Ob Populus

9/11: A Life in a Day


  

English: Twin Towers and World Trade Center NY...

English: Twin Towers and World Trade Center NYC (scanned from print photos) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As time goes by, the memories of 9/11 recede further and further into the dark corners of our collective minds, only to be brought to the forefront when September 11th comes into view. Anniversaries serve as important markers as it allows us time to reflect and remember; some anniversaries are more poignant than others, but each one brings its own special significance to the forefront. This coming September 11th will mark the eleventh anniversary of that terrible day and just like last year’s remembrance – it is a time for solemn reflection. Although much time has passed, not a day passes without thinking about that day.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was a beautiful morning, a bright sunny sky with mild temperatures – a day full of promise as the calendar was moving from summer to fall. And my life prospects were as promising as the day was beautiful. I was engaged and to be married on the first day of fall, September 22nd. My fiancée Emily worked in lower Manhattan and after our marriage, we would be jetting off to Italy for our honeymoon. As for myself, I was a police captain in the NYPD and recently appointed my own command to oversee a unit within the Department’s Organized Crime Bureau. Not bad for a kid from Philly who had only moved to New York some fifteen years earlier.

As I drank my coffee in my apartment in Brooklyn Heights that morning, my mind was looking forward to the upcoming nuptials. We were going to live in my apartment, in one of the nicest neighborhoods in all of New York City. From the rooftop deck, one had an unobstructed view of lower Manhattan from the Statute of Liberty to the Twin Towers and up to the Brooklyn Bridge. The tranquility amongst the hustle and bustle of the City gave one a sense of peace.

While lost in my thoughts, I heard a loud boom that shook my building, and with that; police sirens began to sound. As a highway ran close by to where I live, I thought it must have been a big truck accident of some sort. I went about my routine without thinking much about the loud rumbling until a few moments later when it happened again. I was puzzled and knew something was amiss but not quite sure; then I heard a woman through my open windows exclaim, “Oh, my God, they hit it again.” I raced to my apartment window and saw both of the Twin Towers ablaze, shocked disbelief at the sight unfolding before my eyes. 

Next, the phone rang; it was Emily calling from her work. Her office was but a short distance from the World Trade Center. She asked if I knew what was going on and I said I did. She and her co-workers were going to evacuate but they were unsure of how they would get off the island of Manhattan. Feeling that the worse most surely be over, I told her they should be fine and I would see her later – when I was not sure.  

After hanging up the phone and turning on the television to get a better idea of what was unfolding, my phone rang again. I assumed it would be work telling me to get in but to my surprise it was my sister, Margaret. She lived outside Philadelphia and was planning on coming up to drop off some needed items for the wedding and spend a day in New York. My first reaction was doesn’t she know what is going on – it is a war zone up here. After briefly telling her what was going on, she decided to stay put, smart move.   

Work never did call but I knew I had to report. Not only did I live in Brooklyn but I worked there too. It was an easy commute for New York standards and today was no exception, the roads were empty. I arrived at my office and with the other officers under my command, awaited instructions as to our deployment. Then the awful day turned horrific, the Twin Towers collapsed.

We knew instantly that many lives were lost, probably in the thousands. Planes flying into the World Trade Center was sickening enough. The Twin Towers collapsing was unimaginable. Yes, it would be a daunting task to fix them but for them to fall, it was incomprehensible. Usually one’s imagination can think of the unthinkable but here it came up short. Shortly after the Towers fell, ash began to fall from the sky as if Hell was visiting us on Earth. At this moment, we received word from Headquarters that we were to respond to the World Trade Center – Ground Zero as it would later be known as. What was to be our fate? Were we doomed like those who had already perished?

The fear of being killed in the line of duty is always in the back of a police officer’s mind but it is more of a mythical risk, sort of like reverse lotto. Well, today that distinct possibility was on all our minds. Hell was on Earth and that could be our resting place. Before deploying, everyone in the unit called home. I couldn’t reach Emily so I left her a message. Hopefully, there would be a promise of a new day – for both of us.

As my mind raced about was unfolding and what lay ahead, I was concerned for Emily. Was she safe? Although she did not work in the Twin Towers, she did work in close proximity. Certainly, she had time to evacuate lower Manhattan before the towers fell; but did she? Even if she didn’t, would the collapse affect her work location, did the towers tip or fall in on themselves? I felt helpless.

As I would learn later that day, Emily and her co-workers evacuated their building in lower Manhattan in between the collapse of the two towers. As she exited her building, she could see the fear on the face of the police officers directing her and her co-workers out. Although the police came to help, they like her and everyone else were in survival mode. There would be no heroes to save them. Survival depended on oneself. And for Emily, it was, to head uptown – NOW. 

Driving into Manhattan only increased my anxiety for Emily’s safety, my own personal safety and those under my command and the task that was before us.  Lower Manhattan looked as if it were a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. The Earth had opened up to expose us to Hell. The sky was filled with smoke, fire and ash; and it was being spewed upon us from where the Twin Towers had once stood. What was to come next?

Our reporting location was West Houston and West Streets, a little more than a stone’s throw from the impacted area. On the western side of this location is a pier that juts out into the Hudson River. The pier contains a big lot that is surrounded by private businesses. This area was chosen as it had phone access and a large secluded area in which the police could report without interference from the public. Interestingly, one of the commercial enterprises situated there was Federal Express. A short conversation with their business manager revealed that a load of trucks were scheduled to make deliveries that day to the World Trade Center, City Hall and the Federal Building in lower Manhattan. Thoughts of secondary devices went off in our collective heads and with the no available resources – the Bomb Squad – to search the vehicles, a couple thousand cops ended up running out of the complex onto West Street. Fortunately, there were no secondary explosions.                 

Our mustering location was emblematic of the chaos that day. Our department radios only worked sporadically. Cell phones were of no use and the fear of what next could not be shaken. Although the outside world was seemingly out of reach, the rumors of what was occurring spread as quickly as the fires at Ground Zero. The Capitol Building was attacked. Thousands were dead in the tunnels (subway lines and roads leading into and out of Manhattan) beneath us. If true our world as we knew it was gone. This is similar to the events after President Lincoln’s assassination as described in the book “American Brutus.”  Following the President’s assassination, rumors spread of the Vice President and other cabinet members being murdered. The Capital was on edge and fear ruled the day. The times may change but people’s reactions are the same, tragedy and fear produces chaos.

Our first task of the day was to keep people from entering the attack zone. We were to cordon off lower Manhattan from the rest of the island. Canal Street was the demarcation line. One would expect this to be a very easy task considering the events of the day, one would be wrong. This was no small task as hundreds of people streamed down to the area after the initial shock of the attacks wore off. Some people came to help, others to gawk. For the gawkers, it appeared as if they felt their presence there gave them some badge of courage. Many took pictures of themselves with the burning remnants of the Twin Towers in the background, smiling as if to say “Look at me and see how brave I am.” With thousands dead, this false bravado was sickening.  

After the frustration of trying to cordon off the disaster area, my unit was redeployed to search for survivors in the area immediately surrounding the World Trade Center. We joined with officers from other units and began marching to the sight.

Now, one must remember that downtown New York is not just a business area, it also has a residential section. Many of the residents either could not or refused to evacuate. As we marched, these residents came out to applaud and cheer us on. I had felt disgust when the gawkers came for no other reason than to be there, now I felt pride as these people understood we were their lifeline. Unfortunately, this moment was interrupted. As we marched into Ground Zero late that afternoon, the firemen were scrambling out and running for their lives as 7 World Trade Center – the last building to fall – was collapsing. A sense of pride was quickly replaced with fear. While diving for cover, I wondered if I would survive.

As the dust cleared and nothing more than my pride was injured, we moved back as the area was too unstable. We were re-assigned just north of the main post office building to secure that area as that building was on fire and in danger of collapsing. The post office was a few blocks north of the World Trade Center. It was close enough for one of the engines from the second plane involved in the attack to land on its roof. Although in danger of collapsing, this building never did.

While deployed here, I saw on old boss of mine. His name was Joseph Fox, Assistant Chief for the Patrol Borough Brooklyn South, a true gentleman. I was a bit puzzled as to why he was down at Ground Zero, as his position required his presence in Brooklyn. Later, I learned that his nephew (a fireman) was listed as missing. Like many others, Chief Fox was looking for answers. His nephew died that awful day.

Eventually at around 1:00 am (9/12), we were sent home, only to be told that we had to be back at 5:00 am. Some break. Although phone service and communicating with the outside world was difficult and sketchy at best, I had learned earlier that Emily was safe. She and a co-worker made their way to the Williamsburg Bridge and into Brooklyn. A Good Samaritan then drove them down to Brooklyn Heights. When I made my way home, she was waiting for me. We both made it through the day.   

The next day my unit was assigned to the epicenter of the devastation. Our assignment was the temporary morgue that was positioned in the World Financial Center, which was across the street from the Twin Towers. This whole area looked as if it were a section of the German city Dresden after it was bombed and burned to the ground in WWII. The ash was anywhere from several inches to a few feet deep, depending on how the wind was blowing, like a nor’easter. Lower Manhattan seemed dead. The only real encouragement was seeing the military. At least we would not be sucker punched again.  

Although nearly twenty-four hours had passed since the initial attack, death was a constant companion. Recovered body parts were coming in to the morgue in droves. And most of these remains were in small fragments – a leg or an arm or a torso and then toes and fingers. The devastation inflicted on these bodies was horrific and for those whose remains were never recovered, their presence was announced by the scent of burnt flesh that hovered in the air.

Those first two days down at Ground Zero were physically, emotionally and mentally draining. Despair was everywhere but there were uplifting moments such as the residents applauding us. Additionally, there was a truly inspiring event. On the pile in the remnants of the Twin Towers, I had encountered a childhood friend who lived up the block from me in our neighborhood on the outskirts of Philadelphia. His name is John Chovanes and I had not seen him since we both graduated high school in 1982. Upon seeing him, I was dumbfounded as to what he was doing there.

John is a doctor and when he heard about the attacks, he jumped into his car and raced up to New York.  At check points along the way, he told the police officers that he was a doctor and he was coming to help. He worked his way down to Ground Zero and aided in the rescue of two police officers trapped in the rubble. What John did was truly heroic. I was there because I had to be, he was there because he volunteered – courage above and beyond.

Police work tends to attract those of a cynical nature; and if you are not cynical in nature, you soon will be. It is just the nature of the beast. However, even for the most cynical of us, when people like John come to the aid of their fellow man for no other reason than it is the right thing to do, one tends to become a little less cynical and for that, I thank him. 

After the initial days down at Ground Zero, my unit was eventually assigned to reserves, to be on standby in case events warranted our deployment. It was a good thing as I developed the Ground Zero cough – chemical pneumonitis (lung inflammation from breathing in toxins) and needed time to exhale the poisons from my body that I had ingested.

On the home front, questions lingered as to whether our wedding could still proceed as planned. Should we still have a big event, will people come and should we wait until the 22nd or should we move up our wedding date? With the world in a state of flux, Emily wished to move up the wedding, a move I resisted. The message seemed to be that if we waited, I might not be around. It was not too comforting a thought – the wedding date was left as is.  

And on top of all these worries about our lives and the wedding, the money we needed to finish paying for the reception hall was inaccessible. The bank, in which the money was deposited, had its computers wiped out by the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers. Yes, the money was still there but without a sledgehammer and crowbar, we could not get to it. Thank God for credit cards. 

As the situation in the City calmed down, having our wedding as planned became more feasible. Our honeymoon was a different situation. Italy was out of the question, an American destination would have to do. And what better way to cheer up one’s soul then a trip to New Orleans.  

Although many friends and close family members could not attend our wedding, the day was wonderful; a truly blessed day for us on a beautiful sunny fall day, very similar to the weather on 9/11. However, the weather was not the only reminder of 9/11. 

Brooklyn is known as the Borough of weddings and funerals as there is an abundance of churches. Bayridge Brooklyn, where our wedding was to be held, is no exception. For our wedding, we chose to be married in Our Lady of Angels Roman Catholic Church, a quintessential Brooklyn church, home to untold numbers of Italian and Irish families, the traditional backbone of the police and fire departments in the city.      

Many families in Bayridge were hit especially hard on 9/11. Funerals and memorial services were the order of the day and Our Lady of Angels was no exception. Just prior to our wedding, a memorial service was held for one of the victims. Why a memorial service and not a funeral? Simple, the victim’s remains were never recovered. I did not know much about the victim, never learning his identity but I could identify with him and his family for their suffering. As they left the church, their emotions were raw and the awkwardness of the moment was plain to see. 

As the church emptied, the mourners passed us on their way out as we began to enter. That moment of passing between the two events was a perfect juxtaposition of Emily and I waiting to begin a new chapter in our lives while a chapter was closing on another, all too suddenly and in a most painful way. I could only wonder as they filed out of the church and into the great unknown, did they resent us for celebrating, while the city and country was still in mourning? If they knew what happened to us, would this change their perception? Should we have gone through with our plans in spite of the still unfolding disaster? With so many thoughts, doubt was abound as if this was the right decision      

Much of my doubt was erased by our wedding ceremony. It was an uplifting and beautiful event. What we endured made our bond stronger. No man, no matter how evil and what destruction he unleashed could put our love asunder. Our resolve (like so many others who were to be married in the days following 9/11) sent an unmistakable message to the world, we will live our lives as we intend to and not be cowered into fear.

 Afterwards, wedding pictures and then off to the reception. We had always wished to have our wedding pictures taken from the rooftop of our building in Brooklyn Heights. The views of the city and the Hudson Bay were simply magnificent. On this day, the views were no less stunning as the haze of the day mixed in with the setting sun. A sight to behold; yet also a poignant reminder of the missing towers and all that had been lost – with a promise of a new tomorrow.

Mixed feelings aside as to the appropriateness of celebrating in the midst of a calamity, the wedding reception was a welcomed relief. It was nice to forget about the mayhem even if only for a few hours. Fortunately, those few hours turned into a few weeks as the next day, we headed to New Orleans.

We rented a car from Avis. This particular branch of Avis was located adjacent to Grand Central Station. Getting there was no small feat as Manhattan was still in virtual lock down. Every day since the attack of 9/11, the fear of a follow-up or secondary attack was palpable. Yet, as soon as we left the city, the fear subsided. It was as if the Sword of Damocles was miraculously lifted from above our heads.

We spent time in New Orleans and on our way back stopped off in Pensacola Beach, Florida. Everyone was extremely nice to us and we felt proud of our Country and its unity. Sadly both of these cities would have misery heaped upon them in the coming years from hurricanes. The devastation unleashed by Mother Nature is just as unforgiving as the devastation unleashed by man; and in their hour of need, New York along with the rest of America offered a helping hand.   

As everyone knows, all good things must come to an end. As we neared New York, our fear and trepidation returned. Unnoticeable at first but becoming stronger as each mile was put behind us until we returned home. After returning our rental car, we stopped in Grand Central Station for lunch. Grand Central Station had become a focal point in the search for those still missing from the attacks of 9/11. The transit hub was plastered with photos of those missing asking if you have seen them. A literal cry for help to locate loved ones who in one sense are “missing,” yet by any rational sense you knew that they were gone forever – beyond heartbreaking.  

This was not the only dash of reality; war broke out as we attacked Afghanistan and Al Qaeda. Frustration turned to cheers. Hopelessness was replaced with a sense of hope that we would soon even the score and those who attacked us would never be able to do so again. Little did we know how long it would take to even the score, nearly a decade.  

After a day of adjusting it was back to work. There would be more days down at Ground Zero but as each day passed, the work became routine. The palpable fear was no more. Although the knowledge another attack could occur, it was not first and foremost in one’s mind, it was more of an afterthought.

There would be no more promotions for me at work – captain for life as it is known as in the police world. I didn’t mind that as the home life was great. Emily and I were enjoying married life and we had our first child shortly before the anniversary of 9/11. Sarah arrived on August 1, 2002.  With a growing family and living in a studio apartment, a move was in order. Off to Staten Island, the home of cops and robbers (mobsters), so aptly named as everyone seems to be one or knows one.

We moved to the Richmond town section of Staten Island. This area dates back to the 17th century and is a quaint quiet area of the city. A real family atmosphere and our family continued to grow. Gabriella joined us the summer of 2004 and then Mia came along in 2006.

Life is always throwing curves at you and the addition of Mia was no exception. All seemed well with her until about six months of age when she stopped growing. Her physical abilities also regressed as she started to lose her ability to hold herself up or roll over. Months of doctors appointments followed with no real answer. Eventually she was hospitalized and put on a feeding tube. It was so painful to look at our little precious angel with a tube going into her nose and down her throat.

Seeing her in the hospital hurt but with more extensive testing, we were able to get an answer. She was diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis, which basically means that her body’s immune system was attacking her throat due to an allergic reaction to the food she was eating. Treatment was the elimination of traditional foods and feeding her an elemental diet through the feeding tube until the allergens could be determined. She spent over a year with that tube down her nose and till this day I cannot help but feel that her condition is related to 9/11.  

Although not unheard of, it is a rare disease. Just learning how to pronounce the disease was difficult enough but adjusting to the full impact is emotionally draining. Simple pleasures that other children enjoy, she cannot take part in. Monitoring her diet and making sure she takes in enough calories is a full time job. To this date, she can only eat eight types of food. A varied diet it is not. She has adapted well but one can see the pain on her face when others enjoy food that she cannot partake in. Eating is more than just taking in calories, it is also socializing and this part of her growth is a challenge. What brought about her condition will remain one of life’s mysteries; but, there will always be this element of doubt as to the connection with 9/11.     

Working for an agency with a large bureaucracy can be extremely frustrating. Arcane rules must be followed. The NYPD is no different but it can also be a very compassionate agency, a bit of an oxymoron but true. Upon learning of my daughter’s disease, I approached my superiors and I was able to secure a transfer to work on Staten Island so as to be closer to home. At this time, I was approaching my twentieth year in the department and retirement was looming. Staten Island would be my last stop on the department’s merry – go – round. I worked in every borough of New York City but the Bronx. Maybe in my next life I will get that opportunity.

Emily and I over the years enjoyed visiting State College, Pennsylvania. I went to school there, Penn State University. It is one of the few places that offers most of what you can find in a big city without any of the negatives. Restaurants, sporting events, concerts, Broadway shows, it has it all; and besides, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington D.C. are all within a four hour drive. It is literally a slice of heaven here on Earth. When retirement time came, we pulled up our stakes and made the plunge. We miss New York but for our girls, the choice was right.

A lot has happened since 9/11. Nearly three thousand lives were lost on that fateful day. I along with many other first responders answered the call to save those who needed to be saved. Unfortunately, there was no one to help. Besides responding to Ground Zero, I did not do anything heroic, just my job. Many first responders lost their lives that day accounting for nearly a quarter of all deaths that day. The NYPD lost twenty three members. Although the loss of life for first-responders that day was staggering, these losses continue to mount as many are succumbing to debilitating diseases linked to rescue and recovery operations.

Many first responders have been sickened by the toxins they had ingested on 9/11. Proper equipment was slow to arrive and most had no protection from what they breathed in. I can still taste the concrete in my mouth from that day. Many of those sickened are questioned as if their disease is really 9/11 related. It may be difficult to directly link one’s disease but the frequency of some of these illnesses is mind boggling. Some of the cancers suffered by first responders are bizarrely off the charts. Blood cancers such as leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma which typically do not strike until one is in their early seventies is striking first responders at the age of forty-five. As life goes on and thinking about my own health, I cannot help but wonder will the wheel of misfortune find me?

In a short time span, a lot has happened in my life. A loving wife and three beautiful daughters came along to form a perfect family. One career ended with retirement as I began a dual career of teaching and practicing law. So much joy, yet there is the realization that so many lives were cut short and denied their dreams. Quite often, I think of the family who held the memorial service before our wedding. I wonder how their lives have progressed. What would it have been like without 9/11 and can they cope with their loss? If Emily or I perished, how would the other person’s life turned out? Could either of us have moved on and live a full life or would one be trapped in a life of loss and grief? Our these options mutually exclusive, sort of a sliding doors proposition or can one live a full life yet still grieve for the life that never was?

I have learned much from 9/11 and view the world through that prism and appreciate all that I have with the realization that life is fleeting. Not only should we enjoy life to its fullest but we must cherish and defend it with all our might so those who follow us will not have to face what we faced. There can be no more 9/11’s. We owe that to our posterity.

Life goes on, indelibly altered.

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