Editor’s Note: In a little under 48 hours from the time this column appears on PoliceOne, I will be aloft in the jetstream, traveling eastbound toward New York City so that I may attend myriad events as the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 unfolds. I’ll be visiting with police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians all over the city. If you’re in New York this weekend and you see me scurrying from one memorial event to another, please don’t hesitate to say “hello.” Let’s spend some time together in memory of those we lost that sunny September morning. You can also “follow” me on Twitter or send me an email.
In his 20+ years as a New York City Police Officer, a registered nurse, and a volunteer firefighter, nothing prepared Arnold Roma for what was to happen on the morning of September 11, 2001. At 0846 hours that day — which began with ordinary daily routines performed under extraordinarily bright sunshine — ‘Arnie’ was at his Staten Island home unaware of the fact that American Airlines Flight 11 had just slammed into the north face of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Already retired from NYPD, Roma had just finished his 24-hour shift as a nurse at Staten Island University Hospital, and had just laid down to sleep.
Meanwhile, Roma’s 27-year-old son, Keith, was just at the beginning of his own 24-hour shift with the New York Fire Patrol, a salvage corps which operated from 1803 until 2006 (read more on that here). Moments after the first airplane struck, Keith Roma was responding from his Greenwich Village firehouse to the mayhem unfolding at the World Trade Center. While en route, he called his dad.
“Keith called me and he said, ‘You’d better get down here because they’re gonna’ need everybody...’ I said, ‘Okay Keith, be careful, I’ll meet you there.’ Those were my last words to him. I told him to be careful — I’d meet him there. I never did. I was sent into the South Tower with another policeman, and Keith was told to respond and start the evacuations in the North Tower. So we never actually met,” Roma recounted.
New York Fire Patrol: A new future ahead
By Doug Wyllie, PoliceOne Editor in Chief
Before we get into where the New York Fire Patrol — an organization with a rich history dating back to 1803 — is going in 2011, let’s first look back at where they’re been. The group was originally organized as the Mutual Assistance Bag Company when merchants and residents in the downtown got together to find a way to prevent financial losses on insured properties as a result of fire. The Mutual Assistance Bag Company was a voluntary organization just as the fire department was at the time. According to information obtained from the FDNY, the volunteer members of the Mutual Assistance Bag Company would respond to fires and remove the building’s contents in bags to a safer location (thus the name) with at least one member remaining at the scene to prevent looting.
In 1835, the Association of Fire Insurance Companies took over the operation and employed four men at an annual salary of $250 each, making it the first paid fire service organization in New York City. In fact, some say with that the New York Fire Patrol the oldest paid fire service in the United States. In 1839, the New York Board of Fire Underwriters reorganized the group as the New York Fire Patrol, with the mission of patrolling lower Manhattan, discovering fires, and preventing losses. When New York Fire Patrol was shut down by the New York Board of Fire Underwriters in 2006, its roughly 100 patrolmen were responding to more than 10,000 alarms each year, working alongside the firefighters of Fire Department of New York.
In my column today on the approaching 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I mentioned that Keith Roma, a 27-year-old patrolman with the New York Fire Patrol, was saving lives and made the ultimate sacrifice when the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed upon him. Keith’s Father Arnie — himself a former NYFP patrolman and a retired NYPD cop — had narrowly escaped death when the South Tower collapsed. If you missed the story about Keith and Arnie Roma, I strongly encourage you to stop for a moment to check that out, and then resume here. In his “retirement” Arnie Roma has been working to create a new incarnation of the storied institution known as the New York Fire Patrol.
In a little under 48 hours from the time this column appears on PoliceOne, I will be aloft in the jetstream, traveling eastbound toward New York City so that I may attend myriad events as the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 unfolds. I anticipate seeing another installation of the "Tribute in Light" installation, which is seen here during the the September 11th Anniversary in 2007. (AP Photo)
The Towers Fall Following the call from his son, Arnie Roma sprang to action and began making his way into Manhattan. Roma was accustomed to running toward a threat, having begun his work as a New York City cop in the heart of Times Square in the early 1970s. On those streets in those times, there were plenty of things to keep a law enforcer “busy.”
Now, in present day and well before his father’s arrival at WTC, Keith Roma was busy saving lives. He was seen by witnesses making numerous trips from the Mezzanine level of the North Tower — estimates are between eight and nine expeditions — delivering groups of victims to safety.
While Roma-the-younger was doing this, Roma-the-elder arrived at the South Tower — which had been the target of terrorists aboard United Flight 175 — conducting similar efforts to assist victim evacuation. Arnie Roma was still inside Tower Two when it collapsed at 0959 hours. Trapped but alive, Arnie connected with the troops of FDNY Ladder 131, and escaped the rubble onto Liberty Street through a tiny hole beneath a roll-down gate at the service entrance.
Arnie Roma was only a few blocks away from Ground Zero — moving toward Manhattan’s southern waterfront — when Tower One collapsed with scores of victims still inside.
According to one report, Keith Roma was standing beside Fire Patrol Sergeant John Sheehan when the North Tower collapsed.
Sheehan got out. Roma did not.
Keith Roma, Remembered “He was a big Yankee fan, and he loved the fire service,” Roma told me when we spoke via phone a couple of weeks ago. “He was waiting to go on either the NYPD or the FDNY — he was on both lists and as most people have done in the Fire Patrol, they’ve used that as a stepping stone. He loved the Fire Patrol. He was one of the most active guys in the house. He would get there sometimes the night before his shift, eat dinner with them, and sleep in the firehouse. He just loved the job. He loved goin’ out the door.”
Arnie Roma had not been killed that bright September morning in part because of the training he’d received in his two decades with the New York City Police Department, as well as his training as a volunteer firefighter and a registered nurse. “I always wanted to be a police officer or a fireman — I’m still involved as a volunteer with the Perth Amboy Fire Department, which is a combination department — so basically got both dreams. I loved being a policeman. I was on patrol for 20 years, and I had many opportunities to get off patrol and I really didn’t want to. Like Keith, I loved being busy. I loved being on patrol.”
Keith Roma’s body was found on Christmas Eve, 2001.
“Christmas was his favorite holiday. I was there when we found him, and on Christmas Day, we went to the ME’s office, and I brought my wife in after we had covered Keith. She actually felt him from head to toe, to make sure he was all there, and she said a prayer. Then we walked him down to where they were keeping people — we were with two other policemen — and with those officers I helped get him from point A to point B. That was an honor.”
It’s My Honor As I wrote this column, Arnie Roma and I had a couple of telephone conversations — I’ll meet him in person later this week at an event taking place at the World Trade Center in New York City — and never once did he use the word ‘hero.’
So, I will.
In my opinion, Keith Roma was, is, and always will be, a hero — one of the countless heroes who saved innumerable lives that day. He’s also one of the heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice during the opening moments of this country’s official war against radical Islamist terrorists.
I shed a tear for all our fallen heroes lost on 9/11, and it’s my honor to do so.
About the author
Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. In addition to his editorial and managerial responsibilities, Doug has authored more than 700 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), and an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association. He is also a member of the Public Safety Writers Association, and is a two-time (2011 and 2012) Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" Finalist in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. Even in his "spare" time, he is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.
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