Twelve miles separates my community from the northern boundary of New York City. Twelve miles and, then again, light years and worlds apart. On the one side, a teeming metropolis. On the other, a village. Skyscrapers and the center of the world on one side, green grass, a peaceful harbor, and a small town feel on the other.
I was a sergeant on September 11, 2001, a sergeant conversing with his chief in our small department’s headquarters. The first plane had flown into the Twin Towers. A small television sat in that office. He and I watched in horror as the second plane completed its evil mission. There was no doubt America was under attack.
Less than twenty four hours later, teletype requests for mutual aid reached the Chief. Just about every member of my department took turns responding. My opportunity came the next night, when the 4/12 tour finished up, my squad responded.
As we drove that 12 miles, I entered into another world. A world I never thought to see and sincerely hope to never see again. There was little chitchat as we drove. Never in all of my professional life had I considered that my small department of 50 sworn officers would respond to a call for help from the 40,000 sworn officers of NYPD. Yet there I was. As with many other things that evening, it was surreal.
Images from that evening revolve in the windmills of my recollection of that time. Hundreds of ambulances from numerous jurisdictions lined up in the Bronx, ready to assist victims as requested. At that time, no one realized, there was almost no one left to save.
I stood waiting to sign in at the Ground Zero command post and looked at the horror below me, smoke made up of unspeakable things rose in a miasma, surrounding the workers. Firefighters were lined up in massage chairs taking a break. They were covered with residue. Was it diesel fuel? Vaporized human remains? Asbestos? Paper? Wood, or a combination of each together as one? The firefighters were bent and weary. Their faces were lined with grief and that pervasive evil dust. That dust rose as large equipment moved rebar and girders to find someone, anyone left alive. I heard the rumble of bulldozers and earthmovers and the beep, beep, beep of the vehicles backing up, there in the middle of the night. That pallor of the dust made me feel like I was on the moon.
I quickly realized we were not prepared to be on scene, We did not have the right equipment. I called my officers to me and moved along with signing in. That dust made me cautious. I instinctively knew that it was good to be as far away from it as possible. My fellow officers and I were assigned a security detail at a gas station. The owner, of middle-eastern descent, was giving the gas away to any city volunteers that needed it. There were a lot of ordinary New Yorkers, unsung heroes, who did things like that.
I went home to my family that night. We all did. Sixty of my fellow Port Authority and New York City police officers did not. 343 paramedics and firefighters never returned home on September 11, 2001. Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers who courageously said “let’s roll” and crashed the plane in Shanksville, PA never returned home. Numerous others have since contracted cancer or died as a result of their exposure to that dust.
Let’s remember all our heroes of 9/11, respect all our heroes. Remember those known to us, as well as the unknown, and those we have yet to hear about. We must honor what happened in the past by doing what is being asked of us today. We must learn the lessons provided by 9/11 and use critical incident management and scenario-based planning to ensure that all first responders remain…officers standing.