As you read this column — assuming you read it sometime between the day it posts to PoliceOne and the morning of September 13th — I am in New York City, visiting with police officers and attending myriad memorial services as the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 unfolds. I’ve been walking up to every cop and firefighter I’ve seen and given them a handshake and my sincere thanks for their service, not only on that dreadful day but every single day since. Among my many appointments so far, I’ve attended a memorial breakfast on the 48th Floor of 7 World Trade Center, the NYPD Remembrance Ceremony at Avery Fisher Hall of the world-famous Lincoln Center, and a panel discussion on counterterrorism efforts in the decade since 9/11 (headlined by Former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld).
However, one event I will not be able to attend in person is the ceremony taking place at Ground Zero on Sunday morning, September 11, 2011. Like the law enforcers, firefighters, and other first responders who were shut out of the ceremony by Mayor Bloomberg, I will be standing some distance away. When we posted the news of Bloomberg’s decision to exclude first responders, I turned to my PoliceOne colleague Hayley Hudson and said, “Watch this one, will you? The comments are going to be many and they’re going to be angry.” Or words to that effect.
I was delighted to find that not only was I correct in my prediction (really, who doesn’t like being proved right?), but that PoliceOne Members recognized that this was a Bloomberg decision — not one made by the planners, designers, and creators of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Led by Executive Director Joe Daniels, the team at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum has been steadfast in its dedication to first responders from day one. Knowing this, I was eager to speak with Daniels. Despite his frenetic schedule as the anniversary date approaches, Daniels and I were able to speak by phone late last week.
First Responders on the 9/11 Memorial
Although Daniels was hamstrung from commenting on the Bloomberg bush-off, it was plainly evident to me during our call that he would have had cops and firefighters present at the ceremonies if it was up to him. Several times during our brief talk, Daniels said that in his opinion, the Memorial and the Museum simply could not have been created without significant participation from the first responder community. And he was fulsome in describing some of the special elements to the memorial and the museum that relate to first responders.
“One thing that was really important was that when we did the names arrangement we created a section and grouped all the first responders’ names together on that section of the memorial. You have all the 343 firefighters grouped in a section for the firefighters — it says Fire Department of New York inscribed in bronze as well as all the other agency names for each of the first responder units. We took it one level further. For the firehouses that lost guys that day, they are also inscribed on the memorial — the men who were killed from those firehouses are listed as being from those firehouses. So for example, the five guys from Ladder 10 are listed together, and it says they were from Ladder 10. That’s very different from the way the rest of the memorial was done. There are no corporate names — no names of the companies. We wanted to have the names of the agencies — police and fire — with their actual precincts and firehouses on there. We felt that was something that was important and helps capture — at least in some small part — the historic sacrifices that were made that day by those 441 first responders.”
Daniels told me that the section containing all first responders’ names is on the south pool of the memorial — there are two pools of water, each an acre in size, where the Twin Towers once stood — beginning on the west side of the pool and wrapping around to the south. This is also right in front of what is known as the Survivor Tree, a pear tree which had been planted at the World Trade Center some 30 years ago and found amid the rubble, “charred, stripped of its limbs, but still alive,” according to reports.
That tree was brought up to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, nursed back to health, struck by lighting, nursed back to health again, and delivered to the Memorial site in December. Most recently, the tree — actually all of the trees planted at the Memorial — survived the wrath of Hurricane Irene.
“It’s a beautiful placement — having the first responders’ names in front of that tree — I always thought that was a nice parallel,” Daniels said.
First Responders Among the First Involved
When I asked Daniels about the ways in which police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians had been involved in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, he was effusive in describing how vital they have been — from the first days of planning and designing it — to today and the eve of opening.
“It’s been phenomenal — both at an agency level down to the individual relationships our staff have with police and fire. One of the best examples of that is this. We had an incredibly challenging process to reach out to the next of kin for each of the 2,983 victims, and when we wanted to reach the families of the first responders we worked directly with those agencies to help us in that process.”
Just a few weeks ago, Daniels’ team held an important series of ceremonies as they lowered several fire apparatus into what will become the Museum. The firehouses whose apparatus have been added to the collection were active participants during those ceremonies. One of the trucks lowered into the ground was Ladder 21, representing the story of Captain Billy Burke, who ordered his men out of the building to safety but stayed behind to try to rescue a quadriplegic named Ed Beya.
“The Burke family came, and Commissioner Cassano was there, and a whole bunch of firefighters were there when the bagpipes played. It really reminded me of the hundreds heroes who were there, not just on 9/11 but those who were there every day that stretched well on into 2002.”
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum
The 9/11 Memorial, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, opens to the public on Monday, September 12 — I intend to be there for that — and the Museum is scheduled to open on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. While I know I will be overwhelmed with emotion and enraptured with the sight of the Memorial, the Museum evolving 70 feet below street level has captured my imagination just as much.
As I completed this column, I spent a lot of time on website of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. There are myriad stories told there, but one stands out that I wish to relate here.
John Stiastny was one of the nearly 2,000 NYPD cops sent to the mayhem at the World Trade Center site on September 11th. During his response, he was struck by falling debris, suffering a broken leg and injuries to his neck.
“Stiastny carefully preserved the mud-encrusted boots and gloves he wore that day, along with the handcuffs that he carried, and recently donated them to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. These components of Stiastny’s police uniform signify all the officers who responded to the emergency that day, and will enable the Museum to document the vital roles of all first responders. Through such artifacts and stories, the Museum hopes to be able to fully inform future visitors about the NYPD’s presence at the World Trade Center throughout the entire rescue and recovery,” read the description of this element of the museum.
Roughly ten percent of the people who died on 9/11 were first responders. The countless first responders who worked on the smoldering ground at Ground Zero for months after the attacks now have been afflicted with life-threatening illness. Mayor Bloomberg refuses to recognize the heroics of our police officers, firefighters, and EMTs, but nature hates a vacuum. I am deeply proud to be in New York City, visiting as many firehouses and precinct houses as I can manage, to personally honor your service.
I salute you all.