Postal Updates

USPS letter carrier at Ground Zero recalls vivid memories of 9/11

Sep 12, 2023, 9 AM
Hal Zapken, a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service at the Church Street Station post office in New York City, was preparing for his route on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the attack on the World Trade Center occurred.

Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel

On the bright blue Tuesday morning of Sept. 11, 2001, United States Postal Service letter carrier Hal Zapken reported 15 minutes early to prepare for his route. This was at the Church Street Station post office in the elegant art deco federal building at 90 Church St., just up the block from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan in New York City. The time, like the old Al Jolson song, was “about a quarter to nine.”

“I have customers who rely on me to bring them their mail,” Zapken told Linn’s Stamp News when asked to explain his dedication. “I’m old-fashioned. I get along with people. I actually come to do the job I am supposed to do.”

It happened that Zapken, who usually commuted by ferry from his home across the harbor on Staten Island, had been in uptown Manhattan since Monday evening, working the overnight shift at a second job as a fire safety specialist. He was walking into the Church Street Station post office when he noticed some sort of debris raining on him from above.

“The funny thing,” he said, “was that I didn’t hear the plane hit the building, but I could feel things falling around me. I felt it but I didn’t hear it.”

Zapken was recalling all this on another Sept. 11, 22 years later, while millions of other New Yorkers and Americans farther afield endured their own trenchant recollection of the worst day of their lives.

“I walked into 90 Church,” Zapken recalled, “and I said, ‘You won’t believe it, but a plane hit the World Trade.’ People didn’t know what was happening. There was no information.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to go home.’ But you couldn’t walk south, the first responders were all over the place. I had made it up to City Hall when the first tower fell. I went in and called my wife. I said, ‘We’re under attack.’ ”

“I must have been having trauma,” Zapken said. “I was dazed. I remember some guy with a water hose, he was hosing me down. He was hosing everybody down. I didn’t realize I was covered in so much garbage.”

Zapken was unable to take the ferry back to Staten Island.

“The ferry was not running for passengers,” he said. “They were using it to transport bodies.”

The 90 Church Street federal office building, built during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term as president to serve as a virtually impregnable headquarters for certain top-secret agencies, came through the attack pretty well.

(“It’s probably the strongest building in the world,” was how Zapken put it.)

The thick-walled monolith was contaminated by the dust and detritus of the collapsed towers, but its bones were too strong to be broken. The ground-floor post office reopened in 2004, but the 16,000 addresses in the World Trade Center were gone.

Now 22 years had passed since the catastrophe. Across the street from 90 Church, the families of the almost 3,000 people lost were sounding their names. (One of the dead was Zapken’s cousin, who worked at the Cantor Fitzgerald financial-services firm in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, up there in the steel-pierced sky.)

Streaming past them, in their affected New York urgency, past the beautiful art deco post office and the police cars and the ghosts of the Twin Towers, was a generation too young to retain or understand what happened here on that clear blue-sky Tuesday.

“You know, the 9/11 museum is just across the street, but I’ve never been in it,” Zapken said, just before he went inside to prepare for his route on another September day. “I lived it. I don’t need to see it. I have my memories. They don’t go away.”

According to Zapken, a number of people who worked at the Church Street Station post office on 9/11 are still there, processing and delivering the mail.

“We’re diehards,” he said.

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