WHERE WERE YOU ON 9-11-01
There are certain unforgettable events that occur when everyone remembers exactly where they were at the time of the catastrophe. My first experience was during the Cuban missile crisis. My classmates and I were given daily air raid drills, and often were rushed to the bomb shelter in the basement of a nearby tenement. The thirteen days in October 1962 were quite frightful.
The second event occurred on February 22, 1964. I was in grade school when a shaky voice came over the public address system to report that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. At the tender age of thirteen, I did not fully understand, but was quite shaken.
The third event happened on November 09, 1965 at 5:27pm. I remember my mother was cooking dinner and I was watching television with my siblings, and the lights went out. My mother lit candles and assured us that everything was all right. My Mom looked for fuses, assuming that a fuse had blown. We were watching the Sandy Becker children’s show when the lights and TV went out. This was the first blackout I had ever encountered but would not be the last.
On July 13, 1977 I was driving a police car northbound on Webster Avenue in the South Bronx. At approximately 9:30pm, all the street lights failed, and the radio went dead. Several minutes later the radio came back on, thanks to backup generators, and officers around the city began reporting a major blackout. Moments later rioting and looting crippled the city for a “Night of terror.”
These were events that had significant impacts on my life, and I can still vividly remember where I was and what I was doing when they occurred. I’ve often had noisy, but friendly, arguments with my buddies over which was the most traumatic.
9-11-01 ended that argument forever. I was not born before December 07, 1941, but even those who still remember “A day that will live in infamy,” all agree that 9-11 was far more tragic.
9-11-01 at about 8:50am I was brushing my teeth and listening to the radio in my bathroom. I had just stepped out of the shower and was listening to the oldies on WCBS-FM. I was just rinsing out my mouth when the DJ announced that there was a breaking story coming in from the news room. Smoke was pouring out of the north tower of the World Trade Center, and there were no further details at this time.
I immediately knew that this was very serious. I have many close friends who are firefighters, and high rise complex fires are a major concern of theirs. I was a cop working in the South Bronx, during the 1970’s when the Bronx burned down. I saw, first hand, how difficult simple five story building fires were to control. I couldn’t imagine how the FDNY would handle a fire in one of the tallest buildings in the world.
I finished rinsing out my mouth and put on the TV. The picture on the screen showed an aerial view of the WTC towers from a news helicopter. This particular chopper was northeast of the towers and the female newscaster was describing the events as she was fed information from various sources.
She was reporting that initial reports indicated that a small plane had apparently crashed into the north tower at about the 95th floor level. Numerous pieces of emergency equipment were already on the scene and others were on the way. The thick black smoke billowing out of the crippled building was as ominous, as it was surreal. I was really taken aback by the images emanating from my TV screen.
I was in complete denial. I thought this was some grand hoax. Juvenile hackers had compromised the transmitters with Hollywood footage. Or perhaps it was another publicity stunt such as Orson Wells, “War of the Worlds”, radio stunt that scared the devil out of the entire listening audience.
Wrong! The intrepid newscaster was attempting to sort out the information that was being fed to her. She only wanted to report facts, and she was linked to eyewitnesses, who were telling their story- live. Each eyewitness account differed slightly, which, as a cop, I knew was normal, but several disturbing facts emerged. A plane, the size differed greatly, had flown directly into the north tower.
The images of flames, smoke and pandemonium were enough to put a viewer into shock. If this wasn’t enough, I saw the horrific explosion to the south tower. I was home, alone, and began cursing profusely to no one in particular. The newscaster was shaken as she asked her pilot in an incredulous tone, “Is that second explosion related to the first one?” The chopper pilot responded in the negative. The newscasters at the anchor desk and chopper really didn’t know what had occurred until they ran back their film and played it in slow motion.
Seeing this live has had a profound effect on me, and probably everyone who saw it. A large commercial jet plane flew intentionally into the south tower. Immediately all visions of stunts and hoaxes were eradicated from my mind. This was a terrorist attack, an act of war! Now that I was past denial, I felt waves of horror and anger engulf me.
All New York news stations sent field reporters out, and kept 24 hour coverage of this attack. I was mesmerized, and couldn’t look away from the TV. My mind was flashing back to all the horrible things I have seen, knowing that this would be far worse. People were leaping from the roof of the buildings, and from the widows of incinerated offices. I could only imagine the horror, chaos, fear, pain, and the complete futility of escape from the upper floors.
I was in shock! In retrospect, I now know that I was in shock. I was walking around my apartment cursing like a banshee, pacing back and forth like a caged animal. Every minute I stood before the TV, my eyes were assaulted by fresh visions of death. My ears were assaulted with stories of terror, fear and helplessness.
Then, the unthinkable happened. The south tower crumpled to the ground, slowly, like a vigilant, wounded, soldier that could stand no more. In a rush of grey smoke, dotted with white paper, the mighty tower was gone.
I went from being in shock, back to denial. This could not be happening. Twenty-five thousand people work in that building. How many got out? More importantly, how many didn’t? Countless emergency personnel, cops, firemen, EMS, doctors, nurses etc; must have been trapped in the wreckage of what was once #2 WTC.
The news coverage showed that this catastrophe kept getting more and more horrific by the minute. Numerous angles of the two plane crashes were shown as well as numerous angles of the infernos caused by the jet fuel. Then the many views of the, thought to be impervious, tower crashing in on itself. It was just too many horrors at one time. There was not one positive piece of news.
My pacing and cursing didn’t abate, until the second tower collapsed. I finally sat down, completely drained. The absolute impossible had happened. Two of New York’s loyal landmarks were gone forever. Untold thousands of people were gone forever. I knew then and there that certain of our freedoms and way of life were gone forever. Friends and colleagues were gone forever.
What kind of madman does this kind of thing to innocent people? I was out of denial, and back to disbelief, anger and I felt a terrible sense of loss. I ran the gamut of emotions. They came in waves that I feared would never end. How could I be this emotional? I am a native New Yorker, we are a tough breed. I was a cop in the South Bronx. I was a homicide detective, and saw man’s inhumanity towards man daily. I was a peace keeper, for a year, in Bosnia, and saw many horrors that most people will never, and should never see. Yet my legs were so weak I had to sit and stare in disbelief at the screen of my twenty-two year old TV set.
I watched that TV, nonstop, from 9am till midnight. During that period I made two sandwiches and made restroom trips. The rest of the time I couldn’t stay away from the TV. The news just kept getting worse. Another plane struck the Pentagon, another crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. There wasn’t any good news at all.
Then I made a few calls to loved ones. I had a bit of trouble hunting down my kid brother. He was the Commanding Officer of the 34th Precinct in Manhattan, and I was afraid that he would have been mobilized early in the attack. Many of the First Responders would have perished at the scene. I finally located my brother back at his command. He was mobilized then ordered to return to his command and set up roadblocks and keep vigilance on the George Washington Bridge. Thank God he was back at his command when the towers fell.
I knew the entire world was watching New York’s Armageddon, because I received phone calls from friends around the world asking if I was all right. Everyone knew that I was retired, but they called anyway. The first came from a police woman friend in Denmark. Then, telephone calls came in from Ireland, Austria, Hungary, etc. These were colleagues of mine from the mission in Bosnia. They were afraid that I might have been caught in the middle of the frenzy. I assured all of them that I was all right, but many others were not so lucky.
I turned in at midnight and had a very restless sleep as I imagine most of the civilized world did. The day’s horrors reawakened some of my own demons that I thought I had laid to rest.
The following morning I awoke and immediately turned on the TV. The newscasters were obviously worn and tired. I’ve never seen these professionals look so disheveled. Of course there wasn’t any good news, just bad, bad, and worse.
The bad news consisted of reports of estimated death tolls, possible terrorists groups that might be responsible, bridge and tunnel closings, and airport closings. The United States was under siege by an unknown terror.
I needed to get away from the depressing TV, so I got dressed and drove to the beach club and launched my sea kayak. I paddled out into Long Island Sound at a frantic pace, racing against an unseen opponent. I paddled until I was completely spent and collapsed in an exhausted heap. I leaned back in my small craft looking upwards and yelled, “Why, why, why”? Then I wept for the victims and their families. I hadn’t cried since my cat of twenty years, Finnegan, died.
I don’t know how long I drifted and cried, but I came back to my senses somewhere near Hart’s Island, also known as Potter’s Field. This is where indigent people are buried. This damn island was another grim reminder of the ghastly task ahead.
Rescue workers would have to work at a feverish pace in order to find survivors. The searing heat, produced by the jet fuel fires, would quickly dehydrate anybody trapped in hollow spaces. The fallen structure would surely be shifting, and collapsing at irregular intervals crushing potential survivors. Suddenly I snapped out of my depressed state, and realized the enormity of the rescue attempts. I quickly paddled my kayak back to the boathouse and made mental plans for what lie ahead.
After washing and putting my boat away, I drove to a hardware store in my neighborhood. I purchased a sturdy pair of work gloves, and a pair of painting masks. I felt these were items I would need at ground zero.
Once back at home I instinctively put the news on the TV and continued with my preparations. I looked out my old NYPD riot helmet, and a knapsack that I had carried around with me when I was overseas. I found that even a small backpack will carry many useful items.
I placed eye cleaning solution, sunglasses, and various small tools into my bag. I also looked out my eye goggles from pistol practice. Bodies from a fire scene tend to decompose rather quickly, so a little dab of Vicks in your mask or under your nose goes a long way. Into my bag went the Vapor rub. I found my BDU police outfit from my stint in Bosnia and put them on with my detective shield proudly displayed on the outer shirt pocket.
I grabbed a baseball cap with the NYPD letters and patch, and I was soon on my way. The news media warned civilians that they could not proceed on the Westside Highway south of 14th street, so I expected to meet some resistance enroute to ground zero. I was retired and considered a civilian again, but I must get down there and help.
I drove effortlessly down the Westside Highway with my police cap displayed in the front windshield. I was motioned through several checkpoints when the officers saw me in uniform. As I approached 14th street, I drove behind an NYPD Emergency Service Truck, and was passed all the way to Hubert Street.
I turned east one block to Greenwich Street. A couple of rookies were manning a police barricade, and I ordered them to remove it so I could pull my car in to park. They looked at my demeanor, and in an instant the barricade was removed and I parked my car. I further ordered them to keep an eye on it. The rookies were kind of flustered, because they couldn’t really tell who I was in the strange uniform, but they complied anyway.
I hauled my helmet and knapsack out of the car and proceeded south towards the spiraling smoke. I walked south along the Westside Highway, and there was a lot of activity, but it was many blocks away from ground zero. There were dozens of fire trucks from many jurisdictions other than FDNY. Small towns, counties and even out of state fire trucks, police cars and ambulances lined the street for blocks.
Every ten feet or so there were dozens of civilian volunteers handing out water, juice, and sandwiches. These civilian volunteers were so kind and hard working, but it seemed so odd that all these rescue people were hanging about so far from the crime scene. Nobody was dirty or gritty. I saw numerous men and women in shiny new uniforms walking and talking with their cameras at the ready. It seemed as though no one was ready to enter the conflagration that was once the World Trade Center.
I passed these gawkers until I saw the NYPD and FDNY trucks closer to the scene of the disaster. Again many people were milling about as if waiting for some leadership to give directions and orders.
I didn’t want to be questioned by a supervisor, so I cut back up to Greenwich Street and continued walking south. The smoke was much thicker now and acrid. I stopped for a moment and put on my small painter’s mask. I continued until I reached Barclay Street. Then, for the first time, I saw the destruction. What was once building #7 of the WTC was lying on its side. It looked like a giant shoe box that had been stepped on. The north side was caved in towards the middle. Smoke and flames poured out of hundreds of large and small orifices billowing skyward from the red bricked façade.
I was completely amazed at the lack of people here. Most of the emergency personnel were working on the west side of ground zero. I saw a couple of emergency service cops surveying this area. I quickly put on my riot helmet so that I would look like I belonged at the scene. The streets and buildings in all directions were covered in a thick, grey ghostly dust. The tall buildings that were still standing looked like they were from ancient times. Broken windows, crushed cars and buses all added to the grey pallor of death. This looked like London after the Germans bombed it.
I pulled my small video camera from my pants pocket and quickly captured this surreal scene. I panned the area for a short time and put the camera back. I didn’t want to appear irreverent or ghoulish. I filmed only when no one could see me and take offense.
I walked east along Barclay between tall abandoned buildings, and had a feeling that I was in the twilight zone. The place was empty! The grey dusk was so thick that I could write my name in it.
I continued walking east, past West Street to Church Street. The destruction defies the imagination. WTC buildings #5 and 4 were burned out shells of their former grandeur. Fires still raged in #5. I hid behind an ambulance and again captured this mayhem on film.
I was standing in front of the Millenium Hilton and almost lost my breath when I saw its new appearance. Vacant! The once magnificent hotel looked like it stood in the middle of a barren wasteland. Broken windows and grey dust were everywhere. The Century 21 Building was a hollow looking twin. The opulence of the world’s finest hotels turned to a ghost town overnight through the actions of madmen.
The streets were alive with the sounds of construction workers cutting girders and using light equipment to move debris. A couple of ambulances and fire trucks lined the street. People were yelling orders and scurrying about, but there was no sense of direction or organization. I thought there would be many more people than the dozen or so that I saw.
I saw an FDNY engine truck parked at the corner of Dey Street, and Church. I recognized Jerry Rooney, a fireman buddy of mine sitting on the trucks front bumper. We exchanged pleasantries and spoke of the disaster. I asked him if I could leave my knapsack in his truck, and he agreed. I knew then and there that the helmet was absolutely useless. If something fell off these hundred storied buildings, the helmet would be inadequate protection. I kept the eye goggles, gloves and mask.
I continued walking south along Church Street until I reached the corner of Liberty. Here I saw a sight that will forever haunt me. The sight of what was left of the south tower. Shiny girders, finger like, reaching several stories into the air, as if caught in a death grip. It was their final call for help reaching to those who would mourn her loss forevermore. It was a chilling sight. It was a sunny, 80 degree day, and the sun was refracted through twisted remains of a magnificent landmark.
Here, the activity was more aggressive. There were several bucket brigades of men and women doing all they could do to help. Brave souls were in the rubble digging to find possible survivors.
I looked about and saw the enormous destruction of the buildings that served the perimeter of the WTC. The Liberty Plaza building swayed in the day breeze, looking like an ancient, battered centurion about to fall to his death.
The former Burger King was transformed into an NYPD temporary HQ. The entire length of Liberty Street, west towards the Westside Highway, was lined with tall buildings scarred from debris from the falling south tower.
One had to actually stand there at ground zero to comprehend the vast destruction. Television coverage was nonexistent to capture the reality of this scene.
What was left of the south tower was a five story rubble field that spewed smoke and flames like an active volcano. The rubble was even shaped like a massive active volcano. The steep sides of the wreckage rose to an upper lip. At the top of this lip the hole of the volcano was exposed and fell many stories into itself.
I had seen enough, now it was my turn to pitch in and help. I climbed on the rubble to help with the bucket brigade and the heat emanating from the debris was incredibly intense. Added to the fact that it was a very hot day outdoors, dehydration was a chronic problem.
When I first got on one of the bucket lines, there were only 4-5 lines working with about 100 volunteers. It was an odd assortment of civilians, police, fire, and construction workers. Standing high above each line, on top of the upper lip of the volcano, was a fire chief. He would direct the diggers to which air spaces looked promising for survivors. I knew that there would never be any survivors. They would have died long ago from the heat and smoke, but I worked at a furious pace with the others.
We labored hard under the hot sun and over the boiling pit. As the day progressed many more people began to arrive. I was never so glad to see volunteers handing out water bottles. I drank enough water to drown a camel.
I could only work at two to three hour intervals. My legs gave out from standing at odd angles on the hills of cables and girders. They say that when you get old the legs are the first to go, and I was sure feeling old.
When I joined the first bucket line the mood was somber and quiet. There was not much talking or other noises. Occasionally someone in the pit would yell out some orders, but an eerie calm overshadowed the sweaty work.
Later I met a retired cop who came down to ground zero from his home in Rockland County. Like me, he was unable to sit at home and just watch. He had been a cop too long to anguish at home, so he came down here to get dirty and help. We began to gab about our different work assignments before retirement and soon we put the terrorist attack behind us and talked like we were sitting on bar stools reminiscing. This may sound a bit insensitive, and callous, but it was therapeutic. Soon others on the brigade began to joke and have lively conversations. This did not hamper the work or diminish the urgency of the situation, but it did help us to cope with the morbid task at hand.
I took several more rests and couldn’t find my new friend from Rockland when I returned to the bucket line. I did, however, make a new friend. I met a retired Sergeant, Victor, who drove in from Staten Island. He had just arrived, so I filled him in on what had been going on. I felt like a veteran bucket man after just a few hours.
The absolute scariest part of working on the bucket brigade wasn’t the intense heat, or the choking smoke, or the sharp girders. The scariest was when the diesel trucks blew the warning signal. It was meant to alert the rescuers that there was danger of a building collapse. The first time I heard the warning, I had been on the pit for only 15 minutes. When the siren blew, dozens of people ran like their asses were on fire. I was confused and dumfounded, but ran like hell.
This became a familiar scene throughout the day/night. The first time this scene was repeated, for my friend’s sake, I told him to just follow me. We ran and took cover at the NYPD temporary HQ. Everyone ran about a block away and looked up to see which building was in danger of collapse. We were working on just one corner of the immense devastation, so we had no idea which building was the culprit.
I saw an NYPD Inspector standing next to me outside the temporary HQ and I asked him what causes the alarm. He explained that many of the out of town volunteers do not realize that our skyscrapers are made to sway in the wind a bit, so when they look up and see a tall building swaying they immediately scream that the building is falling down. This raises many unnecessary alarms.
The Inspector further stated that many of the stricken building’s windows are still popping out occasionally and that is of great concern. The falling glass can cut a rescue worker in half like a guillotine. These unnecessary alarms occurred about three times an hour.
The local hospital had set up emergency triage centers all around their hospitals and at the work sites at ground zero. Unfortunately there were no rescued people to treat, just the injured rescue workers.
The closets triage unit to me was set up right in the temporary HQ along with fresh fruit, candy bars and water. Most of the rescue workers had to have their eyes flushed several times during the course of the excavation. I was so glad that I had brought my goggles. Other rescue personnel were treated for heat exhaustion, dehydration, fractures, cuts and bruises and breathing problems.
A good many of these fractures, cuts and bruises occurred during the mad scramble to run clear of the work site during the frequent false alarms. It must have looked pretty funny when the alarm sounded and hundreds of people frantically ran for their lives in every direction. Some falling, others unable to catch their breath, still others loosing equipment as they ran. When the alarm was over, each worker grumbled, and recomposed themselves, as they slowly walk back to their work positions picking up fallen gear.
My new buddy and I were sharing a good laugh over this chaotic situation when the mood turned very serious. One of the rescue diggers called for a body bag. The bag was passed up the bucket brigade and into the pit. Several minutes later there came a call for a stretcher.
Within minutes a stretcher and an orange body bag was passed out of the rubble and down the bucket brigade. When it got to me and Victor, he said, “We might as well just walk it ourselves to the morgue.” I grabbed the front right handle he the left and two diggers took the rear. Very gingerly we walked down the mountain of sharp, jagged debris. The body was heavy, very heavy. I don’t mind admitting that I had to use both hands to hold my side of the stretcher.
It was a very difficult walk down the rubble. Once we got to the street, it was very slippery from water running from the many fire hoses. We walked the stretcher towards the temporary HQ, but were stopped by a doctor and several nurses. They directed us towards 80 Church Street. This was to be used as a new temporary morgue since the former Burger King was too crowded with emergency supplies, food, water and now a triage center.
Now we had to walk the deceased another block south. When we arrived a half dozen medical personnel were frantically attempting to turn the once luxurious buildings lobby into a temporary morgue. We were directed to place the victim on a large granite slab that thousands of people have probably sat on in better times.
It seemed so irreverent and undignified placing this, yet to be identified, murder victim out in the open without any privacy. This was the first recovered body to be placed in this particular morgue. I was still wondering, how we could add a bit of dignity to this scene, when suddenly, I was brought back to reality by a member of the medical team. He read my name from my shirt out loud, and wrote it in his log and asked the exact location where the body was recovered.
Firemen were hacking away at the lobby windows, with axes, in an attempt to ventilate the lobby. Even though this cadaver was in a rubber body bag, the smell of decomposition was quite strong. If more bodies were brought in this place would smell awful.
Victor and I were just leaving the lobby when I ran into Detective Ann Marie Kelly. We had both served in Bosnia, and she recognized me. She was working with the NYPD Investigation Squad and I guess the identification of victims fell into her jurisdiction. We quickly exchanged greetings and only brief small talk, because she was very busy, and I needed a break badly. Ann Marie gave me her business card and asked me to call her later.
We parted and I went with Victor to get some water. Before we could get any water, we were confronted by several rescuers carrying smaller body part bags. They didn’t know where the new temporary morgue was so we grabbed the bags and walked them back down the block to the morgue.
Now the firemen were using a cutting tool to saw through the plexi- glass windows, because the axes were ineffective and ventilation was necessary. These body parts were unceremoniously dumped on a decorative granite block to be tagged later for identification. This time I felt emotionless and it was back to the pile again.
The work was slow and tedious, and as the sun began to set some heavy construction equipment began to arrive. The noise level increased dramatically as the additional equipment brought larger numbers of volunteers.
Soon the noise level increased to a racket! Construction workers were barking orders to each other while welders were cutting large girders into smaller pieces. Huge cranes were hauling away the cut girders and other large pieces of debris. Large flatbed trucks and dump trucks were coming and going.
Six hours ago there were only a few dozen workers at this end of the debris field, now there were hundreds. This cauldron of activity made the rescue activity so much more dangerous. A normal construction site is dangerous, but this site was filled with well meaning civilians who didn’t know the code of conduct at a construction scene.
Victor and I had parted. We took breaks separately and weren’t able to team up again. The non rescue volunteers were doing a magnificent job supplying us with water and food. During one of my many breaks a pizza parlor delivered a dozen pies. I can’t remember the last time I ate so often and drank so much water without feeling bloated.
The volunteers were placing themselves in harm’s way almost as much as the rescue workers. The skyscrapers that surrounded the work sites were all severely damaged and there was a constant threat of collapse, or some façade falling or windows showering sharp, deadly glass on those below. Undaunted, the volunteers were at the ready for our every need.
It was now well into the night, and ground zero was lit up like a Hollywood movie set. Huge commercial lights were strategically placed so work could continue twenty four hours a day. This only added to the surreal effect of this entire catastrophe.
Around midnight I was completely drained. I sat exhausted on the debris covered steps of the Liberty Plaza. A lovely old woman walked up to me carrying a white bucket. She looked at me, smiled and reached into the bucket. She pulled out a cold, wet, rag and wiped some grime off my face and then tied the cool cloth around my neck. Without a word she walked over to a couple of firemen who appeared to be in the same state as me. I mumbled a feeble thank you as she walked away.
I was attempting to gain control over my emotions. The past twelve hours I went through a roller coaster of emotions. I was now physically and emotionally drained. Any adrenaline I once had was long since gone.
I sat on those stairs and for the first time took in the complete eerie scene before me. Camouflaged soldiers were milling about waiting for orders, and unintentionally getting in the way of the construction equipment. Absentee volunteers from many non NYC emergency service units were posing and taking pictures. Many of them were tripping over the numerous fire hoses strewn across the street. These absentee volunteers wore new shiny dress uniforms. Not for digging, but for posing and driving back home to their county/state where they now had their picture souvenir.
My emotions ran the gamut with these phonies. Soon, however, high ranking officers of the NYPD and FDNY got together and began initializing a game plan. Since I had arrived at noon until now, there seemed to be little supervision and direction. Many people were there to help and just played follow the leader. This was, now, too dangerous a stage to play follow the leader.
These high ranking officials were seeing the same problems I was seeing. Volunteers with little or no training were climbing into dangerous holes and fissures. Too many rescuers were sustaining injuries because of a lack of supervision. Way too many people kept entering ground zero with no intention of doing rescue work.
The west side of ground zero was much more organized than this location, and the police and fire chiefs soon realized this. When they saw people tripping over fire hoses, and being knocked down by construction vehicles, they called in the troops.
NYPD officers that were assigned to work crowd control were soon escorting picture takers and useless on-lookers way from the scene. Soon the people congestion was relieved and I decided to give it one more shot on the bucket brigade.
This time I saw the scene with a different mind set. I saw the many construction workers with the American flag proudly displayed on their helmets, shirt pockets or sticking out of their belts. I saw firemen and police working side by side with all previous animosities put aside. I saw rescue workers wearing police and fire patches from many neighboring communities working together like a well oiled machine. I saw rescue canine dogs working tirelessly with their handlers. I saw American flags flying high on the girders above the pit. I saw fire chiefs standing tall on top of the volcano issuing orders and closely supervising the men below. I saw a dedicated, unselfish, courageous and unified America represented by these brave men and women.
Terrorism may have knocked us to our knee, and bloodied our nose, but they didn’t knock us out. Now we are back on our feet showing the world why we are the greatest nation on earth. I have never been prouder of my fellow Americans than now as I watched them work so hard to find survivors of this cowardly attack.
When I was again exhausted, I went back to the fire truck to retrieve my video camera. I went back to the temporary HQ and I filmed the brave men and women of the bucket brigade as inconspicuously as possible. I knew I was done for the day as I slowly walked back to Jerry Rooney and his fire truck.
When I arrived, Jerry was excited and told me about his little adventure. His engine truck was hooked to a fire hydrant and fed water to another engine parked near the still burning Building # 5. One of the Fire Chiefs sent Jerry’s crew to help that other truck battle a stubborn blaze in WTC #5.
Jerry told me that the fire was on the third floor at the rear of the building and that most of the floor was gone so they had a difficult time reaching the fire with water. To make matters worse, the building was in danger of collapsing. Eventually they controlled the fire and were returning to their own truck when they saw a rescue dog in distress.
The dog’s handler explained that the dog’s eyes and nostrils were clogged with soot and dust. The poor dog needed water and oxygen. Jerry told me that he ran to the truck and administered oxygen to the dog and revived it. The handler then took the dog for further medical attention. Jerry was feeling pretty good about himself.
As we were talking, Jerry’s relief team came. He and his squad were relieved of duty and had a ride home in another truck. His truck would stay with this new crew.
I thanked Jerry and his gang for the use of the fire trucks cab and wished them a safe trip back to the Bronx. While they were departing I realized that there was nothing else I could do so I may as well go home. I had helped in the rescue operation and faced my demons. I had a tremendous need to be involved in the rescue operation and I did my part. This was like therapy for me and it worked.
I felt a bit guilty, and hypocritical, about filming at the scene. I only shot 14 minutes worth of footage, 7 minutes when I first arrived, in the afternoon and 7 minutes as I was leaving at 1am. It was bold footage of the destruction and the hard labor of the rescuers. There was no posing or gesturing, and I didn’t appear in it at all. It was just plain footage of the worst attack, on the United States of America.
I was gathering up my gear when another warning siren blasted. Hundreds of rescuers ran like children playing hide and seek. This was my curtain call and I solemnly left the still smoldering pit.
I walked back the same way I had come to this vision of hell. I was amazed at the changes that occurred in the last dozen hours. Numerous fast food trucks were parked along my escape route handing out sandwiches and sodas. I graciously took a Big Mac and continued my trek. I’m not sure what corner I had come to, but I saw a small bar open. I heard on the radio that all businesses in Tribeca were closed, yet here was an open saloon.
I had a desire for a cold beer to wash down the Big Mac, so I sauntered in. When I walked in the customers stopped dead in their tracks, and began to applaud me. I was actually embarrassed by this, but ordered a beer in spite of it. Several patrons offered to pay for the beer, but the bartender said it’s on him.
When I eagerly took a long drink from the cool bottle the crowd erupted into applause again. I nodded a silent thank you to the group and walked out with my beer into the night. A slight rain had started to fall and I quickly walked back towards my car with helmet, knapsack and beer in tow.
A new pair of rookies greeted me as I approached my car. They relieved the previous pair at the barricade, and they had dozens of boxes of candy, water, soda, masks and sandwiches. They were in for a long, wet night, but at least they wouldn’t go hungry. I didn’t want them to get too fat, so I relieved them of a few candy bars.
The ride back north along the Westside Highway was incredible. Literally hundreds of civilians lined the medium holding signs praising the rescue workers. Even though the rain started falling harder these intrepid Americans held their ground and shouted praises to me, waved American flags, chanted encouragement, and held up patriotic banners. Some jumped in front of my car to shake my hand and pass me more water.
I had a lump in my throat all the way home, and it wasn’t from the Big Mac. The past thirteen hours were probably the most rewarding of my life. I just left the scene of the worst terrorist attack in history, but also saw the most patriotic, compassionate, dedicated bravest and unselfish people in the world. This trip to the volcano from hell has changed my life forever.
I actually slept quite peacefully that night, but still turned on the TV the next morning. I also played back the 14 minutes of video I had shot. It was eerily reminiscent of unrehearsed war footage from WWII, only it was digitally clear and in crisp color. I was watching the news again, when Police Commissioner Kerik held a press conference. He warned all news media people not to attempt to enter ground zero to shoot pictures or video, because of the dangers. Trespassers would be arrested and prosecuted regardless if they had press credentials or not.
Now I knew what I had to do with my film. The American public had a right to see what ground zero looked like on 9-13-01 even though the media was denied access for safety reasons.
I telephoned channel 2 news and told them what I had and they invited me down to their studios to view it. I met several of the show’s producers and we sat and watched the footage. They were highly excited and wanted to know how much I wanted for the film. I told them I wanted three things. One, I asked that they keep their news people away from ground zero as the PC demanded. Two, I asked them to share the video with their affiliated stations so other news crews wouldn’t violate the PC’s orders and third, I asked that channel 2 make a contribution to the Police and Fire widows and orphans fund. They emphatically agreed, and I went home happy, feeling that I again did a good thing.
Several days later the news media was invited down to ground zero to record this tragic piece of history, but this time it was under a safe police escort. In the meantime, channel 2 got the scoop with my film and other stations used clips to keep their viewers informed. Once the media were allowed to shoot their own video, mine was laid to rest.
The following months saw many, many funerals and memorial services and heartbreaking stories about survivors and victims alike.
Brave rescuers continued to dauntlessly place themselves in harm’s way even though it was now a recovery effort, not a rescue.
As I finally finish my account of 9-11, I can’t help but wonder.
“WHERE WERE YOU ON 9-11”