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The Mohawks of 9/11

The Mohawks of 9/11
Chester Goodleaf and Roy Phillips, Mohawk ironworkers who worked high steel in New York and helped out at Ground Zero. (JOHN MAHONEY / THE GAZETTE)

NEW YORK — Eleven years ago Tuesday, September 11th, 2007, the world as we knew it changed with the suicide terror attack on the two tallest buildings on the New Your skyline, the World Trade Centre. This was our generations’ “date that will stand in infamy” as President Rosevelt referred to the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl

NEW YORK — Eleven years ago Tuesday, September 11th, 2007, the world as we knew it changed with the suicide terror attack on the two tallest buildings on the New Your skyline, the World Trade Centre. This was our generations’ “date that will stand in infamy” as President Rosevelt referred to the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii by the Japanese, that changed that generations world.

There was a crew of Ironworkers working across the Hudson River from the New York Skyline in New Jersey. Among them were a number of Mohawks, famous for their prowess on the high beams. Some of them were old enough to remember working on the erection of the same towers they were watching burn and eventually collapse into a plume of ash and concrete dust that took on the appearance of a monster in a B-horror flick.

Although it was a horror, it was not a movie. This was as real as it gets.

“We always dreamed about it, to be able to go up to the top of the World Trade Centre, to climb the antenna,” said Brad Bonaparte, a Mohawk ironworker from Akwesasne, in a TV special.

It has been said that Mohawk ironworkers built New York, and that is not far from the truth. In the 1930’s and 1940’s especially, there were so many Mohawks living and working in Brooklyn that a street was nicknamed “Little Kahnawake.”

They came from Kahnawake and Akwesasne in Quebec as well as some from Six Nations of the Grand River, joining their fellow New York Mohawk ironworkers at the site of the former World Trade Centre without fear for themselves.

Ironwork is among the most dangerous jobs in North America, according to studies by Service Canada and the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics.

Bonaparte was one of many Mohawk ironworkers who immediately found away across the river to help in whatever way they could. They were among the first non-emergency people to scale the huge twisted iron skeleton in the rescue mission, and later, the recovery mission.

After three months of 16-hour shifts at Ground Zero, and once the last body parts were removed from the wreckage, many of those who sometimes did not sleep for days, things began to get back to some form of normalcy. But it wasn’t over for many of them who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder which left untreated, can and does show up somewhere down the road and can be debilitating.

Bonaparte’s daughter Nicole spoke of her father and the sacrifice he and many other Mohawk fathers, sons and husbands made that day.

“Dad felt like it was his duty, like he had to help,” Nicole told the Montreal Gazette years later. “That was my dad. That was the way he was;  he tried to help any and everybody.”

All that time spent in the carcinogenic dust breathing death, began to take its tole on man of first responders and volunteers like Bonaparte. Eight years afterwards, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and died seven months later.

“I have no doubt that if it wasn’t for 9/11, my father would still be here,” Nicole told the Gazette.

It is estimated that there were 50 Mohawks ironworkers in total who volunteered at Ground Zero.

“It’s a really terrible memory for me,” said Kyle Beauvais of Kahnawake. “I saw a lot of things – I remember seeing this one fire truck that had been squashed from falling rubble and was just two feet high. Under it, we found the bodies of seven firefighters who had crawled in for protection when one of the towers collapsed.”

These are the kinds of visions that can still manifest themselves 11 years later and probably will for life. Keep in mind, these were ironworkers, not trained first responders who had probably seen similar things albeit at a much smaller scale.

Beauvais was cutting a thick Verizon telecommunication cable when he collapsed and was rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital. It was found that he had inhaled toxic fumes from the cable’s coating and it had burned his lungs despite him wearing a protective mask.

Taking nothing away from the courage and professionalism of New Your’s first responders, there is another story about the courage and professionalism of a group of 50 Mohawk ironworkers in America’s darkest day.

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