(NEW ROCHELLE, NY) -- The ongoing debate over the controversial Islamic community center and mosque planned for the site of what was to have been a Burlington Coat Factory retail outlet in lower Manhattan, has left Peter Parente frustrated. Parente, 42, a U.S. Marine honorably discharged in 1993, was part of the small team of construction workers assigned to clear plane wreckage from the building located at 45–47 Park Place in the days after 9/11.
Sitting at the kitchen table in his modest three-bedroom home in the Halcyon Park section of New Rochelle, Parente is uncomfortable talking about the proposed community center and mosque. He said that his service in the United States Marines was dedicated to defending the Constitution and the American way of life, and while he recognizes the First Amendment right of the organizers to build a mosque on the site, he struggles with coming to peace with the plan. But his eyes light up and there is no hesitation when asked about proponents of the mosque who dismiss critics by claiming that the building is not really that close to Ground Zero.
"I was there", said Parente. "I smelled death. I tasted death. It was in the air that we breathed as we worked. Don't tell me that the building is not near Ground Zero. It was all around us."
On September 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center. A part of the plane's landing gear and fuselage came out the north side of the tower, crashed through the roof of the building at 45–47 Park Place and down through two floors before becoming embedded in the ceiling of the third floor of what was a five-story building.
It was that piece of wreckage that first attracted Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, 61, the man behind building the proposed 13-story Islamic community center and mosque, to the site. The presence of Park51 "where a piece of the wreckage fell sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11", Imam Feisal told the New York Times last December before the controversy began.
For Parente, that wreckage is personal. Several days after the World Trade Center attack Parente was part of a crew from Forthright Development Company of Mamaroneck, NY, the company hired by Burlington Coat Factory to renovate the building as part of a planned retail store in lower Manhattan. When the building was struck on 9/11, Burlington hired Forthright to go back into the building where they had just completed work and remove the wreckage of Flight 175 from the badly damaged building.
Parente tells of arriving on the scene still worried about the fate of Michael Curtin, his close friend and former Gunnery Sergeant who had been in the area of the attack and reported missing. Sergeant Major Michael Sean Curtin's remains were recovered from Ground Zero in March 2002.
The crew of 15 men made their way into the building with great care, cautiously edging their way up the idle escalators to reach the third floor of the severely damaged structure. There was water everywhere recalled Parente. The sprinkler system had been activated when the building was struck and most of the store merchandise had been ruined.
"It was a mess. The landing gear must have weighed about half a ton and when it hit that building it was like one of those "bunker busters", slicing through the roof and straight down into the heart of the structure. It was sticking out of the ceiling on the third floor. All of us on the work detail got real quiet thinking about the people on that plane."
After securing the large chunk of landing gear with ropes, Parente and the rest of the crew pulled and yanked on the strut, rocking it back and forth, until the ceiling gave way. The landing gear came crashing down into the men's clothing section of the never-opened store.
"We had one hell of a time getting it out of there," said Parente pointing to a photo (below) of James Pasqua, a childhood friend who would die five years after 9/11 from unrelated complications related to Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD).
Parente and the other men, pulled the strut away from the merchandise shelves, laid out boards across the escalator steps and set up winches to haul the plane part towards the escalators and then carefully lower it to the level below. To keep it steady while they lowered the strut down the escalators, Parente sat astride the strut to keep it balanced. At each floor they had to drag the strut across the floor, around to the other side and then down the escalator, repeating this process until they reached the ground floor. They then dragged the landing gear out onto Church Street where they had a truck waiting. The crew lifted the 1,000 pound hunk of metal into the back of a Ford Econoline van.
Parente climbed inside and sat with the landing gear in the back as Pasqua drove north to Parente's garage and service station in Mamaroneck. Once there, they wrapped the landing gear in a tarp and stored it in the back of the garage. Worried that someone might try to steal the strut, Parente and Pasqua parked cars all around the wrapped metal to deter access, and secured the garage as best they could.
Parente said "We were proud to have played a small part in recovering a piece of the plane. We damn sure weren't going to let anyone just take it".
The following day, Parente turned over custody of the landing gear to the owner of Forthright Development which had been directed to deliver the plane part to the headquarters of Burlington Coat Factory in New Jersey. Parente said he was told that the company hoped to create a 9/11 Memorial from the wreckage.
"I never heard what happened to the strut. I would like to think they did something with it to honor our heroes killed in the attack," said Parente. "I sure hope it's not collecting dust in some warehouse".
A spokesperson for Burlington Coat Factory stated that the company turned the part over to government investigators. The company said the part was not returned so no 9/11 memorial was ever created.
Asked why he did not keep even a small memento of that day working at Ground Zero, Parente looked away. Pressed on the point, Parente slowly got up from the kitchen table and disappeared for a moment. When he returned he had two small objects in his hand -- what appeared to be a washer and a nut from the landing gear. Parente turned them over and pointed out a barely legible set of numbers etched into the metal.
"Probably the VIN number for the Flight 175 aircraft", said Parente. He sits down and considers the two pieces of metal that came screaming down from the sky on a bright, late summer Tuesday morning 9 years earlier. Lost in thought he shakes his head slightly before carefully wrapping the two objects in a handkerchief and placing them back in a small wooden box.
"They never asked for this", said Parente. "Maybe I should have offered but I wanted something I could hold to remember my friend Michael Curtin and all those heroes who died that day."
More About Peter Parente
Parente joined the U.S. Marines after graduating from New Rochelle High School in 1985. He served for eight years in the United States Marine Corps both active duty and reserves. He deployed in Saudi Arabia and saw action in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. He was a Reconnaissance Scout, part of the 4th Light Armored Vehicle Battalion, 5th Marine -- the spearhead of the force that made an amphibious landing in Saudi Arabia, flanked Iraqi forces in Kuwait and chased them out of the country. The Iraqis fled Kuwait using Highway 80, a six-lane highway running north from Kuwait City to Basra in Southern Iraq, the so-called "highway of death" where, on the night of February 26–27, 1991, American air and ground forces decimated the retreating Iraqi forces.
Parente, who had been in the Marine Reserves before being called up to active duty for Desert Storm, returned to work in the family business in 1991 -- being placed on reserve status for two years -- and honorably discharged in 1993. Today, Parente, a successful small business owner, lives with his wife and son in New Rochelle. He is the Commander of V.F.W. Post 439 New Rochelle, and President of the United Veterans Memorial and Patriotic Association and Co-Chair of the Committee to Save the New Rochelle Naval Armory. Parente is best known in New Rochelle as the man who revived New Rochelle’s Memorial Day Parade which under his watch has become, each year, the largest most anticipated event in the City of New Rochelle. Parente also serves as coordinator of the City's annual 9/11 Memorial Service.
Peter Parente is currently a candidate for the New Rochelle City Council, District 3 running on the Republican, Conservative and Independent line in a Special Election to be held on November 2, 2010. His campaign web site is located at www.peterparente.org.
Parente is running to represent the people in District 3 but he is well aware that his election will give his party the deciding vote in a decade-long debate over whether or not to tear down the New Rochelle Naval Armory, currently facing the wrecking ball as developers with strong ties to the local Democratic party seek to make way for a condominium complex. The Armory was used as a staging area for relief supplies going to workers at the Ground Zero site in the months after the World Trade Center attack and is the site for the City's annual 9/11 vigil. Having seen up close the building at 45–47 Park Place badly damaged by terrorists seeking to tear down his country, Parente has vowed, if elected, to do everything in his power to preserve the one building in his hometown with direct ties to the September 11th attacks.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The three photos in this article from September 2001 were taken using three different cameras - a Polaroid camera and two inexpensive point and shoot "instamatic-style" cameras. The dates were set incorrectly on both point and shoot cameras. One print reads "9.22.01" and the other reads "1.1.1997" but the actual dates of the photos were sometime around September 14th or 15th, 2001.