Local Man Learns It's A Small World After All

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Anthony J. Alfano felt helpless, like he was trapped on an island, apart from the rest of the world.

"I wanted to get on a plane, fly to New York, and start digging with my hands," he said.

The date was Sept. 11, a day when almost everyone in America needed to be as close as possible to their friends and loved ones.

Alfano was in the Ukraine, far from his home in Payson, without the company of a single countryman, and in the company of very few people who could even speak English.

Alfano is a volunteer member of the International Executive Service Corps, an organization made up of retired, semi-retired and active corporate executives from many of the country's largest corporations who travel the globe to infuse troubled, distressed countries with American business-management savvy.

A former partner in a major New York construction firm, Alfano's specialty is construction management, and in the past he has shared his know-how in a number of Third World and Eastern bloc countries, including the Ukraine, to which he has traveled twice in the last year. This time though, he was there to advise the construction industry on business administration, managing, marketing and technology.

But this time, it turned out, there was that unexpected distraction on the 11th day of September, when Alfano was wrapping up a business day in the village of Khymannitski (pronounced "Kaminsky").

"It was 7 p.m. there, which is 9 a.m. in New York," Alfano said. "I had been on the computer, reading my e-mail, when I noticed a news headline that said, 'Witness said small plane hits World Trade Center.' I tried to bring up the story, but couldn't, because there was so much traffic online, I guess. But since it didn't sound that bad, I didn't give it much thought."

Once Alfano returned to his hotel room, he said, there was a "mad banging" at the door. It was his interpreter, accompanied by the English professor at a local university where Alfano had just addressed the students.

"They said, 'Aren't you watching television?' I said, 'No, it's all in Ukraine! Why would I be watching television?'

Soon, Alfano was watching TV, much like everyone else in the world, and "absolutely stunned" by the first image that flickered across the screen: a jetliner crashing into the World Trade Center.

"The building has collapsed," Alfano's interpreter interjected.

"No, the building has NOT collapsed," Alfano replied with confidence "They are structurally sound, they are huge buildings. I've been in them many times. Those buildings have not collapsed."

With that, Alfano now said, "CNN showed the replay for the World Trade Center collapsing. I started crying ... This was the city I was born in. I built all around the World Trade Center..."

Despite the fact that the distance between the Ukraine and Payson had suddenly seemed so magnified to him, Alfano quickly discovered that he was in familiar territory, after all: the brotherhood of man.

"Everyone I spoke to was so heartbroken, so remorseful, for me, as an American," he said. "They grabbed my hand and told me how sorry they were. One time I was in a taxi with my interpreter, and we were talking. The driver could tell I was American, and he immediately stopped the car. 'I'm so sorry,' he said in broken English. It was amazing."

Two days later, he was invited back to the local university to deliver another lecture. This time, before Alfano could even open his mouth, the students' hands shot up into the air.

"The first question was, 'How could somebody do that to America? You people help the whole world.' I said, 'I can't give you an answer.' Another student said, 'We remember, during Chernobyl, you were the first ones here. You sent doctors and aid and everything else. Why would anyone want to do this to you?'"

Again, Alfano had no answer. Even so, he ended up returning to the university for five additional lectures.

"Every time, it was the same thing," he said. "We were all bonded by what had happened in New York.

"Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this is the first time the whole Ukraine has been independent," Alfano said, "and they are very proud of their independence. At the same time, they are very Western-leaning because with all of the migrations over the years, they have a lot of relatives who live in the United States.

"In a way, I became for them on that day, their American relative. And for me, they became at a time when I really needed it a reminder of the many friends our country has beyond its borders."

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