eight and a half years earlier, Schwartz had also gotten lucky.
On Feb. 26, 1993, Schwartz, who worked in government relations for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was returning from a meeting at LaGuardia Airport. As she pulled her car into a spot in the garage under the World Trade Center, she felt an explosion that caused her car to bounce.
“I thought it was the transformer,” Schwartz said in an interview at the former World Trade Center site Monday.
Smelling smoke, she pulled out of the garage and drove around to the front of the building.
“If I had gone down, I wouldn’t be here today,” Schwartz said.
What Schwartz and many others assumed was an electrical outage was actually a 1,200-pound bomb that tore a crater through the garage, injuring more than 1,000 people and ultimately killing six.
The terror attack, the first on the World Trade Center and unfathomable in New York City at the time, was a precursor to the attack that brought down the towers and that has dominated public interest ever since. But for the families of the victims and the survivors of the 1993 attack, the memory has not diminished.
“My family hasn’t forgotten,” said Schwartz. “I don’t think New Yorkers have ever forgotten.”
Schwartz was one of dozens of survivors, family members, friends and colleagues who gathered Monday to commemorate those who lost their lives in the bombing: John DiGiovanni, Robert Kirkpatrick, Stephen A. Knapp, William Macko, Wilfredo Mercado and Monica Rodriguez Smith, who was pregnant at the time.
Some of them attended a memorial Mass at St. Peter’s Church, around the corner from the former World Trade Center site, in the morning. Then, just after noon, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum hosted a ceremony near the waterfall in the imprint of the north tower, with bagpipes and drums, a moment of silence and a reading of the six names.
Afterward, family members and survivors placed roses at the spot where those names are engraved, alongside the names of nearly 3,000 others who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“9/11 ... was the culmination of an attack that was launched in 1993,” Charles Maikish, who directed the World Trade Center at the time of the bombing, said in remarks at the ceremony.
The mastermind behind the 1993 attack, Ramzi Yousef, was a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who plotted the 2001 attacks. Yousef is now serving a life term plus 240 years in prison. Five other men were also convicted for their roles in the 1993 attacks.
The bomb had been left in a rental van and disabled the building’s electric, HVAC, communications and elevator systems. Such a terror attack was unprecedented in the United States.
“In 1993, the world was very different. We were not ready for what visited us that day. America was not ready,” Kevin O’Toole, current chairman of the Port Authority, said at the ceremony.
“There was no protocol for this sort of thing,” said Schwartz, the former government relations official, who said she helped set Mercado’s family up in a hotel room nearby so they could be present as first responders searched for days for his body.
Still, reconstruction was swift. The Twin Towers were lighted at nighttime after the bombing, Maikish said. Within weeks, the building was again operational — including with new safety procedures that ended up being used to evacuate people in the 2001 attacks.
The 2001 attacks were far more devastating and have since overshadowed the 1993 bombing in the public consciousness — and rightly so, some said Monday.
“It was much more devastating and more people were killed,” Michael Macko told reporters after the ceremony.
Macko, who was 29 at the time of the first attack, drove with his father, a Port Authority employee, to work at the World Trade Center the morning of Feb. 26, 1993, and never saw him again.
In the wake of Sept. 11, Macko fought to secure recognition and compensation for the deaths of his father and other victims. Those victims are recognized at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, but they were excluded from the compensation fund set up after 9/11.
Some survivors said they gathered Monday precisely so that first event wouldn’t be forgotten.
“Remember 9/11, but don’t forget Feb. 26, 1993,” said Herman Gabora, 66, who worked as the staff lieutenant for the police station in the basement of the World Trade Center at the time and suffered a gash to his head.
Gabora had proposed to his wife Carol, an American Airlines flight attendant, at the Windows on the World restaurant and taken countless family members and friends there.
For Macko, Gabora and many other New Yorkers, the Sept. 11 attacks represented a horrific kind of deja vu.
“It was like reliving the worst day of my life all over again,” said Stephen Knapp, 44, whose father was the chief mechanical supervisor for the World Trade Center and died in the 1993 blast.
Knapp said it’s important to remember that blast as well as the 2001 attacks because of what it represents as the first act of terrorism at the site.