More than 25 members of the Fort Lee Rotary Club were treated Tuesday to what some called a “once in a lifetime” experience and others said was something they could “cross off their bucket list,” when the group was taken to the top of the West Tower of the George Washington Bridge.
According to the Port Authority personnel who led the tour, since 9/11, only a handful of groups get to go up the tower each year, and most of them work for the agency in some capacity. Only two or three non-Port Authority groups get to take in the spectacular views from that particular vantage point, and some of them are civil engineering students there for educational purposes.
But one person who can arrange such a tour is John Koch of the Fort Lee Rotary Club, who said he’s been up the tower “12 or 13 times.”
“There was a time for I guess 10 or 12 years when we used to go up every year with the Rotary Club,” Koch said. “But after 9/11, they stopped it.”
Two factors contributed to Koch being able to arrange Tuesday’s tour for the current group of Rotarians: that he was also working on a tour for a group of veterans, and that he had done business with the Port Authority for years.
The Newark native, who made his home and raised a family in East Rutherford, owned a business in Fort Lee for 37 years, he said.
In 1959, he and a friend opened a store in Fort Lee that sold office equipment. It wasn’t until Staples came to town that Koch said he “saw the writing on the wall.”
“I sold the business—that was the best move I ever made—but I still sold office equipment and furniture out of my home,” Koch said. “And one of my best accounts was the Port Authority. I designed the stool that they use in all of the tollbooths, and they’ve been using them for 30-some-odd years.”
Koch still has friends at the agency, so in preparing to host a reunion for a ship he was on 62 years ago, the U.S.S. Raymond (DE-341), he also thought of his Rotary Club.
“I originally came in to arrange for the U.S.S. Raymond people to go to the top, and [the Port Authority] said they’d be very happy to do it,” Koch said. “As a matter of fact, they were overjoyed when they heard there were vets from the Second World War. And I asked them—because it’s been 11 years, and there’s a lot of people in our Rotary Club that have never been up there—I talked to them about the possibility of the Rotary going up.”
And so it was that at about noon on Tuesday, the group gathered at the Port Authority Administration Building on Bruce Reynolds Boulevard and were shuttled to the entrance to the bridge’s south walkway and escorted to the top of the West Tower in an elevator.
On the way up, club members got to enjoy the view from a windy lower deck before boarding the elevator again for a ride to the surprisingly less windy top of the 604-foot tower.
Board president Kenneth Bruno of the Greater Fort Lee Chamber of Commerce, who brought his mother and grandfather along Tuesday, called the tour “a once in a lifetime chance.”
Bruno said his grandfather used to own a jewelry store on Main Street in Fort Lee so being able to bring him along to see the bridge he looked out at for many years was particularly gratifying.
“I’m glad we were able to do it,” Bruno said, describing the view from the top as “absolutely breathtaking.”
“You don’t realize the beauty of New York and New Jersey, and you can see it both ways,” he said. “It gives you a much bigger perspective of how amazing it is, how green Bergen County is and the size of the buildings in Manhattan.”
Bob Auriemma of the Rotary Club reminisced about riding bicycles with his friends on the pathway that runs just beneath the Jersey side of the bridge in the late 1950s, but Tuesday was his first time going up the tower.
“The bridge will never be the same because I drive the bridge a lot,” Auriemma said. “You come over it, and it’s no big deal. But now, as I drive over the bridge, I’ll always think of this moment.”
Fort Lee resident and Rotary Club member Keith Jensen, also standing at the top of the West Tower for the first time, said he wished it were something everyone could have a chance to experience.
“I’m one of the fortunate ones to be able to come; it’s so exciting,” Jensen said. “I’m the type of guy that I’m thrilled to be in places like this—opportunities like this.”
Asked to described the view to someone who’s never experienced it, Jensen said, “Everyone’s always used to seeing the same thing from the same perspective, but you come up here and you look at it from a spot that you’ve never been and you know very, very few have … it’s very unique.”