Rethinking life and career after 9/11

September 11, 2001, was only 10 years ago, but when Andrew Phelps thinks about his former career as a toy store employee in New York, it feels like another lifetime.

September 11, 2001,  was only 10 years ago, but when Andrew Phelps thinks about his former career, it feels like another lifetime ago.

Because on that fateful day, Phelps worked in a toy store on 5th Avenue in New York.

“I worked at FAO Schwarz, and I was one of the toy soldiers standing out in front and greeting customers,” Phelps told me recently.

Phelps, who performed in his first play when he was five, was doing toy soldier duty to make ends meet, while working to catch his big breaking as an aspiring actor.

A picture of Andrew Phelps during his days working at a toy store [Photo: Phelps family]

“I was doing a lot of stage performance and some theatre productions and adaptations of literature,” Phelps told me. “In 2001, I was doing an adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.”

He was a struggling actor, but life was good for Phelps: In his mid 20’s, living in the East Village, a girlfriend who would later become his wife, steady work, and dreams of the red carpet.

Needless to say, international “terrorism” was pretty far from his mind back then.

“Talk of extremist groups out of the Middle East that were targeting the United States was not something that kept me up at night,” Phelps confessed.

But then the morning of September 11, 2001, happened and Phelps watched in disbelief from the roof of his apartment building as the second plane hit the tower. 

Within days, Phelps returned to work at the toy store and put on his costume, but now it just didn’t feel right. Something was different. As good of an actor as he was, he just couldn’t bring himself to fake this one.  

“You’re working in a toy store, dressed up in a silly costume and two to three miles away there are smoking piles,” Phelps said. “And it was surreal to be working in this happy place and pretend everything was fine.”

Phelps today lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico doing a job much different than the one he had 10 years ago  [Photo: Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera]

Phelps just had to do something, anything, to help. He couldn’t stand it anymore.

So he went down to Ground Zero, an area then restricted to emergency personnel.  

“I put on an EMT (emergency medical technician) t-shirt that a friend of mine had given me so I looked a little more official than I was,” said Phelps, who had zero emergency experience.

He found himself milling around a staging area with a bunch of visiting rescue crews who has just arrived.

“After a few minutes a pickup truck pulls up and all these guys all hop in the back and they say, ‘hop in with us,’” Phelps recalled.  “So I hopped in with them.”

Within minutes Phelps founds himself on the Ground Zero pile on the “bucket brigade,” passing buckets of debris down a line.

He did this for two, three, four, five and then six straight hours. He was consumed with trying to help.

“At one point, I had moved up pretty high on this pile and I was talking to a court security guy and an NYPD guy and right away they said, ‘Oh, are you an EMT?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not, I’m an actor.’ They didn’t care. They were happy I guess to have an extra set of hands.”

“There were horrible things I saw,” Phelps said. “Things that were remains of people, but they were unrecognisable.”

It impacted Phelps tremendously.

At one point , Phelps saw two tattered and partially charred postcards of the World Trade Center sitting in dust and debris at “Ground Zero”. They were likely in one of the towers’ gift shops and survived the collapse. Phelps picked them up and put them in his back pocket.

Phelps went home, covered in dust and sweat, and he felt a little helpless that he could not have done more. Even frustrated, perhaps.  

But many New Yorkers felt the same. What makes Phelps a little different is what he did about it.

He looked himself in the mirror, and he dramatically re-thought life and career.

“Ultimately before 9/11, it was about me being a successful actor and being interviewed on the red carpet,” Phelps said. “And I think after 9/11, that kind of a career path just didn’t sit well anymore.”

So Phelps threw aside his toy store costume and his acting career and went back to school for an advanced degree in emergency management. 

Now, 10 years after 9/11, Phelps sits in his small office in Santa Fe, New Mexico, adorned with a fireman’s jacket and books about emergency planning. He is now a volunteer firefighter and the local disaster preparedness manager for the state of New Mexico.

(Click here for more info on the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management).

Whether it’s a wildfire or terrorism, Phelps is partially in charge of making sure New Mexico is prepared.

In his new career, he knows when a disaster hits he will never again feel powerless. Now, it’s just the opposite.

“That one bad thing of 9/11, I witnessed it, it was horrible,” Phelps said. “But it put me on this other career path and because of that experience I now go to work everyday and talk to local emergency managers, and talk to them about how they can plan for their community. As bad as it can get, I know I can now help get them through those bad days.”

And remember those postcards from Ground Zero? They are now framed and hanging in Phelps’ office in Santa Fe. Perhaps they are an everyday reminder of why this former toy soldier now comes into work everyday.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel