Guiding Visitors Through A Difficult Chapter in New York City History

Philip O'Brien, Co-founder & President of Zazoom

A former television newsman, Philip O’Brien was always in the middle of major news stories during his fast-paced career. Two years ago – after accomplished work at WNBC-TV, WCBS-TV and New York 1 News – Phil co-founded the online news video company Zazoom in Lower Manhattan.

During this time, he has explored the district, and among his visits was the National September 11 Memorial. A year and a half ago, he volunteered to become a docent with the 9/11 Tribute Center, and has since shepherded visitors from around the world through the Memorial grounds.

“Most visitors on the tours seem surprised at the intimacy of the memorial site, and also the tight security in order to gain entry,” said O’Brien, who lives in Flushing, Queens. “They are thrilled to experience the sensations of visiting the remembrance pools, to feel the spray of water and to touch the names of the victims.”

“At the same time, there’s a busy, noisy construction project going on all around them,” he added. “Beforehand they seem to expect it to be more like Gettysburg or Mount Rushmore: a staid, quieter memorial. Instead, they’re in the middle of a living moving city.”

The 9/11 Tribute Center creates a central place for information about 9/11 at the World Trade Center site, and O’Brien noted that visitors learn factual information about the events on September 11th, the identity of 2,973 people killed in the attacks, the unprecedented rescue and recovery operations and the tremendous spirit of support and generosity that arose after the attacks.

“The Tribute Center asked me to add my perspective as a journalist who covered both the first attack on Feb 26, 1993 as well as Sept 11, 2001,” O’Brien said.

On weekends over the last year and a half, O’Brien has led groups of students and family members through the site. They are among the more than 500,000 who annually visit the Tribute Center, which is at 120 Liberty Street, adjacent to FDNY firehouse 10/10 and across from the World Trade Center site.

He begins the hour-and-fifteen-minute tours at 120 Liberty Street. Each time, there are about two dozen guests, and O’Brien and other docents discuss the history of Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center.

“Along the way, we point out development and growth taking place now in and around the World Trade Center,” O’Brien said.

After passing through security measures, groups enter the memorial site. Each docent tells his or her own story.

“I was the managing editor for WNBC-TV Channel 4 in 2001,” O’Brien said. “On Sept 10, I was already dreading September 11 because it was shaping up to be a big news day. It was primary day in that year’s race for New York City mayor, and it was the first day of the new public school year – two big events that would require many reporters and camera crews to cover.”

“On Sept 10, all the New York TV stations got together to pool coverage of events on the 11th; the city was divided with each station getting a different section of the city. WNBC picked Lower Manhattan. On the morning of September 11th, I had several reporters and camera crews nearby in Chinatown and Tribeca when the first plane struck the North Tower. I was aboard the No. 7 elevated subway train on my way in when I saw the tower burning in the distance.  I made my way in and joined my colleagues covering the attacks that day and for months after.”

The tours have given O’Brien a chance to reflect often on that experience and his admiration of those who lost their lives on that fateful day.

“The Tribute Center and being a guide enables me to share the fear, awe, heroism and mourning of that day.” O’Brien said. “I can visit the names of friends who died there and to remember them with others. In turn, I hear what people from around the world remember of that day; where they were, what they felt.”

“We all come away having shared special moments, and I hope they, in particular, learn more about the epicenter of that disaster.  It’s important too because 11 years have already passed and someday there will not be any eyewitnesses to the events to tell what happened.  After, many guests say the tour was so personnel and touching.  They expected it to be just facts; and they also mention how busy, but peaceful the 9/11 Memorial is.”

To arrange for a tour,click here.