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Mohawk Ironworkers See Terrorist Plane Pass By; St. Regis Families Worry

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HOGANSBURG, N. Y. -- Mohawk ironworkers were working 50 floors up at a lower Manhattan job when an airliner passed within what seemed like 50 feet of their crane on the way to its collision with the World Trade Center about 10 blocks away.

Richard Otto immediately got on his cell phone with Michael Swamp, Business Manager of Ironworkers Local 440 at the St. Regis (Akwesasne) Mohawk Reservation.

"He called in all shook up after the first plane passed," Swamp told ICT. "He was telling me the wing of a plane had just missed their crane."

Then as they were talking the second plane came by, headed for the other World Trade Center Tower. "He got excited and said another plane was coming," Swamp said. "'Listen, this is going to hit,'" Otto said. He started telling people to get out.

In the background, the sound of workers screaming and yelling came over the phone. Then said Swamp, "I could hear the ruffle. I could hear the boom. That's when I lost the phone connection."

From the same site, about 8:45 a.m., ironworker Norman Big Tree got in a call to his father, St. Regis subchief John Big Tree, Jr. "The chiefs came into my office and we turned on the TV," said St. Regis tribal spokeswoman Rowena General. "That was when the second plane hit the south tower."

Shock immediately hit the St. Regis Reservation, perhaps the part of Indian country most directly affected by the terrorist attack which collapsed the giant World Trade Center towers and showered debris for blocks around with still unknown loss of life. About 100 Mohawk men from the famed Ironworkers union were working at construction sites in New York City and New Jersey at the time of the attack.

Swamp set up an emergency clearing house at the union hall in Hogansburg to locate the ironworkers. By Wednesday morning, Swamp said that 79 had called in or gotten in touch with relatives. "I'm still looking for about 20 of my men," he said. But he added that the union agent in Manhattan thought they were safely away from the disaster.

As families on the reservation called the union hall and tribal offices for news, the tribe also coped with sudden tension along the Canadian border, which cuts through the Akwesasne community. Tribal Chief of Police Andrew Thomas called for all tribal members to look for any suspicious activity along the border.

Suspects in the hijacking of planes from Boston's Logan Airport used in the attack were reported to have flown in from Portland, Maine, after crossing the border in the vicinity of Vermont and Maine, said General, a distance to the east from Akwesasne. But she said that tribal police and community members were on alert.

Tribal authorities, she said, "assist state and federal agencies on security matters and will continue to do so."

"Many of our men have contributed to watching the borders through our community, for anyone trying to come into the U. S. or trying to get back into Canada."

Although the border remained formally open, said General, the heightened security was causing up to 45 minute delays for Mohawk families divided by the boundary. School children were especially affected, said General.

"A lot of our families who live on the Canadian side have children who attend tribal schools here," she said. "Many of our children attend school in the city of Cornwall [in Canada]."

In addition to the immediate impact, she said, the community had a sentimental attachment to the Twin Towers. "Quite a few Mohawk men from Akwesasne actually built the World Trade Center."

Mohawk ironworkers became famous through the mid-20th century for their role in putting up the skyline of New York and other northeast cities. About a thousand Akwesasne Mohawk still work on high-rise construction, said Swamp.