Special Reports

Former World Trade Center employee wrestles with guilt, grief on 9/11 anniversary

Old work schedules. His certificates for perfect attendance. A ring with 23 keys that once unlocked the doors of two of the world's most famous buildings.

Leroy Brown's wife, Rebecca, jokes and calls him a hoarder. Brown admits he just can't bring himself to throw any of it away.

To him, each item and each key is a connection to the best job he ever had, to the co-workers he lost on the day he called in sick a decade ago and to those two buildings.

"I can't get rid of it," Brown said. "Maybe she will when I die, but I can't get rid of it."

As he talks, he slides his fingers over the grooves of each key before glancing down at the letters and logo embroidered on the left breast of the royal blue winter jacket in his lap -- World Trade Center Operations.

A job he loved

A Beaufort native, Brown, 65, went to work for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 1985 after six years in the Army. The agency operates and maintains airports, tunnels, bridges and rail systems in New York and New Jersey, including those in the World Trade Center.

Assigned to the operations division of the World Trade Department, Brown's first job with the Port Authority was to sit in a small office and field complaints from all 500 of the World Trade Center's tenants.

"You had to start at the bottom and work your way up," Brown said. "We had one little office. I had two people to supervise and we took over 300 calls a day."

Brown soon worked his way out of that tiny office and began responding to maintenance requests and other complaints from tenants in both 110-story buildings.

That was the job Brown was doing on Feb. 26, 1993, as he and a co-worker met on the B2 level underneath the north tower to discuss a work order before Brown went to lunch.

A few floors below, Ramzi Yousef and a Jordanian accomplice parked a yellow rental van containing a 1,310-pound bomb, lit a 20-foot fuse and ran.

"I was going to lunch but I didn't take the elevator from the B2 level, I took the stairwell," Brown said. "I came up the stairwell and got about halfway through the concourse and I saw everyone running our way. We lost six of our co-workers that day."

The massive bomb failed to send the north tower crashing into the south tower as Yousef intended, but the blast killed six people, injured thousands and tore a 98-foot hole through four sub-levels of concrete.

So shaken by the bombing, some of Brown's co-workers never returned to work.

But Brown never thought twice about going back.

"Of course, I was going to go back, especially for all that overtime," Brown said. "We worked seven days a week after the bombing. We had to repair our building. Things changed after that. Before, the World Trade Center was wide open. You could come and go as you please, but after that, they set up a visitors desk and they really tightened security."

Taking the day off

In early September 2001, Rebecca Brown began complaining to Leroy that he always worked on the anniversary of their wedding -- Sept. 11, 1991."She nagged me so much that I finally said, 'OK, I'll take the day off and take you to McDonald's or something,'" Leroy Brown joked. "I give her credit for being here. Because she nagged me, I took off work that day. If I was there, I would have been a goner."

Rebecca had taken the children to school that morning when Leroy flipped on the television inside the family's apartment in the Bronx.

"I looked at the television and I saw the first plane hit the building and said, 'No, this can't be right. I know they're not making a movie like that at my building,'" Brown said. "I flipped the channel and it was on every channel and my heart started beating. The second plane hit and I couldn't move. I was in shock."

Brown watched helplessly as the buildings he loved collapsed.

"What hurt me most is when those buildings started tumbling down," Brown said. "I knew we could rebuild if they hadn't fallen. It's taken something out of me."

Unsure what else to do, Brown reported for work at ground zero less than 48 hours after the attack.

"You could smell the flesh," Brown said. "It was worse than my two years in Vietnam. You could still smell the flesh burning. They hadn't found all of the pieces of all the bodies yet. It would make you sick."

Among the 2,600 killed that day in New York City were 84 Port Authority employees, including more than a dozen of Brown's co-workers.

The dead included close friends like Eugene Raggio, a 55-year-old operations supervisor at the World Trade Center.

"Gene lived there," Brown said, his voice cracking as his eyes fill with tears. "He worked for the Port Authority for 38 years, and every year for the last five years, he'd tell me 'This is it, Brown. I'm going to retire.' He had the age, the time, everything. He never retired.

"I still think I should have been there. Maybe I could have helped somebody."

Trying to move on

Brown worked at the George Washington Bridge and LaGuardia Airport before retiring from the Port Authority in 2004 to return to Beaufort.

He has been back to the former site of the World Trade Center only once since leaving New York. But Tuesday, he returned to Manahattan and today will reunite with former Port Authority co-workers at the site.

"I don't know what to expect," Brown said. "My heart will probably be racing 100 mph. I'm going to be glad, sad, all at one time. When you're at a place so long, you make so many friends. They were the best co-workers I ever had."

Rebecca Brown didn't make the trip to New York City this week and said the couple's wedding anniversary has become a difficult thing to celebrate.

"I wish I could get married on another day," Rebecca Brown said. "People tell me that I should be thankful because that day saved him, and I am. Maybe one day I can get past this, but you can't celebrate it. I'll never celebrate it.

"I just can't stop thinking about all those people."

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.