Dozens of New Yorkers from a neighborhood ravaged by Superstorm Sandy lined up in a school auditorium Thursday to receive $1,000 debit cards from a financial services firm that lost hundreds of employees in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"This is such a help to my little son who is emotionally challenged and lost everything," said Debbie Torres, clutching her cash card from the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald. "God, thank you. These people here, thank you. Thank everybody."
Cantor Fitzgerald, whose Sept. 11 death toll of 658 was by far the largest of any employer, announced Thursday that it will "adopt" 19 schools in communities hit hard by Sandy and give a total of $10 million to families in those schools.
Cantor Fitzgerald, its relief fund and its affiliate BGC Partners are donating $1,000 each to 10,000 families to spend as they see fit. The schools are in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Long Island and New Jersey. Cantor officials joined elected leaders at Public School 256 in Far Rockaway on Thursday to start the effort.
"This is going to be used up in a heartbeat because we have nothing," said Theresa Ward, who said her neighborhood looked like a war zone after the storm hit on Oct. 29.
"We watched the whole block burn down," Ward said. "The water was up to here and we couldn't leave the house. ... Everybody was putting their kids on their shoulders, and you have no idea what you're walking through. It's pitch black and it's freezing. You don't know if there's shards of glass or if there's sharks in the water or anything. It was just something that you never want to go through."
Ward and her husband, Paul, left immediately to shop for a bed for their 17-year-old son because the furniture in his ground-floor bedroom was destroyed. Their home still doesn't have heat and now the family, which also includes a 4-year-old boy, is planning to move.
Tony Osemwengie, father of a sixth-grade son, said he hadn't decided yet how to spend the money but he was glad to have it. "It means a lot to us," he said.
Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick said he learned after Cantor's devastating loss of so many employees with young children that help should come with no strings attached.
"The best way to take care of a family is to put money in the hands of the parents and let them decide what to do," he said. "Maybe they need a couch and maybe they need to go to Toys R Us and buy their kids a present."
Cantor Fitzgerald's headquarters on the 101st through 105th floors of One World Trade Center were destroyed when terrorists struck the tower, and the company lost two-thirds of its New York workforce. Lutnick was not in the office but his brother Gary was killed.
The Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund run by Lutnick's sister Edie was established to aid the families of Cantor employees lost on Sept. 11 but its scope has since expanded to include scores of charities around the world.
Each year on Sept. 11 the company donates the day's revenues to charity and employees donate their day's pay. The effort raised $12 million last September.
"We wanted to have a way that we could memorialize those that we lost in a way that was positive, and to do good things," Edie Lutnick said.
She said that when Sandy hit the region last October the relief fund immediately wanted to help. The schools selected for aid are in areas where Cantor employees live or have other connections.
"We're really excited that we have the opportunity to help the families from these 19 schools to let them know that communities matter and that we care," Edie Lutnick said.
The Lutnicks joined Sen. Charles Schumer, Rep. Gregory Meeks and other officials at the Far Rockaway school to hand out the first cash cards.
Both New York Democrats praised Cantor Fitzgerald but also used the occasion to press for timely federal aid.
Meeks urged the House to pass the relief bill on Jan. 15. "It is something that is long overdue and it shouldn't be complicated," he said.
Schumer said the federal government should be "as generous, as caring and as thoughtful as Cantor Fitzgerald."
Cantor Fitzgerald has been affected by Sandy itself. The firm moved its headquarters to midtown after the 2001 attacks but had more than 500 employees at an office on Water Street in lower Manhattan when the storm flooded the area. They relocated to Cantor's other offices, Howard Lutnick said. The Water Street site has still not reopened.