Returning to the subway station he escaped on 9/11

The way Dominick Ciano took pictures of the new Cortlandt Street subway station was different from the way tourists did it — smiling selfies and moving on. The clean and elegant space hosted plenty of tourists on Monday, intrigued to see the stop that finally reopened this weekend after being destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Ciano seemed a little nervous, the cell phone pictures just something to do with his hands. A small umbrella armpitted against his blue button-down shirt.

“The last time I was here, the towers were coming down,” he said.

We stood across from the downtown platform where, 17 years ago, he’d exited a 1 train en route to his job at Morgan Stanley, on the 68th floor of the second tower. A crowd of people tried to go up the subway stairs and exit. But nobody was moving. It might have been just ordinary New York chaos but Ciano, 58, says he caught the eye of a woman turning around at the top.

The eyes looked like they’d “seen something terrible,” Ciano said. He hurried back onto the 1. His mind raced to different dangers — a shooter trying to get on the train? He willed the doors to close. When he got off at Rector Street, he could see the first tower in flames. And then he could feel but not see the second plane hitting the second tower. It felt like an earthquake. He ran to the 4 train at Bowling Green, escaped to Brooklyn, home to Bethpage via the Long Island Rail Road.

He couldn’t reach anyone by phone. He knew colleagues who had died in the towers. His family thought he was dead, too. Not his young kids — they hadn’t been told about the attacks, were so surprised to see him home early they asked whether he’d been fired. But his sister and brother-and-law, coming over to the house. He met them in front, they looked as if they were seeing a ghost. His sister punched him in the arm. His brother-in-law, a macho guy, had a tear on his cheek.

“It’s emotional. I’m getting flashbacks,” he said, looking at the sparkling glass-and-marble entrance to the scene he’d fled years ago in fear.

He had taken a break from work Monday to look at the new station. It is the last station damaged during the 9/11 terror attack to be reopened. Not long after Ciano’s train pulled out that day, the area was slammed with falling debris. Later, city engineers found “a beam that pierced the street had made it all the way into the [subway] tunnel,” according to Newsday that September. The damage was so bad that the MTA at one point considered routing the 1 line to West Street, abandoning the Cortlandt station.

The cleanup proceeded: slowly. Slowly as the 1 trains that went by the construction zone, year after year. Even as the Freedom Tower and Oculus (also slowly) rose next door, the station remained closed. There were questions of responsibility, with the Port Authority also being involved. There were contractor issues. This is New York. Even today, after a big “opening,” the elegant marble mosaics lining the walls — featuring text from the Declaration of Independence and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights — are not quite done. The MTA says they’ll be fully finished in October.

But the rest is ready to go before yet another 9/11 anniversary — including, perhaps most strikingly, the new name for the station. Officially “WTC Cortlandt,” this is the way it’s printed on the clean white walls, looking very memorial with white letters on a black background: “World Trade Center.”

“It’s kind of closure,” said Ciano, looking at the new sign. “It’s emotional. I was one of the lucky ones.”