9/11 oral history project: Steven Pappas

Between personal tragedies in Steven Pappas' life and

Between personal tragedies in Steven Pappas' life and his experience at Ground Zero after the attacks, the now-retired communications worker lost his sense of optimism and his noted smile. He has spent years working to regain both. (Aug. 9, 2010) (Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara)

Steven Pappas spread the photographs and writings across the dining room table of his Brentwood home.

Next to his pictures of mangled World Trade Center buildings were his thoughts and observations scrawled on the backs of crinkled paper that he found at the site. The paper had floated like huge snowflakes to the ground when the buildings collapsed.

Pappas, 64, a now-retired Verizon employee, worked at the site for 15 days, operating an air compressor on a 16-hour overnight shift to ensure that hastily re-laid telephone cables remained dry.

Pappas, now a security guard at Brentwood High School, can still vividly recall those nights. They set off a chain of events that would lead to his being hospitalized for depression, temporarily losing his faith and, he said, fundamentally altering his world view.

"I don't trust optimism any more," he told the interviewer while being videotaped recently for an oral history project. "I still can't get rid of the pit in my stomach that says everything is not going to be all right."

Pappas arrived at the site four days after the attack. "I felt like I was a part of history. I felt I was there for all the souls that had perished. I felt it very strongly," he told a Newsday reporter.

Once, when he was taking a break to get some food, he came across lines of the poet Walt Whitman inscribed on a railing at the waterfront promenade in view of the Statue of Liberty. He wrote them down on a scrap of paper: "City of the world! (for all races are here; All the lands of the earth make contributions here)" they begin. To him, those words represented the great promise of the city where he had grown up. Now part of it lay before him in ruins.

When he came back to Brentwood he had a hard time letting go of the images. A once-avid fisherman, he would take his 23-foot Sea Ray, Picture This, out into the ocean. But he couldn't fish. "I would shut the motor off," he said. "I would just sit there, crying."

Before the attack on the World Trade Center, the year 2001 had already been a tough one for Pappas; he had been diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer. By Thanksgiving, he said, "I had lost my smile." He had always been known, he said, for his smile.

Then a series of events pushed him over the edge. On March 14, 2002, he learned that a beloved 23-year-old cousin had been murdered. Two weeks later, his best friend committed suicide.

Soon after, he decided to put in his papers for early retirement. He regretted it immediately but found it was too late to rescind.

On July 29, 2002 - his last day at work - his wife, Julie, called an ambulance to have him taken to St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown. Unable to sleep, fearful of his dreams, he said the whole world had become "apocalyptic."

Extensive therapy has helped him regain his smile and his Orthodox Christian faith, he said. He has joined an a cappella singing group, Stardust. And he has started writing a book about his family and his life. The last, unfinished chapter describes his experience at the World Trade Center:

"I have never before been in such a landscape that was like a disturbing portrait of surrealism and I could not imagine the agony and terror of the people caught within, what they must have endured in the finality of their lives as the world literally tumbled around them."

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