10 years after 9/11: An NYPD cop remembers
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Ron Moore was 25 years old and had been a cop with NYPD for three years. He slept safely in his bed snoozing off the buzz he acquired watching the Giants lose the night before. He made every attempt to ignore his ringing cell phone. He needed the shuteye before his evening shift. When he gave in and answered, his mom told him a plane had hit the World Trade Center (WTC) and instructed him to turn on the TV.
At first, he thought she meant a small plane had veered off course and collided with the WTC tower. While he viewed replays of the first plane’s impact, the second plane hit. Shock gave way to reality that this was a deliberate attack. No question on what he had to do: get dressed and go to work.
Both towers now down, he rushed to the 103rd Precinct, leaving his car in the street two blocks away. All the officers reporting in created a parking nightmare.
Concern mounted for the 1st Precinct near the WTC. Phones at the station went unanswered. Officers failed to acknowledge their radios even after the backup communications system kicked in. The radio antennas had been on the roof of the towers. Who could have predicted that being an issue?
Chaos. The only way to describe what was happening.
Fearing that the Jamaica train station, the busiest subway line running between Manhattan and Long Island, might be the next target, Ron and twelve other officers drew the assignment armed with a single radio.
“Dirty, bleeding, puking people came off the trains.” Ron found himself in the midst of sheer panic with no ambulances available to transport the injured.
After four hours, he was summoned back to the precinct with no way to get there. With police vehicles at a premium, NYPD resorted to busing officers to and from their posts and the injured to hospitals.
Officers with seniority deployed to what would eventually be called Ground Zero. Smoke billowed across the city from the towers collapsing. Ron wanted to help. He wanted revenge. Even with the city in crisis from a terrorist attack, patrol still had to function. Ron was assigned to “backlog.”
“Had 125 jobs holding.” We were at war, Ron remembers his frustration. “You think you could relax for a couple of hours? Not argue with the wife today? Not rob the deli today? What were people thinking?” He told the dispatcher, “Give me your latest.”
The air smelled like an electrical fire. The wind shifted, blowing toward Long Island, and a layer of ash settled on cars, sidewalks, streets. People fled their homes, panicked, thinking this was the end of the world. They set cars and garbage cans on fire. Since the FDNY was completely tied up, departments from surrounding cities and states responded.
“New Jersey FDs were putting out fires in Queens.”
Crooks, being crooks, took advantage of the lack of patrol officers and burglarized businesses and residences.
By afternoon, the 1st Precinct was heard from, but no one knew how many officers had run into the towers or had been on the ground at the time of the collapse.
Ron wondered if he was still in bed dreaming. It didn’t seem real.
He worked from 9 am September 11th to 7 am September 12th. He returned at noon on the 12th to be assigned to Ground Zero for the first of many rotations. He remembered being in total awe of the devastation. “Huge buildings reduced to nothing. Nothing.”
Fire trucks were flattened down to their tires with their ladders sticking out of the rubble. For days, fires burned in the debris. “I can’t even describe the smell.”
Two feet of ash covered the street. Not like dry dust, more like mud. “It didn’t move in the wind.”
Ron found the eerie remains of a McDonald’s. Windows were blown out, but cheeseburgers and drinks remained on the tables. The sight of bite marks in the burgers haunted him. Ron imagined people dropping their food and running for their lives.
Seven Liberty Tower building remained unstable. The Army Corps of Engineers set up a laser that sounded a siren if the building moved. The siren went off every forty minutes. At first, the cops and firefighters would run for cover. After eight or more false alarms, nobody ran.
Trinity Church, a historic landmark built in the 1700’s and located across from the WTC, miraculously survived. Wrought iron fencing enclosed the adjacent cemetery. Six to seven feet of paper, all embossed with World Trade Center letterheads, had collected within the fenced area burying the grave markers.
Roofs of surrounding buildings had to be searched.
“Cops came off those buildings carrying bags containing hands, fingers, and feet.”
Ron recovered a piece of an airplane tire.
He worked 12 to 15 hour days, staying after shift and devoting meal breaks to working “the pile.” The daunting task of moving a rock at a time, then another, hoping beyond hope to find someone alive. When a body was found, work stopped, everyone stood at attention while the remains were removed. Didn’t matter if it was a cop, firefighter, or civilian. Respect was given to all.
“Some days that happened a lot. Then we’d go for a week without finding anyone.”
People came to help. Citizens, who usually hated cops, brought water, lip balm, coffee, gloves. Outback restaurants set up a tent, served steaks, and stayed until Halloween. The Red Cross provided boots, pants, and shirts since clothing worn at the pile would be unfit to wear again. Restrooms were hard to find.
Dogs became a huge priority and many sustained injuries. Ron vividly recalls sad cops carrying their injured dogs off the pile.
Cranes stacked debris onto flatbed semis which hauled the load to barges at the pier. A semi left the pile every twenty minutes.
Ron’s father, a retired NYPD sergeant, pumped him for information wanting to know what the officers were being told and what was happening. His parents wanted to help. They needed to do something.
Mysteriously, while Ron slept, clean uniforms appeared every day. His car stayed gassed up. His mom made lunches for him to take to work.
Then the FBI declared the area a crime scene. The National Guard arrived with M-16s and took over the pile. Cops were turned away.
“That didn’t go over very well. And the problem got fixed.”
“Any cop who has ever chased anyone with a weapon...knows in the back of their mind ‘I can get hurt.’ But they still go anyway.
“And all those cops who walked into that building that day...don’t think for a second that they didn’t know in the back of their minds ‘this could be bad.’ And they still kept going. Whatever floor they made it to, they still kept going.
“Those officers might not have envisioned the building coming down, but they saw the inferno. They saw the people jumping off. They still went in.”
Ten Years Later
Ron hasn’t experienced any ill-effects from working the pile even though he left each day feeling sick from all the crap he breathed in.
Hearing the beeping that goes off when a firefighter’s oxygen pack is depleted triggers memories for him. That sound takes him back to Ground Zero--to the sights, smells, sounds, and horrors.
Ron didn’t lose any friends that day, but his father did. Friends who responded to the first plane strike.
Twenty-three NYPD and thirty-eight Port Authority officers perished at Ground Zero. Countless more officers have succumbed to cancers and illnesses from exposure to the pile.
Ron lives with constant reminders of the losses. He drives to work on Captain Lyons Parkway. The baseball field at his old high school was renamed for a fallen officer. Memorials have been erected outside fire and police stations.
One of the houses he looked at to buy was owned by the parents of a firefighter who died in the rubble.
He did lose a fiancé. She had trouble understanding why he spent so much time at work following the attacks.
Ron has since married a NYPD officer. She became a cop because of 9/11 and drew Ron as her FTO. They have two young daughters.
In 2003, Ron moved to the 75th Precinct as a new sergeant. He recalls conducting roll call for 25-30 officers. He’d have reason to mention 9/11 and would ask how many had been there. “Only 4 or 5 hands would go up. I noticed the difference between experienced cops and younger cops. A generation gap with the mindset that ‘I was there for 9/11 you were not.’ As time goes on, it’s less and less officers with that experience.”
Ron left NYPD in 2008 for the Nassau County Police Department, an agency closer to where he lives. A change he made for better working conditions, pay, and quality of life for his family. Not because of September 11th. His wife still serves with the NYPD.
Ron wants to thank all those officers from all over the country and the world who came to their aid. He admits that it was weird seeing Florida State Troopers guarding Wall Street. He acknowledges the officers who were injured, or living with medical problems, as those who need not be forgotten and need assistance with astronomical medical bills.
Every cop should remember September 11th, and the lives lost, when he or she loads up their gear that has, for the last ten years, included a gas mask.
Ron states, somewhat philosophically, that the job used to be all about chasing robbers and gangbangers who shoot gangbangers. “Now it’s also about looking out for someone wanting to inflict mass casualties.”
The tenth anniversary should remind all officers that their job function has changed.
“God bless those Navy SEALs, the world’s elite warriors, but they are not going to deal with terrorists in Kentucky or Alaska or New York City. I am.”
Never forget — on American soil — you are the Navy SEALs.