My Hero of 9-11: Lew Eisenberg

In my 57 years of watching major league baseball, my favorite manager was Leo Durocher.  Leo would often speak of “the big men in my life.”  In his life, the truly big man was Branch Rickey, the general manager under whom Leo served as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and as a shortstop with the St. Louis Cardinals.


The big man in my life, my father, Melvin Steinberg passed away last week.  In my political life, Lew Eisenberg has been the big man.  His support was critical to my appointments by Governor Christie Whitman as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission and by President George W. Bush as Region 2 EPA Administrator.


My greatest reason for my admiration for Lew Eisenberg, however, will always be his outstanding leadership as chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) during the days that followed the catastrophe of September 11, 2001.  From the time the airplanes hit the twin towers until he stepped down as chair in December, 2001, Lew devoted his very life to ensuring that the Port Authority would continue to function at top efficiency, despite the devastating loss of life to the Port’s personnel and the destruction of its offices at the World Trade Center.


One cannot overestimate the enormity of Lew’s task.  He was a highly popular chair with the Port Authority personnel, and the loss of life on 9-11 included many professionals with whom he had formed close personal relationships.  Lew was particularly saddened by the death of Neil Levin, the Port Authority’s Executive Director.  For many days and nights after 9-11, Lew and his chief of staff, Cosmo Servidio had the emotionally devastating responsibility of attending funerals for the Port Authority personnel who had been killed in the attack.


Yet Lew and Cosmo soldiered on.  The Port Authority continued to function effectively due to Lew’s leadership.  He won the eternal admiration of the career professionals at the Port.  I know this from my cooperation with the Port on various matters during my service as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA in the Bush administration.  Whenever I would tell a Port career professional that I was a friend of Lew Eisenberg, the reaction was invariably an expression of profound admiration for the man who saved PANYNJ.


Both the then Governor George Pataki of New York and Acting Governor Don DiFrancesco of New Jersey were most fortunate to have Lew Eisenberg as chair at the Port Authority in that time of crisis.  I know of no individual who commands the bi-partisan respect that Lew Eisenberg has maintained throughout the nation for decades.  During those difficult days, the Congressional delegations of both states also looked to Lew for leadership.  He was the ultimate superb crisis manager.


About Cosmo Servidio, I must say a personal word.  He was my chief of staff both during my tenure as Meadowlands Executive Director and as Region 2 EPA Administrator.  We are indeed as close as brothers.   


I was in Israel on September 11, 2001, participating in a mission of the United Jewish Communities of Metro-West.  Our objective was to console the families of Israeli victims of terror.  Ironically, by the end of that day, Israelis were consoling us.


When I heard the news of the attacks, I was at Eruz, near Gaza.  My first thoughts were about Cosmo.  I called him by cell phone a number of times and could not reach him.


Finally, I called his home and reached his wife, Carole.  When I heard Carole’s voice, I thought my heart was about to stop. I said, “Carole”, and she responded quickly, “he’s all right, Alan, he’s all right.”  I was overwhelmed with emotion. 


Late in 2000, Carole had given birth to their first child, daughter Olivia.  Cosmo adores Olivia and his son, Julian, and his duties as chief of staff would require him to spend nights in the city during the first few weeks in the aftermath of the catastrophe.  When he was finally able to return home every night, he would sit and stare at Olivia, thanking God that he could look forward to life with his family, something all too many people take for granted.


He also would never forget his service with Lew during those trying times.  Lew is a man who never used his political and government service to benefit himself financially one iota.  He has always believed in noble public service, and that is exactly how he served during the dark days after 9-11.  Lew can be credited with literally saving PANYNJ during those days.  He served the Port Authority throughout his tenure with incomparable integrity and competency.


When Lew spoke to the media during those days and referred to the first responders, he always would say, “I walked among heroes.”  He was too modest.  He was a hero himself.  On this forthcoming 10th anniversary of the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, Lew Eisenberg is my hero of 9-11.


Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.

My Hero of 9-11:  Lew Eisenberg