Jack Griffo (JG): All they did was get up. You take a shower, you go to work like everybody else. You don’t think somebody is going to try to murder you while you’re sitting at your desk trying to make a living.
Maria Alfano (MA): It was about quarter to nine in the morning. Had my radio set and, um, I was standing in the kitchen with a cup of coffee in my hand and they cut out and they said “a plane hit tower one”. I don’t even know. I might have dropped to the floor. I know my heart did.
Kamilah Kashanie (KK): Today marks 20 years since al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes in an attack on the United States. Nearly 3000 people were killed, and another 6000 were injured — making it the single largest terrorist act in world history.
With numbers like that it’s possible to lose sight of all the individuals that were lost that day.
So in 2005, StoryCorps partnered with the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in a pretty ambitious project. To record a remembrance for each life that was lost.
In this episode, we’re going to hear from the friends and family members of one of the people who died in the 9/11 attacks. Richard Palazzolo [PAL-ah-Zoh-lo].
It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m your host Kamilah Kashanie.
And just a warning: this episode has some details that may be upsetting to some listeners.
KK: Richie grew up in Queen’s, New York. He was a runner, a hiker, and a Vikings fan. He was also a mortgage securities broker for Cantor Fitzgerald and worked on the 105th floor of the North Tower — just above where the first plane hit. He was 39 years old at the time.
MA: It was the most hurtful, ugly, scary feeling I ever, ever had. And it wasn’t because it was one. It was because both of them were in there.
Christina Della Pelle (CD): They did everything together, they were identical twins and they were together still in the same tower.
KK: When Richie was killed, he left behind his identical twin brother — and best friend — Ronald Palazzolo, who’s spent the last 20 years living without his other half.
And he hasn’t really talked about it much, until now.
He sat down for StoryCorps, and so did his sister, Maria Alfano, and his cousin Christina Della Pelle, to remember Richie.
RP: My mother didn’t know she was having twins. So, my brother was born at 8 o’clock and the doctor, he left to go out and tell my dad that he had a son. 12 minutes later, the nurse delivered me. And she went out and told my father that he has two sons. That’s when he lost the rest of his hair I think. [chuckles]
I have a picture of me and my brother, we were like six, seven months holding hands in the crib and my mother told us all the time, ‘you guys sat half hour just talking to each other. We had our own language.
MA: OK, here it is, I never separated them. Whatever Richie did, Ronnie did. So to have a memory, is having a memory of both of them.
CD: There is this one video clip of me on Richie’s back, and he’s carrying me around the basement of Grandma Nunu’s house. And I’m going ’Go this way. Go this way’. And he trotted around the house with me on his back and Ronnie was taking off his hat and doing back flips over it. And they were always just the funny ones.
MA: Whatever the occasion was, when the twins were there, it was a happening.
RP: Getting up in the morning, til coming home at night, and eating together and whatever it was. And that’s right to the end. I mean, literally to the end. We were roommates in the city, downtown, doing the same career, started on the same day. We just did everything together.
JG They were a good team. If one was good at one thing, the other would cede control of it to them. But they were kind of like one person.
KK: That’s Jack Griffo. He was good friends with the twins. He also came to StoryCorps to remember Richie, or “Rico” as they called him.
JG: They lived about two blocks away from me and we became very, very close. They were running marathons with me and we’re riding a bike 100 miles in a day, and we’re camping out in the woods. Mount Katahdin in Maine has a way up to the top. It’s called the Knife-edge. It’s like a ridge and there’s two steep drops on either side. And, uh, you had to climb down a thing called the chimney and then back up the other side of the chimney. But we made it. And, uh, Rico, he busted out a kite on the summit and we actually flew the kite on the summit of Katahdin. That was like a surprise he brought with him. He might have been a bit more sensitive of the two that way.
KK: Like Richie, Jack and Ronnie also worked in the North Tower. But their offices were much lower — on the 26th floor.
JG: My first day there was, uh, April Fool’s Day, 2001. So we were only working together for like four months.
Tuesday morning, September 11th, was one of the nicest mornings you could ever wake up to. And um, you got up, took a shower, and you went to work like everybody else in the world. And we’re waiting for breakfast to come. Actually I had just called the restaurant back. When I hung the phone up, two seconds later was when the plane hit the building. A couple of lights fell down off the ceiling. TVs kind of flickered out. Everybody stood up, kind of bounced into each other. I think the building reacted like a tuning fork. That there was like a vibration sent all the way down. But, uh, everybody knew to get up and kind of get out. It was really orderly. Absolutely zero pushing, nothing like that. I actually went back and got my backpack.
RP: When I was in the building, the plane hit and I was trying to get my brother on the phone and finally somebody picked the phone up. Not sure who it was, I just said, ‘is Rico there?’ And he said, he can’t get to the phone. And I heard my brother in the back saying, uh, ‘just telling my brother to get out of the building. I’m trying to get out.’ And my first reaction was ‘I got to go up and get him’. And I started walking up the stairs. There was water flowing down the stairs. I remember that. And the smell of airplane fuel and, like all of a sudden it just hit me that “what are you doing? You’ve got to get the hell out of here.’ I think my brother came to me and I think he was just kinda telling me I had a lot of things to take care of. I had my mother to take care of and my family and my nephew. And everybody. And that’s when I think he passed. And I just remember just getting out and broken glass all over the place. And I was still in shock. And somebody grabbed me and asked me if I got off of 105. It was Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, and I had to tell him, no. I was on the 26th floor. I was not on 105. I was not Rico. I was Ronnie. So, I often try to imagine what the hell those people went through. Guarantee my brother went out like a hero. He probably tried to help people out. But, you know how it ended up.
KK: All 658 people who went to work at Cantor Fitzgerald’s headquarters that morning were killed — including Howard Lutnick’s younger brother, Gary, and Ronnie’s brother Richie.
After the break, how Richie’s loved ones are keeping his memory alive, 20 years later.
Stay with us.
KK: Now we’re going to hear more from Jack Griffo. He was a good friend of Richie’s, and a broker working in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
He left from the 26th floor right after the first plane hit. When he came to StoryCorps, he talked about what happened when he made it out of the building that day.
JG: A whole lot of people hightailed it out of there, obviously. But I wasn’t married at the time. I didn’t have kids and I had friends. And, uh, so I hung around looking for people. And, uh, there were some other things you saw, some people who couldn’t stay in the building. Maybe I shouldn’t talk about that. That’s a really, really hard thing to watch. Not really a church going guy, but I did get on my knees and say a prayer. And, uh, then the south tower just started to lean and that’s when everybody started to run. And then the cloud hit and you, literally, you were in the middle of that cloud. You could not see anything. You had to stop moving. The smell, the dust, pieces of stuff, the wind. And I really just thought that the top of the building fell off and then it cleared out. And uh, I called my girlfriend, who is my wife now. That’s when she told me that the second tower went down. I got in touch with Ronnie, or he got in touch with me and he was with Pete and Paul, but he didn’t have Rich with them.
KK: Pete and Paul Scialla were in this friend group, and they also happened to be identical twins.
They didn’t work in the towers, but when they heard what happened, they immediately rushed down to help. Ronnie remembers what happened next.
RP: Pete and Paul took me back to their apartment and, uh, I just laid on the couch. They knew what I was going through. They didn’t have to say anything. I don’t even know if my Mom knew what I was going through. I think the only people that know it are identical twins.
Paul went in his bedroom and then all of a sudden — I guess he just didn’t want to leave me alone. He came out, laid on the floor next to me and he just put his foot up on mine. And that’s how I went to sleep that night. What a friend.
JG: Ronnie ended up staying with Pete and Paul that night, but I didn’t walk into my apartment until I don’t think, like, 10:30 at night. And I wouldn’t even go in my apartment. I stripped all my clothes off right outside in the hallway. I stripped naked. Because I had that smell on me. I saved my backpack, I saved my shoes, I saved a couple other things, too, in a big Ziploc. And every once in a while, if you open up that Ziploc, you still smell it. It smells like that day.
RP: My dad passed away and my mom gave me and my brother his dog tags from World War II and we both wore them religiously every day. We love wearing them. But when I actually got back to my apartment, his dog tags was hanging on the doorknob of his room. And I looked up and said, ‘Why weren’t you wearing your dog tags?’ But then I realized that I needed to have them. And God gave them to me. And I have them on right now. Doesn’t feel like 20 years to me. It’s all — it’s yesterday to me. Every day is yesterday. The first thing I think of when I get up and the last thing I think of when I go to sleep, is my brother. Pain doesn’t go away.
KK: For Ronnie’s sister Maria, she deals with the grief by focusing on what she still has.
MA: Since 9/11, I’m looking at a glass half full. We still have Ronnie, and Ronnie — Ronnie is keeping Richie alive, just by living. November of 2001, Ronnie was able to get a place in the marathon. And what he did, he wore Richie’s sneakers that had Richie’s chip in there. And when Ronnie crossed that finish line, it came up ‘Richie Palazzolo’. So for me, whatever he does, he’s got Richie inside. I can feel it. So, like I said, I’ll look at the glass half full and say it’s a blessing to have my Ronnie around. And we’ll get through it together. You know, we’ll get through the 20th anniversary. We have each other.
KK: That’s all for this episode of the StoryCorps podcast.
It was produced by Kerrie Hilman. Our story editor is Sylvie Lubow. Our executive editor is Jasmyn Morris. Jarrett Floyd is our technical director. Natsumi Ajisaka is our fact-checker. Special thanks to the National September 11th Memorial And Museum.
To listen to more stories from our September 11th initiative, visit StoryCorps – dot – org. While you’re there you can also find out what music we used in the episode, and see original artwork created by Rosalyn Yoon.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Kamilah Kashanie.