We all remember where we were that morning. I was a deputy chief of police two months from retirement and sitting at home having coffee while watching the news. It was a quarter to seven in the morning and I was watching the Today Show when one of the cohosts announced that a plane had hit one of the twin towers. I thought that was odd. Was it a small private plane and the pilot had a heart attack? Seventeen minutes later they were still speculating when a separate jet hit the other tower and my immediate thought was: terrorist attack.
Two more jets were hijacked that infamous morning, one that crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth flight that crashed outside Shanksville, PA, and was most likely targeting the White House. As we know today, Saudi terrorists were behind the atrocity that would lead to long, bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The body count from the towers alone would register 2,753 and 184 would die in the Pentagon. The crash in Pennsylvania resulted in 40 more deaths and the toll could have been much, much higher had the passengers not fought to take control of the aircraft. Their courage prevented the jet from reaching the Washington, D.C., metro area.
I retired two months later, 22 years to the day I had joined LCPD in November 1979. Later that week I boarded a flight for NYC, landing at LaGuardia in the afternoon and taking a cab into Manhattan. I'd never been to the city before but I wanted to visit ground zero. I walked around that afternoon and evening. People on the street were quiet, not the boisterous NYC I'd read about and seen on television. I witnessed a young man in his twenties carrying a briefcase break down and sob on the sidewalk. The mood was somber.
I walked to Ground Zero the next morning. It was fenced off with privacy fabric but it was still possible to get a glimpse inside. The odor of death was still in the air even two months following the collapse of the buildings. If you've worked crime scenes with dead bodies you know that smell. Even though victims had been pulverized by tons of steel and concrete the odor was prevalent. I could smell burned electrical lines and furniture, as well, and dust. Not the kind of dust we get in southern NM, but dust from construction debris, the residue of cement, brick, drywall and other construction elements. Remnants of the towers still stood, broken skeletons amidst heaps of twisted iron and concrete piled a few stories high. Cops and firefighters were present, looking for some clue that might provide a detail to help identify a deceased person.
T-shirts adorned sections of the fence, many with I (heart) NY, and others with American flags and what appeared to be sheets turned into red, white and blue banners with God Bless America written across them. Flags from other nations adorned the barrier, along with hand written notes and posters. Some were written in tribute to those who died, others by people desperately looking for information about a missing loved one. There were photographs with phone numbers attached begging anyone with information about their husband/wife/son/daughter to please call. There are no words to describe the sadness.
How anyone survived the fall of those towers was nothing short of miraculous but a few did. The images of those leaping to their deaths rather than burning alive will stay in my memory forever, as will the collapse of both buildings. What also stayed in mind was the footage of Arabs in certain countries cheering the attacks. What they didn't know at the time was that nearly three dozen Muslim men and women from at least fifteen Arab countries around the world also died as a result of the terrorist attacks.
Months later while serving in Kosovo I met a Chicago copper who was a really decent guy. Jimmy told me how he and several other Chicago police officers got into a car and drove to NYC a day or two after the attack to help out. No one could fly, all airlines were shut down by the government. Not even private aircraft could fly. Jimmy and his friends went not because they had to, but because they wanted to. They stayed a week, paying expenses out of pocket. He said the NY cops and firefighters were gracious, and it was also apparent how hard it hit them personally. Jimmy told me that when the week was up, they decided to go back to Chicago. It was obvious, he said, that while the cops and firefighters appreciated the help from those coming in from other cities, the rescue and recovery efforts were theirs. Those they were pulling from the debris were their brothers and sisters, or fragments of them at least.
That night I did two things: first I walked to U.N. Plaza because I wanted to see the building that was headquarters for the people I would be working for when I got overseas (technically I was working for the State Department but I would be seconded to the United Nations). Second, I wanted to eat at a first-rate steakhouse and I chose Sparks. Sparks is where the mob boss Paul Castellano was gunned down in a hit most likely orchestrated by a gangster named John Gotti, who would soon become the boss himself. Gangsters are sociopathic piles of manure, but they do know good food and I was not disappointed that night. First class food and service.
After I left Sparks I fired up a cigar and went for a stroll in the direction of U.N. Plaza. In a booth was a young NYPD officer who had been placed there for security purposes due to the multitude of U.N. officials and diplomats coming and going. I introduced myself and we talked about 9/11. I asked him how it had affected him and true to a cop's sense of humor he told me with a smile "I am killing it on overtime." I had to laugh. He was not being disrespectful. Only a cop could see the irony in a tragedy which took the lives of so many, including those from his own department, being beneficial to his personal checking account.
I did not know until a day or two after 9/11 that an Alamogordo PD lieutenant I had met some years before named Al Marchand was killed. He had retired from police service and was serving as a flight attendant on United Airlines Flight 175, which terrorists flew into the south tower. His widow was interviewed on the Today Show. Many thousands of Americans knew someone who lost their life that day.
Today I remember and honor them all, especially those firefighters and cops who raced to the scene and into the buildings to try and help. FDNY lost 343 firefighters that day; NYPD 23 cops; the Port Authority 37 officers.
May they all Rest In Peace.