P1 First Person: Working the recovery at WTC
Editor's Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from PoliceOne Member Corey Cuneo, who I met in New York during my visit for the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. I wrote about Cuneo earlier this week, and here he talks in his own words about the recovery effort in lower Manhattan. In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, our Members and Columnists candidly share their own unique view of the world. This is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other P1 Members, simply send us an e-mail with your story.
By Lt. Corey Cuneo
NYPD ESU (ret.)
One of the first things we did down at the site regarding missing officers was collect their shield numbers and serial numbers to their firearm. We knew the possibility of making a “complete” recovery or simply recognizing the officer, were slim to none. In approximately three cases all we ever recovered at least initially was the officers’ weapon or part of it.
Glock frames melted away. It took us many weeks to make our first recovery. If I wasn’t on scene I would get a call from one of the Sgts and would respond immediately in my Gator and would be armed with the log of personal info. If we recovered a firearm still in the holster, and the holster was still on its belt, and all of this was still attached to the remains, we would consider that a fairly reliable way of IDing the officer. I would check the serial numbers against our list and then set into motion the notification process. If it was an ESU officer, a call was immediately made to the ESU desk at Floyd Bennet Field so they could notify the CO, XO, etc.
A call would then be made to the “truck” the officer was assigned to and I would tell them, “Bring every one down to the dig... we got so-and-so’s body back.”
While this was going on I would have the remains placed in a body bag, covered with an American Flag and then placed into a portable type stretcher for removal. I would then detail two of my ESU officers to stand at attention on either side of the stretcher as an honor guard and to ensure our brother or sister wasn’t left alone for a minute while we awaited the arrival of the fallen officers comrades. I would also notify ESU Truck One which was the closest to the site.
The wonderful guys at One had rigged an extension for the rear of the “big truck” so that the stretcher could be carried inside with the door open. Our fallen brother was now in NYPD hands and we weren’t going to turn him over to anyone for transport to the morgue. If the officer recovered was a precinct officer then a similar call was made to their command with the same instructions, to get everyone down to the dig. In one case the desk officer was hesitant to release all his officers to come down so I put him on hold and called the local Task Force unit, explained the situation to that desk officer and had the Task Force cover that precincts patrol operations for a few hours.
Once the officers from the fallen officers command showed up I would take them to the side, ID myself and start explaining the process, who we recovered, how we recovered them, what shape they were in, where they were recovered , how we made the ID etc. I then explained how some of my guys were standing guard over the body and that we would now in a dignified manner switch my people out with officers from his/her command. Upon the arrival of truck 1 I would have whatever officers were on scene and maybe construction workers or other first responders form two lines up to the back of truck.
The lines would be called to attention and the remains would be carried to the rear of truck one by his coworkers. A hand salute would be rendered at this time. The coworkers would then fall in line behind Truck One for the short trip the on site morgue. To see the coworkers as they showed up as truly something I will never forget. Many were crying, some just wanted to get to the remains, some wanted to see or touch their fallen brother, some even took the time to thank me for bringing their friend home. I remember one recovery where one rather young officer ran out of the precinct without a coat or jacket and it was freezing when he showed up at the site. He was so visibly upset that he forgot how cold it was. I had to scrounge him up an outer garment for fear he would freeze to death.
And all this time my phone is ringing non-stop, operations is calling, the officers command is calling, the ESU desk is calling, Chief of Dept. Joe Esposito is calling, the Police Commissioners office is calling and in the case of Sgt Mike Curtin even the Marines were calling. As an aside Mike Curtin was one of the few if not only officer to go “tactical” at the scene. When we recovered Mike’s body he still had his MP5 slung across his chest and spare mags in his pocket.
Another point I would like to make is the hard work of a retired ESU Sgt by the name of Tim Farrell. Back in ’93, it was Tim and his team who rappelled to the roof of the trade center and began clearing the helo pad so that we could land additional teams of E-men as well as evacuate civilians.
Even though Tim was retired, after 9/11 he came down to the site right at the beginning to see what he could do to help. Actually, numerous retired E-men came down or just showed up at various trucks through out the city in order to help. Tim sat down and for days reviewing all the communications tapes. With what turned out to be an amazing degree of accuracy Tim was able to plot the rough locations of where our officers should be. As we got to those locations in the months that followed we had a “map” to guide us.
The remains of every NYPD officer recovered was done on a shift in which I was working. It is a fact of which I am extremely proud.