My first meeting with John Costalas back in 2015 had the unmistakable feeling of a dream that was coming true. Mr. Costalas was a legendary, almost mythological figure amongst my family’s social circles — a kindhearted, wise man who left Greece many years ago and made a name for himself by becoming a successful restauranteur in New York City. I had heard all kinds of wonderful stories about him, all of which highlighted his incredible sense of humor, his patriotism, and most of all his altruism. Through the past four decades, he used his businesses to provide jobs to immigrants, people with families and students, and helped countless young Greeks find a better life here in the United States. Despite how vast and powerful his reputation was, there was one story of his I had not heard until that fateful meeting, when he was kind enough to share it with me and my family.
Mr. Costalas is the main owner and operator of “Essex World Café,” a small deli on the corner of Liberty Street and Church Street at the heart of New York City’s World Trade Center. People working in the area (young professionals, firefighters, police officers, etc.) were his daily customers. Right before they would start their shift and during their lunch break, they would visit the deli. Mr. Costalas would greet them, have conversations with them and always make certain that they had everything they needed. The events that unfolded on the morning of September 11, 2001 changed Mr. Costalas’ life forever.
When the first plane hit the northern façade of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, people working in and passing by the area flooded Mr. Costalas’ deli as a means of protection, while many of them lined up to use the phone. “It is only because of a miracle that we managed to live,” Mr. Costalas recounts. “I saw the first plane hit. At first it seemed like an accident had taken place. When I saw the second [plane], I understood that something terrible had happened.” When the second attack occurred, Mr. Costalas rushed to the front of the deli and pulled down the large metal security gates. A few moments later, as the Twin Towers came crushing down, the debris and the shockwave produced by the collapsing buildings shot a truck that was parked right outside Mr. Costalas’ establishment up against the storefront. That helped create a protective layer that prevented total annihilation inside the deli. Mr. Costalas and all his customers were able to escape through the store’s back door and started running away as fast as they could. On his way to safety, he located his younger brother a few blocks away “knocked out cold” from the blast. He helped him and many others regain consciousness and move as far away from Ground Zero as possible. The tragic days that followed were marked in Mr. Costalas’ memory as the most horrid times of his life, yet they never managed to break his spirit.
In the months that followed the September 11 attacks, Mr. Costalas transformed his dilapidated deli into a National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) that was run by a team of medics from San Bernardino, California, as well as many local firefighters and police officers. Running on an electric generator, the store’s refrigerated shelves were filled with first aid equipment, medicine and water. In a 2007 Pavement Piece by then NYU student Emily Flitter, Ken Rogers, a pharmacist from San Diego, California, estimates that he treated around 50 people per day, and that, in all, the four treatment centers set up around the perimeter of Ground Zero treated about 200 people per day for burns, eye injuries and respiratory problems. Mr. Costalas was one of the many individuals whose bravery and relentless sense of humanism helped countless people who were at or near the World Trade Center on the day of the 9/11 attacks.
Essex World Café survived that day and is still serving customers to this day. The walls of the deli are now filled with pictures of the days before and after the terrorist attacks that took place back then. Mr. Costalas was holding back tears when he finished retelling his story to me and my family some fourteen years after the fact. To be able to share his story with the world is a major privilege, and it would truly take a lifetime to fully encapsulate everything that this man has given to the world. Mr. Costalas is many things, and a hero is one of them.