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Cigars at Ground Zero

Michael Moretti
Posted: September 11, 2002
Small gestures and donations relieved some of the burden on those who had worked for nearly eight months at Ground Zero -- the site of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Looking back now, at the one-year anniversary, we see how far a simple act of compassion went to further the greater cause.

The grinding workdays, sorting through and transporting millions of pounds of steel and rubble and the psychological and emotional strain of being surrounded by such death and violence, took its toll. For firefighters, police officers and all the recovery personnel, the workday was all encompassing.

Clothing, meals and the simple comforts that everyone outside of Ground Zero has at their fingertips were unavailable, so the call went out over television stations and radio broadcasts to get everyday materials and supplies to Lower Manhattan. Donations of clean shirts, beverages, food and hygiene products poured in from around the country, and people from all walks of life volunteered to assist.

Joseph Johnson (white helmet) and Herb Minks (yellow helmet) stand with Port Authority officers and other workers at Ground Zero.

Two men brought cigars.

Joseph Johnson, a chiropractor and Policeman's Benevolent Association physician from Rutherford, New Jersey, and his cousin, Herb Minks, a local businessman and former police committee member in Alpine, New Jersey became known by those working at the site as the Cigar Guys. The name came from their own contribution in the recovery, handing out cigars to tired workers looking for ten minutes of rest.

Johnson said he got the idea while adjusting the backs of tired workers at Ground Zero a week after the attacks. He gave away some cigars that he had brought with him, and noticed how much they were appreciated by the workers. This sparked the idea of donating cigars on a larger scale, to reach more people.

The idea became a Tuesday night trip nearly every week for the next eight months. Johnson and Minks would bring $27,000 worth of cigars in all to Ground Zero, which were donated by Gary Kolesaire, the owner of the Tobacco Store in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Kolesaire said he also received donations of cigars from Altadis U.S.A. to bring to the site.

Many of the workers at Ground Zero began to look for the Cigar Guys, and took pleasure in that cigar break before they went back to work.

"There were very few moments of downtime at Ground Zero," said Port Authority Police Sgt. Brian Sullivan. "Cigars helped the downtime."

Sullivan described how the workers got to know the Cigar Guys week after week. The cigars would often be enjoyed on the outskirts of the site, where workers would gather to talk. "To get a breather," said Sullivan.

Two firefighters from the FDNY are greeted with a cigar and a light after searching many hours through the rubble at Ground Zero in September 2001.

Mark DeFazio, a lieutenant with the New York Police Department, said that the cigars were unexpected. "We were doing security around the perimeter and saw these guys and wondered who the hell they were with cigars and hard hats," he said. "We went over and soon there were 50 cops all smoking cigars -- even people who were not cigar smokers."

DeFazio described how the cigars gave the officers, "tough cops" who would normally keep their problems to themselves, the opportunity to share them with one another, to "talk about fears and the nightmares they were having."

It was a modest but welcomed gesture, a moment of relief to interrupt months of pain. It was a small thing, but those cigars helped the workers toiling at Ground Zero to relax. Which meant a lot.

Photos Courtesy of Joseph Johnson

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