Remembering 9/11 Part 3: Chaplain to south Washington County police has deep connection to Sept. 11 attacks
When Joe Cuoco sees images of the contorted steel beams that became grim symbols of Sept. 11, his memories stretch back farther than 10 years.
Cuoco, a New York, N.Y., native, had a hand in erecting all that steel during construction of the World Trade Center complex, including the Twin Towers.
"The design of the steel girders - I've never seen girders like that, ever," said Cuoco, who now makes his home in Woodbury with his wife Herborg. "It was breathtaking to see the equipment."
In the late 1960s and early 70s, Cuoco -- now a police chaplain for Woodbury and neighboring cities -- was a steel engineer working on the World Trade Center project in Manhattan.
This week, President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush will come to ground zero for a ceremony in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The date marks a decade since terrorists hijacked planes that crashed into both Twin Towers and the Pentagon; passengers who stormed the cockpit of a fourth plane were able to wrest away control from terrorists reportedly bound for the U.S. Capitol building before that plane crashed in Pennsylvania.
Today, the once sprawling World Trade Center site is no more -- an open space from the complex that once cast long shadows across Manhattan.
Cuoco said his brother, a survey engineer working on the new World Trade Center project, described just what he believes ground zero to represent now.
"He said, 'Joe, that's holy ground,'" Cuoco said, communicating with a thick Brooklyn accent, a remaining vestige from the city where he was born and raised.
Cuoco returned to the site in 2007 after he went to visit an old friend after leaving the engineering field to become a pastor.
It was during that visit to New York when Cuoco learned he could be eligible to receive a union pension from his time in the industry.
Cuoco met with a union leader who said he could become eligible for the pension, but that he would have to go to work one day for the union.
Before he could be put back to work, however, he had to get the blessing from the union board.
Cuoco -- one of that union's original organizers during the 60s -- passed the board with flying colors.
So he went back to work. For one day.
The ceremonial workday brought Cuoco full circle: he was stationed at ground zero, where he worked as a "transit man."
"Thirty-five years later I'm back in ground zero," he said.
Cuoco said he experienced a "weary feeling" at the site.
"The towers are no longer there, I don't know anybody there anymore," he said. "It was sort of a mixed feeling."
And he agreed with his brother.
"That was holy ground there," Cuoco said.
He had left the engineering field -- and its handsome salary --to attend Bible college. He became a pastor after responding to what he said was faith's call.
Cuoco said he never forgot those roots from working as an engineer with ironworkers.
"I still have a heart for that field," he said.
A chaplain's life
Cuoco, 68, has lived in Woodbury now for three years after moving from Albuquerque, N.M., where he was an evangelical pastor.
Most of his children live in Woodbury.
"We thought this would be nice to be with our kids," he said.
Cuoco is a member of a six-person chaplaincy team that works with east metro cities including Woodbury, Cottage Grove and St. Paul Park.
He said serving as a chaplain has given him special insight into public safety -- especially what he's learned during ride-along trips with police.
He knows they share a special connection with Sept. 11.
"There is a camaraderie with the police department and firefighters there," he said.
Still, Cuoco knows the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 will be impactful for many Americans, including himself.
"It will be a solemn moment," he said. "I see it as a sad time for the first responders. I'd like to be there just to honor it."