We normally do not bring you an interview on Saturday, but today we make an exception. As we continue to honor those lost on that tragic September morning, we hope you’ll read this account of someone that has first hand memories.
Where were you on September 11, 2001?
“I was actually at home in Queens.”
How did you hear about what was happening in Manhattan?
“My brother Jeff, he’s also a retired cop, was working that day. I had just retired, but Jeff was still working in the office. We had worked together. He called me and woke me up that morning and said “You gotta put on the news”. As soon as I turned the TV on, I saw the second plane fly into the second building.”
Was he working in Manhattan that day?
“He was in Manhattan, in Spanish Harlem. We both worked in the narcotic division together. He was in charge of surveillance equipment so he didn’t go in the field. He basically worked in the office.”
What did you do once you were aware of what was going on?
“I kind of went into panic mode because I started thinking about my kids. They were in school. They were my first priority. The traffic was like mêlée in the area everywhere because everybody was racing into Manhattan…all the first responders. So what I did, I threw on my old police jacket and drove to both my kids schools and went in and grabbed them. They weren’t letting any of the kids leave school that day. You had to pick them up. I had to park about a block or two away from their schools and physically go in and get them.”
Did they give you a hard time?
“No, because I had the police jacket on and the shield hanging around my neck. That carried a little clout.”
Speaking of that, and hindsight is always 20/20, do you believe that was good protocol…to not allow kids to go home with their families?
“It was definitely good protocol because, that day, we didn’t know what to expect next. We knew it was terrorism but didn’t know what they were gonna hit next. They were worried about them hitting bridges, other buildings, airports. We didn’t know, so everything was on a lockdown and I think it was a real smart move that they kept the kids in schools.”
What did you do once you picked your children up?
“I tried to get on the phone, but of course the cell phones…you had to wait a while before you could get a signal because everybody was trying to make calls at the same time.
A buddy of mine that was assigned at the firehouse near the World Trade Center, his name was Manny. I called my friend Mike, we were all hunting buddies, and I just wanted to see if Manny was ok. That’s when I found out he was one of the first guys to die. When the building was coming down, he crawled underneath one of the trucks. Of course, all of the debris landed on top of him and crushed him. They did find him. In fact, he was one of the few people where they found the body and everything. He was, I think, the second fireman found.”
Did you know any other people that were down there that day?
“Oh yeah. We had another good family friend that was actually an identical twin, two kids I grew up with, and he died on 9/11 too.”
There were a lot of people, first responders, volunteers that were down there cleaning up and trying to recover other victims. What is your memory of that?
“I don’t know if you remember, they kind of put a halt to that. The fireman did not wanna stop looking. There were just so many of their own that they didn’t recover. There was a big thing on the news where they pulled the fireman out and the fireman started protesting. There was about a dozen fireman locked up because they didn’t leave. My brother-in-law happened to be one of them.
I remember after he got arrested, he got interviewed on the news, and I got interviewed on the news because they wanted someone from the police department. They just wanted to recover the bodies. It was just one of those things where they said enough is enough. I guess they were right at the time, but because you’re so into it, you don’t wanna stop.”
So, your brother-in-law was a firefighter at that time? Was he there that day?
“He called his captain and told him he was gonna be late that day. His captain said “That’s alright Willie. Take your time. But we’re heading down to the World Trade Center” and told him what happened. So Willie got down there late, and by the time he got to the World Trade Center, half his company was wiped out. Actually, a rookie died in his place.”
That’s awful. How did he deal with that afterward? You hear of a lot of people in that type of situation, and there were definitely examples of it from that day, having survivors guilt.
“He’s got some shit still going on with his lungs and he probably could retire but he won’t. His hair started falling out after that too. It’s probably a lot of post traumatic stress type of thing.
That day, my sister (she’s got four kids and they were all home)…Willie was trying to call her saying “this is what’s happening”. All my sister could hear was the screaming in the background. She called me and said “Steve, you’ve gotta call Willie and see what’s going on”, because she didn’t want the kids to hear what was actually happening down there. A couple of times, she heard the buildings going down. There weren’t just the two buildings. There were several other buildings that went down also that people don’t really talk about.
Personally, I had traveled through the World Trade Center all the time. After I retired, I went to school and took a course on computers and I used to take the subway in everyday and that’s where the subway was, the World Trade Center. So, you could visualize in your mind what was happening.”
Were you able to see any of what happened first hand?
“I made a trip in and it looked like a different planet. It looked like you were on Mars or the moon. It was all a different color, the buildings..there were no buildings. It was a dilapidated mess. Unreal. You just thought you were on another planet.”
How did you explain it to your children?
“My kids were old enough, they were in high school, they understood what was going on. You gotta tell them the truth…it was terrorism. They grew up with me being a cop so they were used to hearing horror stories and stuff like that I guess. It was scary for everybody.”
Did that day change life for you? And if so, how?
“Oh yeah. Just losing friends. It affected everybody in the United States and the world but I think it affected New York extra hard.”
I would say that’s fair.
“Yeah. I know it sounds crazy, but I think people were going out to drink more after that. You’d see more people in the bars after that. Everybody knew somebody that died.
There’s a cemetery near my house where my father’s buried, St. John’s, a huge cemetery. You’d drive by it and see these graves all dug. The grass all turned over and you knew there were tons of bodies going in. Even though there weren’t bodies, they were still doing funerals.”
Do you think then mayor, Rudy Giuliani, and the government did a good job during that crisis?
“Mayor Giuliani, at the time, was great. I think it brought New York together real tight. They even threw a concert for the fireman and their families at Madison Square Garden which was really cool. They did a lot for the city. Giuliani, the police commissioner, the fire commissioner…everybody handled it real well. Everybody stuck together real tight. New York was like one big family.”
Do you think anything like what happened that day, will happen again?
“Ya know, you think about what’s going on now with Isis and all this kind of shit, so you kind of get scared. It was simple for these terrorists to do what they did. And I know we take a lot of precautions these days but, I think you can slip past anything. So do I think it could happen again? I definitely think something can happen again.”
You moved out of New York since, but not because of 9/11. Would you ever move back to NYC again?
“It’s funny. I feel like I’m living in New York, living in Philly. Yeah, I would, if I had to I would. I wouldn’t have a problem with it. You’re gonna have problems no matter where you live…any city…it’s the same. They target a place, they’re gonna go for it. I think they picked New York because they were the two biggest buildings around. And it wasn’t just New York (they hit).”
What lesson would you pass on to people, that this experience taught you?
“Be aware of your surroundings. Be aware of everything that’s going on around you. Everyone around you. If you see something that don’t look right, you gotta speak up. That’s true with anything.”