Ex-NYPD officers remember "the pile"
By ALLYSON BIRD Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
PORT ST. LUCIE- Their camaraderie comes from rolling through red traffic lights to keep from getting attacked. From changing into their uniforms in a dank basement where the upstairs bathroom leaked waste-water onto the floor. And from being among the few who were at ground zero within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks but, through the smoke and confusion, can't remember exactly where they were. There are four of them, detectives and officers with the Port St. Lucie Police Department, who came to "Florida's safest city" from America's largest city, from a department of 40,000 to a department of 201.
Leo Niemczyk wears dark suits and keeps an immaculate desk where he works on property-crime cases. Rafael Gonzalez dons a cocked ball cap and has two earrings in each ear. He buys drugs and guns as an undercover detective. Brian Kenny patrolled the Brooklyn ghettos and used to play in a heavy metal band with Niemczyk in high school. And David Goldstein is the newest recruit from the NYPD, beginning training in Port St. Lucie last month, working the midnight shift.
Their jobs back in New York were as different as they are here, but in the days following Sept. 11, they all wound up working "the pile."
They sifted the debris, sorting fire engine parts from body parts, to get the bubbling mess ready to move from Manhattan to the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island.
Gonzalez described the pile as looking "like a huge crime scene." Goldstein remembers it looking like a movie set and being overwhelmed by the smell of burning skin.
They worked 12-hour shifts that always ran over, passing buckets of rubble down a human chain. Someone at the front of the chain shouted "body bag!" every so often.
Niemczyk said that for about six months his routine was a cycle: 14 hours on the pile, the long drive home to Long Island, a few hours of sleep and the long drive back.
Day-to-day jobs took a back seat. Gonzalez and the other undercover cops weren't required to work the pile, but he wanted to be out there with the uniformed officers.
"I didn't care about the drugs, anything that was on the streets," he said. Not when there were rescue workers and children there, in the pile.
The respirators didn't work well and only made the burning mass seem even hotter.
Kenny remembers a man testing the air where he and his partners were working. The man said, as if the officers weren't there, "It's going to be real interesting to see what these guys die from down the line."
Kenny said he didn't have a mask for days as he stood on twisted metal, jet fuel, Freon, asbestos and whoever had been trapped beneath it.
But the most wrenching sight, he said, was seeing a message from a missing sergeant's family, "Brother Tim, We're Waiting," scrawled on the wall of a barely intact building.
And as Kenny passed buckets of debris, he saw children's toys from a day care center, photos of office parties and a bottle of wine.
He asked, "How can it be that a bottle of wine is completely untouched and not one person survived this?"
Kenny and four other officers found a snapped sledgehammer and thought a rescue worker might be underneath. They dug for 18 hours, even though the rescue dogs couldn't detect anything. He remembers thinking, "At least that might give closure to a family."
Kenny keeps his memories in two rolls of personal photos in white envelopes marked "Photos to Last a Lifetime."
Niemczyk keeps a blue scrapbook with pieces from his time in New York: a tag stamped "Sept. 21" from working the pile, a thank you note from the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and a newspaper clipping with the photo of a young man, just engaged and just accepted into the Secret Service.
"The NYPD lost 23," Niemcyzk said. "He was one of them."
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