Don Henley sang a song titled “In a New York Minute.” The words in the song say, “In a New York Minute Everything Can Change, in a New York Minute Things Can Get a Little Strange.” On the morning of September, the 11th the words to that song would take on an entirely new meaning to me. The words of that song, along with all the events of the day that I witnessed will be imprinted in my memory forever.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I awoke just as I had for the past six months. My alarm rang early, at 5am. My wife, Anna, was still asleep, so I quietly exited the bedroom so as not to wake. I took a shower, walked downstairs, and ate some breakfast. As I sat and ate my morning meal my thoughts were not about work but rather what I needed to do after work. My friend was getting married the following month and I was a member of his wedding party. I had a tuxedo fitting scheduled for later in the day and I was looking forward to seeing another friend who was also being fitted. Those thoughts were so trivial compared to the grand scheme of things that would soon transpire. Within the next few hours, I would be running from a falling building and cheering as fighter jets flew over Manhattan. In a few short hours, history was going to be made, and I was to be an eyewitness to it.
At 5:50am, I walked outside and hurried towards the bus stop that was across the street from my house. Anna was still asleep when I left so I waited for the bus without having a moment to see her. The bus-stop had the few waiting straphangers, so I took my place in line. The bus arrived within a few minutes, and it was unusually crowded. Many people were already standing for the ride, and I took my place in the center of the bus as it slowly pulled away. My two commuting friends, the electrician who was wiring up One Police Plaza and the secretary who worked in lower Manhattan already had their seats. I took out my book, the subject of which was the flag raisers at Iwo Jima. But the crowd and the movements of the bus made it too difficult to read so this book would have to wait. I searched my bag for my Walkman, took it out and tuned into the Howard Stern Show. The bus soon arrived at One Police Plaza. My friend the electrician and I exited the bus. The sky was clear with the sun so bright without a cloud in the sky. We walked the same route that we walked every workday.
We walked along the side of the Brooklyn Bridge past the sunny sky which was now being blocked out from the shadows of the Twin Towers. The towers being only ½ mile from my office stood as a large, imposing structure over Lower Manhattan. We walked towards the building past the construction site directly in front of it. We showed our identification to the cop at the front door and entered the building. We said goodbye as he walked toward the basement, and I entered the elevator. I pushed the button for the 8th floor and awaited the journey up. I exited the elevator, walked down the long hallway towards the Communication Section and entered the office.
Already at the office and at their computers were the early tour cops who started their workday at 5:15am. A few of the 7am starters arrived before me and were also sitting around. I signed in and took my seat at the long table where we all met at every morning. The conversation centered around the usual subject: when we all would finally be promoted to sergeant. We were so unaware of the horrors that were now occurring in the cockpits and passenger seats of the hijacked airplanes so high above the ground. The topics of our promotions were a conversation we had almost every morning. We had all recently been transferred to One Police Plaza from our prior precincts. Our daily assignments were to handle special computer projects before we were ready to be promoted to sergeant. Newspapers were always on the table. One paper had a picture of an old photo of a Black Panther who had been wanted since 1969 and was finally arrested. After reading the story, I walked into the lieutenant’s office and retrieved my folder of police reports that needed to be entered into the computer. “Let’s speed it up a little and get more of these reports entered”, he said. I was a little taken aback by his statement and was going to ask him why he said that to me. I looked over at the sergeant who was also in the office, and he was staring towards my direction waiting for my response. I decided to wait until the office had quieted down and the sergeant was out of the room before I questioned what the lieutenant was saying. I chose not to fight that battle, so I took my folder and walked out of the office towards my desk that was down the hall.
I sat down in my cubicle, prepared my files, and fired up the computer. I took my usual seat next to Ryan and the “Aloof” (the Aloof received his name from Ryan due to his daily unexplained absences from his desk and the office for extended periods of time). Before I even began my tasks for the day, I quickly thought back to what the lieutenant had just said to me. I wanted to confront him and ask him just exactly what he was talking about. Was he dissatisfied with the number of reports I was inputting? I was going to ask him, but I figured I would wait until later in the tour. With the events soon to unfold, this would become so unimportant and soon forgotten. I took out my first report and began typing into the computer while I listened to the rest of the Howard Stern Show on my Walkman. Within 20 minutes I had a few reports entered. When the Howard Stern Show went to commercial, I took off my Walkman and continued with my work not realizing what was soon about to begin.
“BOOM!” was the sound that overtook the entire office, echoing with a loud and foreign sound. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at each other. My original thought was that pieces of the construction equipment had fallen from the building to the ground. But this was a much different sound. It sounded more like something heavy being dropped into a hollow structure causing an echo. The Sergeant was sitting directly in front of the windows that faced the towers. He was the first to look out the window towards the noise. In what seemed like slow motion, he pointed out the window and shouted, “Oh shit, you have to see this!”
I quickly ran from my chair towards the window and saw a large hole in one of the Twin Towers with heavy black smoke billowing out from the exposed area. My first observation of the disaster was that a bomb had been planted inside the building. I was amazed at the number of papers that were pouring out of the windows and the gaping hole. These papers were exiting the structure and with the wind’s guidance being taken up into the sky. A helicopter was soon hovering over the tower and was flying near the floors that had been struck.
I left the window and walked downstairs to the payphone on the first floor. I called Anna, who was already at her office at 50th St and Madison Ave. She answered the phone and I told her that the World Trade Center was just bombed. She was surprised at what I was saying to her because she had no idea about what had just happened. She put on the news and told me how the story was already being shown live on television. Our conversation was brief. I told her that I needed to go back up to the office. I also told her that all the cops from One Police Plaza would probably be sent to the Twin Towers (I really had no idea if we would be sent or not, I only assumed). Telling her that, then getting off the phone so quickly, would later cause much anxiety and stress for the two of us.
I walked back up the stairs and I was amazed at how quiet the halls were. Where was everyone? I walked back into the office, and no one was at their desk. All the cops and civilians I worked with were standing at the window looking at the towers. Ryan was holding his Walkman earpiece to his ear and shouted out, “It was an airplane, a plane hit the building!” Another officer who was standing next to the window was telling everyone how the pilot must have had a heart attack and crashed into the tower. I did not share my opinion out loud, but I knew it was a terrorist attack. I remembered back in 1992 when terrorists had placed a bomb in the basement of the building the Twin Towers, so I assumed they did it again. Even though everyone was speaking I could not keep my eyes off the hole in the tower. The fire and smoke were now worse than it was before. The papers were still flying out and the thick black smoke continued to rise to the floors above, partially blocking the view. While focused on the destruction, I could see objects falling from the tower. I was soon horrified at what I was witnessing. People were jumping from the tower! Tiny figures with arms and legs flailing were hurling themselves out of the smoke-filled windows. Some looked as if they were doing somersaults down the side of the building. I was now frozen with a dead stare at those towers. A closer look revealed a clearing of smoke with a person waving what appeared to be a chair from one of the windows. The smoke would overtake the figure then blow in a separate direction. I believed it was a woman. She was too far from where I was to really see any features, but I feel that I witnessed a woman waving towards the city for help. I had seen many terrible images in police work during my prior 8 years of service, but the vision of people jumping, and the woman with the chair was too much for me. I walked back from the window and could not watch the horror any further. I just walked back towards my desk and put my head down for a moment.
I could not keep away from the window for long. I walked back to the window and took my place next to all the others that were staring and not believing what was transpiring. I stayed focused on the one remaining tower not damaged, as it seemed so defiant and indestructible. As soon as I looked back at the tower that was already struck, I observed a white streak of smoke coming from the rear of the other tower. Flames and debris soon shot out from other side of the structure. Two or three seconds later the sound of the explosion reached One Police Plaza. The shockwave arrived soon arrived. The windows of our building began to vibrate violently; I jumped back from where I was standing. This was war I was now witnessing! One of the civilians who worked down the hall and was with us began screaming. I jumped even farther back from the window and told everyone it was time to leave. I knew this was no accident, because two planes do not accidentally hit separate buildings! America was presently under attack, and I could see it. I said out loud that I was going to leave the building. No one followed as I exited the office.
I ran down the hallway and towards the stairway. I was not going to take the elevator because I did not want to become trapped; I was expecting more planes to crash. When I opened the doorway to the staircase, one male and one female detective were running full speed down the stairs. It was eight flights of stairs to the street level. I sprinted right behind them, barely touching the handrail. I felt as if I was not even touching any steps during my descent. I ran to the first floor, through the front doors of One Police Plaza and headed straight for the courtyard.
What should I do now and where should I go? To the right of me were about 20-30 Police recruits in their gray uniforms. There were no academy instructors in sight and no uniformed officers. These recruits were just standing there with no direction. I stood where they were and watched with them in awe of the magnitude of the damage as the two towers were now engulfed in smoke and fire. Flames flicked up and down the structure. One of the recruits next to me began to cry then sat on the floor in disbelief. I helped her up off the ground, but she continued to cry. A few cops from the other offices ran out the front door. I could hear them discussing if they should go to the scene. The “Aloof” walked up behind me and asked me where I was going. I said that we needed to get away from the buildings and head further uptown. Neither one of us said it but we both felt a need to get away from any tall buildings that may be a target. We both said, “Chinatown”, and started to quickly walk in that direction.
For all the “Aloof’s” disappearances and secrecy, he was the only one from the office besides me who realized that we were in danger. We walked down Court Street towards the Federal Court House. As we walked, I felt as if I had a huge knot in my stomach, then began to get a sharp pain and felt as if I was going to throw up. I continued on and the pain went away as soon as it began. We walked in front of the courthouse I could hear yelling coming from the steps. “My laptop is in the building, and I am going in to get it!” screamed this well-dressed middle- aged guy. He pushed his way past a Court Officer who was blocking his path. Another Court Officer then walked up to him and shoved him down the steps. The guy rolled a few times down the steps and landed on the sidewalk. He got up, dusted off his jacket and walked away. Any other day that would have been a big incident but in the present scheme of events it was overlooked. We walked on and I was surprised to see an Asian fruit vendor standing idly by his cart. The guy was just staring at the skyline with no expression. Another guy, walking near us, had a crazy look in his eyes and was yelling something about the end of the world. The “Aloof” walked past the guy and said, “These loonies all wait for a day like this.”
We walked a few blocks past the courthouse and a strange rumbling sound began to take over the entire area. I looked up towards the sky, but I could only see the tops of buildings and the blue sky. The rumbling became louder, and the ground began to shake violently. People began to jump to the ground, the “Aloof” and I included. I crouched next to the wheel well of a parked car. An elderly woman was sitting on the ground next to me and she was talking to herself. We briefly made eye contact and I could see the fear in her eyes. Behind me was a man with a briefcase, he walked through the crowd and yelled, “It was a subway car, everyone needs to relax.”
This guy could not have been more wrong. I turned and looked towards lower Manhattan where the noise was coming from, and saw that a large, thick, dark plume of smoke was making its way from that direction. The wall of smoke was rapidly heading our way so people in the crowd began to run in the opposite direction. I got off the ground and began to run. I saw the “Aloof” in the crowd for a brief second, then lost sight of him in the sea of people. I ran with the crowd for a few blocks until the sound was no more as I made it to a street corner in Chinatown. I could no longer see the wall of smoke, so I took a break next to a wall at a nearby building. The sea of people ran by without stopping. For years, Hollywood was putting out movies where New York City was under attack and the city was turned into chaos. The scene was much like one of those movies. This time it was real, and I could not pause the television set or take a bathroom break. A subway station was directly across from me, and I noticed how no one person was entering the station. I remembered how a few years back in Tokyo, a chemical attack was unleashed by terrorists upon their transit system. As I looked into the crowd, I wondered if a chemical agent was also released into our city.
A young woman about 25 years old stood next to me at the building and watched as the crowds ran past. She was looking at me as if she was wondering why I was not running with the crowd. I quickly realized she was breathing heavy and was taking a break from her run. I looked to her and said, “Can you believe all of this?” She just shook her head. A break in the crowd arrived and she took off with the crowd. A prison van pulled up in front of where I was standing and the prisoners were all yelling out of the windows, but I could not hear what they were saying. A woman was walking in the crowd yelling, “Tower two just fell, it fell!” I stood there and looked towards lower Manhattan and could only see heavy clouds of smoke. I could not comprehend at that time that one of the towers had fallen. Two guys stood next to me, one with a video camera. There was now a break in the smoke, and you could see the one standing tower in flames. The guy was recording the whole thing and I began to talk to his friend. I said, “How we will never forget this day for as long as we live?” One woman was staring blindly at the burning towers. She looked to me and asked if today was a specific holiday. Another woman standing next to her stated, “Today’s date is 911”. The sounds of emergency vehicles roaring by got louder and louder as they passed us headed towards lower Manhattan.
The crowd shrunk until only small groups of people were walking past. The smoke never made it to my location, so I knew where I needed to be. I needed to go back to One Police Plaza. As I walked back down the blocks towards lower Manhattan, I observed a sea of people walking in my direction. Some in the crowd were covered with white soot on their clothes, one guy had blood on his face and shirt. As I got closer to the Federal Court House people heading in my direction began looking at me because I was the only person walking against the crowd. One woman in the crowd I recognized as one of the civilians who worked in the Communication Section. I weaved my way through the crowd and asked her if One Police Plaza was evacuated. I continued walking in the opposite direction of the crowd. As I got back on Court St, a Court Officer walked up to me and told me that I could not go any further. I took my ID out from under my shirt and showed it to him. “I work at 1 PP, I am going back”, I told him. The guy pointed to the rear alley behind the courthouse and told me I could walk that way.
As I walked back up the place was a ghost town, totally empty. The only person I could see was a recruit in his gray uniform standing near the archway in front of the City Hall subway station. The wind was now taking the smoke towards the Brooklyn Bridge. The sky was clear again and he was quietly staring at the one remaining tower. I started to walk over to him, and he quickly focused his attention on me, standing up real straight and calling me “sir.” I told him that formalities weren’t necessary and I stood there with him for a moment and stared at the one remaining tower. What happened next seemed like slow motion. I looked down at his right hand that was holding a stack of respirator masks. I asked him for one of the masks. As he put the mask in my hand a loud roaring sound again filled the air. We both looked over and could see the top of the remaining tower folding over. I was transfixed with a dead stare as the top of the tower along with the tower antenna imploded into the structure. The entire building collapsed into itself! We watched the entire thing. It was like everything else in the world was not happening. The sands of time stood still until the building quickly fell into itself and out of sight from where I was standing. A plume of smoke quickly arose from the destruction. This smoke rose from the impact zone with great speed and velocity.
Quickly the streets and avenues in the plume’s path began to fill up with a thick haze of clouds and debris. The plume looked much like what I had witnessed from Chinatown. This time it was all different, I was now much closer and was in danger of being overtaken by the approaching destruction. I watched as the sky grew dark as the streets and avenues that it approached absorbed the thick clouds.
I took off running for a second time that day. This time I was closer, and the roaring sounded much louder than the collapse of the first tower. It seemed to be gaining momentum every second. I had been an avid runner and cyclist for years, so running like that was easy for me. There were no people in my path towards One Police Plaza. I sprinted towards the steps that led towards the Brooklyn Bridge, any second expecting to be overtaken by smoke like the waves of an ocean. I ran along the Avenue of the Finest reaching the sidewalk that borders Murray Bergtraum High School. I knew I needed to head north again and away from Lower Manhattan. Despite wearing khaki pants, dress shoes, my NYPD identification around my neck, my 5-shot .38 caliber revolver on my belt I was able to run with great speed and stride. The curiosity and desire to turn around and look at the destruction was overwhelming. So, I stopped at the center of the block next to the school and turned towards the destruction. I could now see that the towers were no longer there. As I viewed the broken skyline, anger and rage took over. A parked car was next to me, and I banged my fists on the trunk yelling out into the empty street, “They knocked it down, they knocked it down!” The towers were no longer visible. The sea of smoke had now once again overtaken the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t know if it was the angle of the streets or the wind direction that kept me at a distance from the thick clouds. I was only mere blocks away from the clouded streets, but I was now determined to stay put and was no longer going to run!
Alone, I walked all by myself past the parking triangle at One Police Plaza and looked for my co-workers. As I passed the end of the triangle, I noticed flocks of pigeons walking along the sidewalk covered in soot, grounded. These birds were not taking to the air as if some strange internal instinct made them comprehend the danger.
I still could not locate any coworkers, so I walked down a side street where I observed emergency lights. All along the sidewalk of the street were teenage students from the school who looked like they could run no more. EMS workers were giving oxygen to some of the students who were sitting on the curb. At the end of the curb was a woman in her mid-20’s and she was holding her stomach and saying, “My baby, my baby, I don’t want to have it here.” I was unsure where these people all came from and how long they were at this location. Smoke was in the immediate area, but I could breathe fine. It was as if a snow avalanche came down and I somehow escaped the brunt of it. I felt as if they were experiencing some sort of panic and needed the EMS workers’ guidance. I continued with my stride, walked past more people, and made a left again towards One Police Plaza.
As I continued walking, I could see 20-30 people who looked like cops standing near a wall across from the Rite Aid pharmacy. None were in uniform, but many looked familiar to me from the hallways of One Police Plaza. As I walked up to the group, I could see that the only person in uniform was an NYPD chaplain. I took my place in the group. No coworkers from my office were at the location so I tried to strike up a conversation with the guy standing next to me. I asked him where everyone else was. The guy said nothing, he ignored me. The cop just stared towards Lower Manhattan not even responding to what I was saying. I just figured that everyone was handling the situation in their own way, and he was no different. A driver in a small Poland Spring water truck pulled up towards us and exited his vehicle. He quickly opened his rear door and told everyone to take what they needed. My mouth was so dry, so I took one from his truck and downed the entire bottle. I stood there silent and waited for some familiar faces. Where were my supervisors, the
“Aloof”, Ryan and all the others from our office?
About two minutes later one of the big bosses from One Police Plaza walked over with a few other cops behind him. He shouted to the crowd, “Everyone line up in two rows, I need to know how many cops are here.” As the big boss was talking with the cops who arrived with him, groups of people were running down the street behind him. I saw a middle-aged woman wearing high heels trip over the curb. “Smack!” was the sound that was made as her face struck the pavement. One female officer standing in the group quickly ran over to her and helped her up. The woman quickly brushed herself off and as if in a daze and kept on walking. As I took my place in the line, I was confused about why only a handful of cops from a building full of hundreds were the only ones around. My thoughts went back to the books I had read about the armies of World War II. Russian generals would describe how the German Army would arrive at their camp at a lightning pace and create great havoc. One General wrote in detail about how he went to the next town over for a meeting, only to return to his encampment and find it totally deserted by his soldiers. Did a modern terrorist version of this happen here? Where was everyone? I watched the towers collapse and go straight down. No structures at One Police Plaza were destroyed. I knew many people had died in the towers and all these missing cops from One Police Plaza were not killed!
My adrenaline was now running out and I began to ponder my own situation. What should I do? I had no contact with Anna since before the collapse. I believed more planes were headed towards the city and felt as if I could be killed that day right there in Lower Manhattan. I glanced over at the nearby buildings behind the Rite Aid pharmacy and tried to estimate the area that the structure would cover if it fell. It was a strange day and strange thoughts were going through my mind. It all seemed like some type of bad dream or scary movie. As I stared at the destruction, I now realized that the towers were gone forever. They would never stand again and only be remembered on video or in people’s memories, movies, and pictures. The smoke was periodically clearing at the Brooklyn Bridge, and I could see crowds of people walking out of the city to their destinations. I thought of how easy it would have been to slip away from the crowd and head home. Home seemed now like a short walk over the bridge to Brooklyn and it would have been simple for me to do all that. I would soon find out that some of my co-workers had apparently made the walk themselves.
(In reality, some cops from One Police Plaza did respond to the Twin Towers. One cop who worked in one of the other officers went to the location and was killed).
As I stood in the crowd, I could hear someone calling my name from up the block, it was my lieutenant from the office. “John, John, we are all up the block gathering together, follow me,” he said. I walked with him up the block and into a basement of a building that was behind the NYPD equipment store. As I walked down the stairs, I noticed the “Aloof” and Ryan sitting at a table. Another large table was close by with the other cops from the office sitting around. I took my seat and the lieutenant approached me and said, “John, I am glad you are here, we were all worried and afraid something bad had happened to you.” I sat for a second or two and I realize what I had done. “Oh my gosh”, I thought to myself, I remembered that the last time I had spoken to Anna was over an hour ago. I also remembered how I told her that I was going to be sent to the towers. What made what I said to her worse was that fact that I told her all this before the second plane had struck the 2nd tower and before they collapsed. I knew I needed to talk to her immediately. I walked over to a phone that was on the wall and called her office. Her phone kept ringing and her work voicemail picked up. Where my wife was and what she was doing was now a mystery to me. I was sure she knew about the planes and the collapse. Was she okay? I quickly dialed my sister’s house and my niece’s babysitter answered the phone. I asked if my wife called and asked if she had spoken to my sister. The babysitter seemed so distant and ill-informed; it was as if I was making a routine call to the house. She just simply said that nobody had called yet. I then called my father’s house and left him a message on the answering machine telling him that I was okay and that I was trying to contact Anna.
As I sat in the basement of the building, I was surprised to notice that not every cop who was at the office in the morning was present. Only eight of us were sitting in the basement. The sergeant who was the first to notice the impact and three cops who worked with us were nowhere to be found. Where were they? What also surprised me was how the lieutenant was concerned about where I was but seemed unconcerned about the others who were not present. Before I had a chance to ponder that thought or ask any questions we were on the move.
We took up security checkpoints all along the streets leading up to One Police Plaza. The “Aloof”, Ryan and another cop we called “Bloomberg” (due to him constantly telling everyone that he knew that he volunteered for the billionaire who would later become NYC Mayor) set up our location on the corner of James Street and St. James Place. There was an old church halfway down the block that had a cemetery in the rear. In front of the church stood a girl who had connected a hose to the fire-hydrant and was giving water to the people still leaving lower Manhattan. The smell that was coming up the street was strange, like a cross between burning plastic and electrical wires. I still had the mask that the recruit had given to me, and I put it on for the first time. The mask was only a common spackle/EMT worker issued mask, yet it was all I had. Despite the bright sunshine, flames could now be seen from where the towers once stood. Where were all the walking wounded? I just assumed that many were killed instantly and the severely wounded were brought to the nearest hospital. Two recruits wearing their gray uniforms walked past the barricade and headed uptown. They were covered from head to toe in a thick gray dust. Their hair, faces and shoes were all covered. I assumed these recruits were probably part of the group that was standing earlier in front of One Police Plaza.
“Bloomberg” was listening to his Walkman told us what the news was saying – that Camp David, along with the Pentagon had been destroyed. Ryan added to the conversation and said that bombs were going off in shopping malls all around the country. Unconfirmed rumors were starting about how Muslims in Jersey City were celebrating in the streets and cheering from their rooftops. The Sears Tower in Chicago being destroyed was another. The rumors kept arriving as different officers approached, “A van is driving around NYC with bombs, Muslims are being attacked in the streets, China is behind all this” were only some of the rumors that were now circulating. “Bloomberg” gave the most chilling rumor. He told us that the news was saying that five planes were still in the air and unaccounted for. What seemed as obvious as putting on the television was not possible at that moment. The nation and most of the world was watching the events occur live on television. We were eyewitnesses to what happened and were close enough to be part of the rescue effort, yet no television was in sight.
I took a moment to myself. I stared at the empty space that used to be the Twin Towers, thinking back to when I was a kid. My parents took me to the top of the towers, and I marveled at the sights below. I was most amazed to see the vehicles on the street; they seemed to be the size of matchbox cars. I remembered trying to look for the people on the street but being young and naive I could not comprehend how high in the sky I really was.
We directed traffic as best as we could. Ambulances with their sirens blaring raced from the area of the collapse. Debris on top of these ambulances billowed into the air as they streamed past me and up the block. Fire trucks and NYPD Emergency Service vehicles seemed to pass us every few seconds. Crowds of people looked in our direction towards the disaster. From where I was directing traffic, I could see in between the flames thick black smoke rising from the collapse. This thick black smoke was now blocking the sun! The black smoke was a sharp contrast to the blue sky in the distance. It got so bad that it looked as if the darkness was occurring hours before time was allowing it. It was like viewing an eclipse of the sun and moon. At one point in all the noise and confusion, I saw a butterfly gently flying in my direction. In all this commotion I took a moment once again, to stop and watch as it flew just over my head and continued going uptown and away from all the action. This butterfly seemed as if it had escaped the destruction and was now headed off towards safety. The moment of peace was all interrupted when “Bloomberg” walked up to me and told me that the FDNY took a heavy loss. He also told me that a female officer was yelling for help over the police radio when it went silent. I knew that many people must have died only blocks from where I was now standing, yet at that moment I was trying not to think about all that. Through all the noise of sirens and people talking, another strange sound took over the area. Everyone around us looked up as a distant roaring sound echoed through the streets. I looked up for where the sound was coming from as I immediately grabbed hold of the NYPD barrier that was in front of where we were standing. I grabbed hold of that barrier for some type of shielding from an unknown danger. What the heck was that sound? It was a military jet fighter! It was such a big relief for me to see that jet in the sky. I remembered the rumor about the five missing planes; the overhead plane quelled my anxiety.
With military jets flying overhead and One Police Plaza in lockdown I still could not get past the no contact with my family, especially Anna, off my mind. What if something happened to Anna? I knew that she was way uptown at 50th and Madison Avenue. She was far from the disaster, but with without word from her I was concerned. I walked back up the block to the basement with the working telephone. I called my house, no answer. I called my father’s house, again no answer.
As I walked back to my post, I could see a commotion near some of the other cops directing traffic. A woman was demanding to walk through One Police Plaza. “My kids are somewhere, they are somewhere, I am walking through,” she kept yelling. The woman then pushed the cop and tries to walk past. We all ran over as someone in the crowd pulled her away. She walked away as we were worried about much bigger issues. I walked back to my post and noticed a woman was crying on the corner. She walked up to me and told me she had an emergency and needed to get downtown. I told her that she could not walk through One Police Plaza. She kept insisting. “I left my windows open. I left my windows open. I need to get home.” I told her that it was not safe downtown, and she should stay away from the area. The woman walked away only to come back in a few minutes. She began to walk past me, I stood in front of her. “My parrots, my parrots, the smoke will kill them!” she yelled. “Parrots,” I said to myself. Was that what this woman was so distraught about? I yelled back at the woman telling her that people were dead, and her parrots were not that important right now. People in the street were looking at us, observed us yelling back and forth, but nobody paid it much attention.
(Years later I read a book by New York City Mayor Giuliani, he wrote a chapter about his experiences during 9/11. He discussed how after the collapse of the second tower he wanted to hold a press conference at One Police Plaza. His security personnel advised him not to have the conference there due to the location being another possible terrorist target.)
I walked back to the phone and called my father’s house again. I was relieved when he finally answered the phone. My first question was if he had heard from Anna. He said he did not, but I should not be that concerned because she worked uptown and was probably walking home now. My dad asked me what was going on and I told him that I witnessed most of what transpired at the two towers. He asked me what was going on further downtown and all I could say to him was that I watched people jumping from the towers. The phone went silent as if he had nothing to say. He then told me how he was driving his work van when he heard on the radio that the towers were struck. He parked at a location where he could see the smoke in the city. He told me how he was concerned for my safety and was glad to hear from me. He was also angry and felt like putting on his old Army uniform. I told him how there were only a few of us from the office here because some guys went home. His response was great. “They went home? You never want to be in a foxhole with guys like that,” he said to me.
I hung up the phone and immediately called my sister’s house. She answered the phone and told me that she had not heard from Anna and that she had tried to call One Police Plaza, but the phones were down. She also explained how an old friend of mine had called her house asking if I was ok. She then told me how she went to church with her six-year-old daughter to say a prayer and how her daughter asked if I was dead! I told her that I needed to get back to my corner and I would call her back in a few minutes.
I walked back to my post and observed a Nassau County passenger bus being let through the streets. A Harley Davidson motorcycle was following the bus. A passenger on the rear of the motorcycle was a cop in full uniform, holding the driver with one hand and his hat with the other. Many strange things were now occurring. I stood back on my post and continued to let the emergency vehicles in and out of lower Manhattan. A cop who worked on one of the other floors at One Police Plaza was also standing at the post. I was directing traffic and all he wanted to do was talk and talk. “I want to go home, I have things to do, what time do you think they will let us leave?” was what he kept saying. After a few minutes of listening to this guy’s crap about being kept late, I could not listen any longer. “I don’t know where my wife is, I have not heard from her in hours and all you can talk about is what your plans are and what time you want to go home!” He then asked me where Anna worked, and I told him. He reassured me that she was way uptown and away from the danger so I should not worry. I went back to my duties and wondered how long I should wait to call again. Crazy thoughts still crept into my mind. I still believed that I could be killed by staying in Lower Manhattan. What if other terrorist attacks were planned for the area? I remembered reading about how soldiers in WWI would sit in their trenches and wonder if they would soon be blown up in an instant. They would stare away from the front lines and would try not to think about walking home. The distance for them between the front lines and the safety of the rear lines was very close. Close enough for them to walk to safety. Safety was in sight for those soldiers, but the distance was an impossible obstacle.
The Brooklyn Bridge was still in sight, and I could have quickly walked to it. Home and being there with my wife were a powerful motivation for me to leave Manhattan. It was only a thought; I knew I was going to stay. This was my generation’s Pearl Harbor; it was not some old history to read about. I was an eyewitness to all this. I was going to stay put, direct traffic and let the emergency vehicles in and out. If I was told to go to the collapsed area, I would have followed that order and gone. There were only a few of us guarding One Police Plaza at that moment. At that time, I did not know where the rest of the cops that I was originally standing with by Rite-Aid Pharmacy had been assigned.
(Later in the evening I did find out where they were assigned. Some stayed at the location and did perimeter security for the building. Others were assigned to respond to the incident location and bag up the bodies and body parts that were pulled from the rubble.)
I made another walk to the phone in the basement up the block and called my house, no answer. I called Anna’s sister’s house, no answer. I called my sister again and she told me that Anna was ok and was with my brother-in-law, her husband, Joe. They were both now driving to her house. I was so relieved to hear that my wife was safe. I did not get to talk to her, but I was now able to think more clearly. As I exited the basement, I noticed that darkness was descending upon lower Manhattan. An unbelievable and unforgettable sight was the eerie glow now permeating from downtown. Buildings were obstructing my view, but I could see the glow of flames from the molten metal in the distance. Despite all the destruction that was going on around me, I could not keep my hunger at bay. I had not eaten anything for about 13 hours! I walked towards Chinatown and found a small restaurant still open. I walked in the front door and saw no customers, but a woman and a man sitting at the front counter. I ordered steamed chicken, broccoli with white rice. They quickly gave me my food and I walked back to my post. I found a quiet spot on the street corner and ate my dinner, trying to forget about the events of the day.
With some food in my stomach, I felt energized and was ready to direct traffic for as many hours as was needed. I walked back to my corner and was quickly approached by a middle-aged man with a heavy Israeli accident, “My son, my son, he called me this morning and was going to the Twin Towers, I have not heard from him since.” He then asked me if I knew what percent of the people were killed in the collapse. I told him the best direction to get to the site and explained to him that he would probably have a tough time getting any closer. The man again told me he had not heard from his son. I let the man through and pointed him in the right direction. As he walked slowly away you could see that this man was both physically and mentally exhausted. People kept walking up to us asking if they could get to lower Manhattan. One man even told me he had important papers in his apartment and wanted to retrieve them. A woman standing across the street saw me talking and walked over. She told me that her car was parked down the street and she needed to get to it. I looked down the dark street where she was pointing and all I could see were parked NYPD vehicles. I knew the woman was lying, I did not think she was a terrorist, but I could not figure why she would want to get on One Police Plaza’s property. I told her she could not walk past, and she walked away without saying a word.
A truck driver now approached and asked me for directions. As I was talking, to the driver I saw the woman walk to my lieutenant across the street. I watched as she briefly spoke to him, and he let her walk past. I followed her from a distance as she walked all around the sidewalk at One Police Plaza. The woman walked over to where I earlier watched the soot covered birds walking. She then took out a large camera from under her coat and began to take pictures of the fires coming from lower Manhattan. The woman seemed determined to get good photos of the destruction. From dealing with reporters in the past I knew she would continue to try to talk her way closer and closer to get her photos. I walked up to her and asked her where her car was. At first, she did not say anything then she told me that her car was not here. I walked with her back up the block toward where I had first encountered her. She crossed the police barricades and walked away since she had obtained her desperately desired photos. Other people walked up and truly wanted to help. They would stand around and ask where the hospital was. We would send them in the right direction, and they would walk off and out of sight. Nurses and other hospital workers from all over the five boroughs would approach us and ask where they could volunteer or just give blood.
I walked back to the basement and called my home. This time Anna was home, and I was relieved to finally talk directly to her. She asked me to come home. I explained to her that we were directing traffic letting the ambulance and emergency vehicles into the disaster zone and keeping One Police Plaza secure. She then began to explain to me how she was able to get home from her office. She told me how she watched the second plane strike the tower live on television and was afraid that I had gone to the towers. Everyone from her office began to exit the building. She called her sister and waited for her on Madison Ave. A friend from the office joined them and they walked towards the 59th Street Bridge. Her sister was five months pregnant! They decided not to take the subway and chose to walk the streets all the way to the bridge. They crossed over the bridge with crowds of other people fleeing Manhattan. They arrived at Queens Blvd and continued to walk. Along the route, they were finally able to get a cab and get dropped off at home. My brother-in-law Joe was already in front of my house and told her that I was okay and had called a few times. I told Anna that she should not stay home alone tonight, and she should stay at her sister’s house. I told her that I was unsure what time I would get home, but I would call her as soon as I knew.
As I walked back down the block toward my post, the darkness was all around. The lights were all out in the immediate area, we would now call it a blackout. Only the lights from the emergency vehicles passing, the glow from lower Manhattan, and the emergency generator lights near the towers were breaking the darkness. The “Aloof” and Ryan were walking up the block and they told me that they were going to the church to use the bathroom. I walked with them to the church where earlier in the day the girl was giving out water from the hose. We knocked on the door and a priest let us in. The electric was still working in his building, and he allowed us to sit down inside. We took our seats at an old wooden table that was placed next to an old fireplace. The priest put on the television and walked away from us shaking his head and saying that he never thought this would happen here. We all sat down and watched television for the first time that day. It may sound strange, we were so close to the disaster, yet in a media blackout. The entire country, and the world, who had access to a television were probably watching the events of the day. We were so close to the incident I wondered if I had any reason to watch it on television. In some strange way not watching the television kept us somewhat ignorant about what was happening just a few blocks away. The news station was showing video footage of the civil war in Afghanistan and the possible links to the events of the day.
I already had my suspicions as to who was responsible for what happened. I was on my computer only a few days prior and read a story about Osama Bin Laden. The story explained how Bin Laden was wanted for the embassy bombings in Africa and showed the large reward for his capture. I knew it was this coward who was responsible for all that happened here. I was amazed that a reclusive guy like him was able to pull it all off!
We stayed at the church only for a short while. It was now 11pm and the rescue vehicles were coming by and past us at an even quicker pace. Lower Manhattan still had the eerie glow about it. The glow was now so bright that the entire area looked as if a major sporting event was taking place. I thought to myself, where were all the injured? Despite the patients that were being transported past in the ambulances, I had not seen any injured person since right after the second collapse.
Other cops from other units within the city began to arrive, so we knew that we would be relieved shortly. I was standing off to the side of the other cops and in the darkness a black van pulled up a half block from where I was standing. Plainclothes cops were exiting the van and while they were speaking one of their voices stuck out to me. It was a voice I had not heard in a few years. It was Tommy, my field training Sergeant from when I was a rookie cop at the 110 Precinct. We were apart six years, but hearing his voice made it like yesterday all over again. I owed so much to the guy; he really taught me a lot about police work. I called out his name through the darkness. He was standing about 20 feet away and could not see who was calling him. “Who is that?” he said as he tried to see who was speaking through the darkness. I walked a little closer and I could see in his face that he was surprised to see me. “John, wow, good to see you!” I was not surprised to see him so close to the action on such a monumental day. Even though he was a now a narcotics sergeant working in the Bronx, he still made it close to the action. When we worked together, we both seemed to be the first on the scene and I was always ready for any action. We quickly made small talk and I told him that I was currently working at One Police Plaza because I was on the sergeants’ list waiting to be promoted. I asked him if he was retiring soon, and he said that he was not sure. We only had time for small talk, the situation at hand dictated our meeting. His coworkers were calling him to get back to the van, so it was time for us to part ways. Before getting in, he turned and asked me if Anna and I had gotten married. We said our goodbyes and he left. It was good seeing him again. It was like we were old friends who reunited on some far-off battlefield.
Our lieutenant came over and told us that it was time to re-group in front of One Police Plaza. As I walked back to the front of the building, I noticed that many of the residents who lived in the nearby building had American flags hanging from their balconies. I said to myself that as soon as I got home, I would also put the flag up in front of my own home. As I approached the front of the building many cops from the other offices were already present. I thought back to how earlier in the morning I walked into the front doors of the building with the electrician. So much had now changed since the morning, not knowing it yet, I was changed forever! America was now changed forever.
Another coworker of mine from the back at the 110 was also in line. He now worked at One Police Plaza and was ending his tour for the day. Phil and I had worked together before I was transferred to One Police Plaza, we often rode together in the squad car. He had worked on another floor and was assigned to fix the department’s computers. I was not surprised that he stayed after the collapse and not gone home like so many others of our coworkers had done. He was also another 110 cop like Tommy and me who was also always in the thick of the action. Phil asked me about where I was when the towers collapsed. I explained to him about my journey to Chinatown and my run from the collapsing towers. Phil also had observed people jumping from the towers. He looked at me and said, “They must have made a choice not to die in the fire.” One of the big bosses from the building walked over to our group and told us that we had been relieved for the night. He then explained to us how we would all have to be back at the same location at 6am. Phil asked me if I was going to stay at One Police Plaza or go home. I told him that all I wanted to do all day was to go home. We both agreed and began to walk towards the subway.
It was now midnight and we walked uptown in the relatively empty city streets. No cars were driving due to the street closures and the ban on non-emergency vehicle traveling into Manhattan. Any people who were still out were walking right in the middle of the street. Cops in uniform were on almost every street corner. These cops seemed fresher and more alert than the guys I had worked with all day. Many of these cops were off duty at the time of the attack and were called in to relieve the cops like us who were working since the morning. An unmarked NYPD vehicle pulled up alongside us and we asked them for a ride. Two detectives were in the front seat, and we sat in the rear. I originally thought the vehicle was colored gray, but a closer look showed it was black (the gray color was from the soot and debris that had covered the entire vehicle). The rear seats were also covered in the soot. All I wanted to do was go home, so we took the ride. They dropped us off at the subway station and we walked inside.
The 7 train soon arrived and Phil and I got on. We were just sitting in our seats quietly waiting for our stop to arrive. An Arabic guy was sitting next to us reading a newspaper. Large Arabic print was on the front of the paper. I was glancing over at the paper trying to see if the events of the day were shown. Another guy was sitting across from us, and he was also looking at the paper. This guy was trying to make eye contact with me. The guy then shouts out in a heavy accent, “I was also looking at his paper and wondering what those words were saying.” The Arabic guy pretended that he did not hear him and so did I. It was late and the last thing I wanted was to get involved in some old hatred dispute occurring on the subway. I just assumed that this was the same anger and frustration that the prior generation had directed towards the Japanese soon after their attack at Pearl Harbor. The train arrived at 69th Street and Roosevelt Ave. We exited the train and walked to the street.
Phil’s wife and son were parked on the corner of 69th Street waiting for us. I went in the back seat, and they began to drive. Along Eliot Ave near my house, we stopped at a streetlight. The car next to us was moving slowly with the driver apparently falling asleep at the wheel! I watched as the guy suddenly woke up and began to drive along. The car made a right turn and I could hear his car side swipe a parked vehicle. I did not know the other driver, but from the events of the day I assumed he also made his long trek home. I exited the car and Phil explained to me that he would pick me up at 5am. I said goodbye to him and his family and walked towards my door. Home was now so close, something I was waiting for hours earlier.
I went inside and the house and it was all so quiet. The events of the day and all that I observed were now in the past. Anna was at her sister’s, so the house was empty. I immediately threw all my dusty clothes out the door, onto my terrace. My shoes, socks shirt and pants all of it went outside. I did not know what ended up on my clothes and I did not want to know. I went upstairs and took a well needed shower. I stood there letting the warm water cover my face. The sounds of sirens began to echo through the bathroom. Echoing like emergency vehicles were still passing me by. The sounds became louder! I wondered where these sirens were coming from. I opened the bathroom window and put my head out, no emergency vehicles could be found. I went back to enjoying the water and the sirens continued. I quickly opened the window to get a look at what was going on. Still nothing was outside my house. Only the darkness and trees in bloom could be seen. I shut the window and the sirens continued. I finished my shower and dried off. It was then I realized what was going on. The sirens were all in my head! The continuous noise and commotion of the day were still echoing in my eardrums.
I lay in bed and tried to put the sounds of sirens out of my mind. My bed felt so comfortable, so I simply lay there staring at the ceiling. Home was where I wanted to go to all day, and I was glad to finally be back. As I lay in bed the sound of sirens was gone but images of the day began to resurface. The towers being struck, the building falling on itself were images that kept racing through my memory. The image I could not shake was the woman waving the chair from the window so high above the city street. I kept seeing that image like a recording of an old movie, watching it over and over in my head. The sight of that woman was now etched inside my memory forever. I got out of bed and walked back downstairs. I ate an apple that was on the counter and remembered that there was something important that I had forgotten to do.
I took my flag from my garage and placed it on the flagpole holder in front of my house. With the stars and stripes displayed, I went back inside and climbed back into bed.