Reflections From "Ground Zero"
The phone call came on a Thursday afternoon-two days after terrorists crashed four U.S. airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and in a field near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Thousands had been killed, including as many as 70 law enforcement officers. Now, I was being invited to New York City for a visit to "Ground Zero."
The invitation came from Scott Williamson, a longtime friend and supporter of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund . Scott is a Bronx trustee for the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, a group that raised more than $500,000 to build the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. I worried that I would simply be in the way if I went, taking time away from Scott and others who had a job to do in the rescue and recovery effort. But Scott convinced me that an important purpose could be served if I went as the official representative of law enforcement's national memorial. And so I made the trip, and I was deeply honored to be asked.
I went on the following Tuesday, September 18, exactly one week after the terrorist attacks. Planes were starting to fly again, but I took an early morning train. By 10 a.m. I was standing on "ground zero."
My senses were immediately impacted by the eerie stillness and silence in what is normally one of the busiest and noisiest cities in the world. The area was completely closed off to the public so there were no cars and few people other than police officers, firemen and members of the National Guard-persons who are used to dealing with tragedy and disaster, but most of them looked as shocked and numb as I felt.
Few words were spoken by anyone. The masks everyone wore to protect us from the smoke-filled air discouraged conversation, but not as much as the overwhelming sense that you were walking through a graveyard. The smoke-filled air had a pungent smell to it, something more than just smoldering wood and metal. Someone said it was asbestos, but I wondered if it wasn't just the smell of death.
Actually, the amount of smoke that rose up from the rubble was also a great surprise. After all, my visit took place one week after the buildings crumbled. There were no flames to be seen. But Scott explained that often, as large pieces of metal would be lifted from the heap, oxygen would rush in and reignite the fires. Amazingly, he pointed out that the core temperature of the rubble was still more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Cameras that would be fed into holes to check below the surface would be pulled out melted.
One of my first conversations on the site was with a police captain from the Bronx. It had been six days since any survivors had been found. Yet, he was convinced that more would be saved. He said there was evidence of people surviving without food or water for up to two weeks. He said they had uncovered offices and shops amidst the ruins fully intact. He was absolutely sure someone was just waiting to be rescued. As he walked away I, too, was convinced. To believe anything else at that place and time would have been sheer blasphemy.
Craig Floyd talks with NYC Asst. Police Chief Patrick Timlin.
Lynn Lyons-Wynne, the NLEOMF director of operations, joined me on this visit and brought along a Memorial flag with the "Shield and Rose" logo-the symbol of honor and remembrance for law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. While I was talking to the police captain, Scott Williamson and another officer took the flag and tied it onto an elevated railing overlooking what was now the resting place of 70 brave officers. It was a fitting tribute to some real American heroes.
Thirty-seven of those fallen heroes served with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department; 23 were New York City police officers; three worked for the New York Office of Court Administration; five were with the New York Office of Tax Enforcement; one was a FBI special agent; and one was a master special officer with the U.S. Secret Service. To put the magnitude of this loss in historical perspective it is worth noting that prior to September 11, the greatest loss of law enforcement life in a single incident occurred on November 24, 1917, when nine Milwaukee, Wisconsin police officers were killed in a bomb blast at their police stationhouse.
A short walk later, I was led into a shell of a building that used to be a popular store right across the street from the World Trade Center. Now, it served as an emergency room where the injured were to be treated. I met a doctor by the name of Joli K. Yuknek. This was to have been her vacation week from her regular job, but like so many others she came to "ground zero" to help save lives. The room was fully stocked with medical supplies and equipment. She said, "We have everything we could possibly want here, except survivors-we just don't have any survivors." She expressed a frustration felt by all of the rescuers.
The majority of her work over the past week, she said, was treating the infected eyes and blistered feet of the rescuers. Dr. Yuknek said, "I feel like I'm not doing enough." There were no words left to be said, so I gave her a big hug of thanks for her spirit and her heart. Hugs among strangers in New York City might have been unusual before September 11, but no more.
One of the toughest moments occurred as we came to the intersection of Liberty and Greenwich. This was the former home of Fire Engine Company 10. They were literally right across the street from the twin towers. When the attack occurred they were first on the scene. I was told that none of the firefighters on duty that day made it out alive. I wrote my name and a short note of condolence in the guest book sitting on a tabletop outside of Fire Engine Company 10. Some school children had sent cards that now hung outside for visitors to see. One of the cards read:
"God Bless America . . . Thank you for helping out our country. I am very grateful."
Everywhere we looked, an unforgettable image presented itself. Some, like a multi-story garage full of cars, seemed rather normal at first glance. But, then, I noticed that the cars were covered in soot and ashes. Those cars had been parked there since September 11 and many of them were probably not going to be reclaimed because they belonged to the missing.
A pile of unopened dog food bags sat on one street corner-another example of the generosity that has fueled the rescue and recovery effort. Even the K-9s, which have performed such a vital role in the search for survivors and the recovery of bodies, are being well cared for-right down to the booties covering their paws so they don't get cut or burned as they walk on the smoldering pile of metal and glass.
Packages of bottled water, nourishment of all kind, shovels and heavy-duty machinery dot the entire landscape around "ground zero." For a few moments I became distracted by this outpouring of human compassion, and forgot the horrible tragedy that inspired it. But, then I turned the corner and saw the twisted pile of emergency vehicles that were destroyed in the rescue effort. A red fire truck was just barely recognizable. A man respectfully asked us to keep our distance because the group of people examining the wreckage was the family of one of the missing firefighters.
The incongruity of a "Burger King" restaurant sign hanging on a wall above a hand-painted arrow and lettering that spelled out "Morgue" was particularly disturbing.
At one point, we walked past a small cemetery surrounded by an iron fence. It was a striking sight, just a couple of blocks from where the twin towers had once stood. The entire area inside the fence had obviously remained untouched since September 11, unlike the streets and sidewalks, which had been cleared of all but a film of ash. The cemetery was covered by several inches of soot, paper and other debris that exploded into the air as the twin towers collapsed. The bottoms of the headstones were covered. Some of the pieces of paper strewn about were still legible. One item near the fence caught my attention. It appeared to be a certificate that had probably been hanging on an office wall when the planes struck. It was charred around the edges, but read:
"Certificate of Appointment Deborah Wallach Has been appointed Associate Vice President-Investments Dean Witter Reynolds On this first day of January 1993"
Thankfully, when I searched for Ms. Wallach on an Internet listing of the missing, I did not find her name.
After spending several hours at "ground zero" we retreated to the New York City PBA office just a few blocks away. While there, Scott Williamson shared some personal reflections about some of the officers who were missing. He noted that even though the Bronx was the furthest borough from the World Trade Center site, more New York City police officers from the Bronx units (6) died than from any other borough. Scott explained that no matter how far away these officers might have been when the call for help went out, they were determined to be there. "It's what they lived for," he said.
Those brave officers included: Sgt. John Coughlin; Officer Stephen Driscoll; Officer Vincent Danz; Officer Jerome Dominguez; Officer John Perry; and Officer Walter "Wally" Weaver. Scott mentioned that he was a close friend with several of the missing officers. In fact, Scott said he was planning to go on a fly-fishing trip with Wally Weaver in October. He commented that Steve Driscoll "was always the first one through the door" on dangerous calls, and that he always attended the Widows and Orphans Christmas Party to help make sure the families of the fallen were cared for. Lieutenant John Perry's story should make every officer a little prouder to wear the badge. Scott told me that this veteran officer was putting in his retirement papers a few blocks away at Police Headquarters when he heard about the attack. He ran over to the World Trade Center to help save lives. He was never seen again.
As we were walking out of the PBA office, heading for the elevator, we passed three of New York City's Finest sitting on the reception area couch, sound asleep. The scene was one of the most poignant of any during my visit to the City that day. It epitomized the emotional and physical exhaustion that every police officer and public safety official in New York City, and so many other Americans, felt at that particular time.
We left the PBA office for a short ride over to One Police Plaza, headquarters of the New York City Police Department. The auditorium there had been turned into a temporary home for the families of the 23 missing NYPD officers. An abundance of food and drink was present, along with cots that had been brought in for the families to sleep on. It was quiet when we entered, with a combination of officers and family members scattered about the room.
Right away my eyes focused on the man wearing a Scottish kilt. Scott Williamson had told me about him. He was Wally Weaver's dad, and from all indications he was the life of the party under normal circumstances. Even now he wore a cheerful smile and had a firm handshake. His warm spirit was making these awkward and painful moments a little easier for everyone present. But this charismatic man also had a very strong resolve and sense of purpose. According to Scott, Mr. Weaver had made it quite clear that he had not lost hope and that his kilt was not coming off until his son was found. As long as Mr. Weaver continued to smile and laugh-and wear the kilt-you almost believed it might be so.
With a small crowd gathered around, Mr. Weaver was explaining that the large circular emblem hanging in front of his kilt was made of seal fur. It had a name, but too many other thoughts from that day have made it hard to remember. All of a sudden, the crowd around us grew considerably and the mood in the room seemed to change. Something had happened-something good. The New York Giants football team had arrived, not the entire team, but enough to excite this crowd of true blue New Yorkers. This apparently was becoming a regular occurrence. I was told that members of the New York Rangers hockey team had been there the day before.
The visit with the Giants started rather clumsily. Most of them were just a couple of years out of college and, understandably, were not quite sure what to say or do at a time like this. Who did? Condolences were not quite appropriate because these families were still clinging to hope that their loved one would be rescued. They were "missing," not dead. Signing autographs-something these athletes were far more familiar with-didn't seem quite right either, at least not initially. One of the football players, Jason Garrett, introduced himself to me and handed me a Giants T-shirt. It was obvious that he assumed I was one of the survivors of the missing. I felt guilty taking a gift intended for a family member, so I quickly handed it off to the brother of Officer Vinnie Danz.
After awhile, everyone seemed to ease into their more normal roles of adoring fans and star athletes. Autographs were signed. Team hats were distributed. Photographs were taken. For a few brief moments, the tragedy seemed to fade away, but then the Giants all left.
A makeshift shrine to the missing-a table full of photos and personal mementos-had been set up by the families in the back of the room. All day, I had been carrying my Memorial baseball cap, along with a red rose and a note of remembrance attached, with the intention of leaving it somewhere appropriate as a show of support for the missing officers. This was the perfect place.
Scott made sure that he introduced me to all of the Bronx families who were there. I spent a lot of time with the father of Stephen Driscoll. He was a bit gruff, with a wonderfully dry sense of humor-a genuine New Yorker. He shared the fact that he and his wife had been planning to move from the City to a home they had purchased in Carmel, New York, so they could be closer to their son, Steve, and his family. Now, those plans had been put on hold.
Greg Danz, the brother of Officer Vinnie Danz, told me he worked in a building just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. He could see the towers crumble and he knew that his brother was probably on the scene. His worst fears were soon realized when he was told later in the day that Vinnie was missing.
On the way out, Lynn and I were given a very special assignment. While Vinnie Danz was inside one of the towers, helping move people to safety, he picked up an office phone and dialed his wife, Angela. He wanted her to know that he was okay and that he loved her-just in case. His wife wasn't home, so he left a voice mail message on their answering machine. Unfortunately, later in the day, the message was accidentally taped over. Our job was to get the tape to an expert at the FBI who had offered to do whatever he could to retrieve the lost message. With Vinnie missing for a week, that taped message to his wife had grown immeasurably in importance. When we returned to Washington, the FBI technician's wife came by to personally pick up the tape for her husband. She said that, like everyone else, they wanted to do something to help. Retrieving Vinnie's message had become almost as important to them as it was to Angela.
There was one final stop on our way home to the train station. Scott wanted us to visit a command center that had been set up at an elementary school on the other side of the attack site. It took roughly 10 minutes to drive there; reinforcing in my mind just how large an area of the City had been destroyed when those planes struck their targets. The command center was filled with people from every imaginable office involved in the rescue and recovery effort, including all of the utility companies, as well as the police and fire departments. Small groups of people seemed to be meeting and mapping out strategy in every room we passed. This was truly a logistical nightmare.
As we left the building, Scott spotted a trailer nearby with a sign indicating that it housed officials from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department. We walked over and introduced ourselves, offering whatever words of support and condolence we could muster. After all, this was a department reeling in shock and pain. Prior to September 11, the Port Authority Police Department had lost just seven officers in the line of duty during their entire history, with the most recent fatality occurring in 1983. In the terrorist attack and the subsequent rescue effort, 37 Port Authority officers were killed, including their Police Superintendent and Director of Public Safety, Fred V. Morrone.
Superintendent Morrone was at his Jersey City office when the attack occurred. He rushed to the World Trade Center to help with the rescue. The Port Authority was the second largest tenant of the World Trade Center, with 7,000 employees who worked there. Witnesses reported seeing Superintendent Morrone climbing the stairs at 1 World Trade Center, pausing only briefly to encourage the people who were rushing down to safety. He did not have to be there, but under the circumstances, this 30-year veteran of the New Jersey State Police did not want to be anywhere else. According to his son, Greg, "Before the second building fell, I knew and my mom knew he was gone."
Among the other Port Authority officers killed were Inspector Anthony Infante, head of the JFK International Airport command; and Captain Kathy Mazza, head of the Port Authority's Police Academy, and the department's highest-ranking woman.
While we were visiting with officers outside of the Port Authority Police trailer, one of them said that there was another person we had to meet. He knocked on the trailer door and we were introduced to Police Inspector Joseph M. Morris, the Commanding Officer for LaGuardia Airport. He was sitting alone in his cramped trailer office. He invited us in and seemed genuinely glad to be distracted for a few moments from the grisly task at hand. He shared some stories of the past week and, at one point, pulled out a map of the area containing the names of all 37 Port Authority officers and their last known position. As he pointed to the names and explained their significance, I remember thinking that I had never seen such exhaustion and sadness etched upon any man's face. A few weeks later, I had a smile on my face when I learned that Inspector Morris had been named to take Fred V. Morrone's place as the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department.
Scott, Lynn and I returned to our police cruiser for the drive out of "ground zero." That's when something quite remarkable happened. As we exited the restricted area with our police lights flashing, crowds of citizens gathered on the side of the road began cheering loudly and applauding. Some held signs saying, "We love our police and firefighters." They were all smiling. It sent chills down my spine. I can only imagine how good those cheers must make our police officers and firefighters feel. In all of my years as a promoter of law enforcement, never have I encountered such unabashed public enthusiasm for our police officers. It was a moment I will never forget as long as I live.
Those citizens had just come to realize what I have long known-our law enforcement professionals are very special people. We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude for their service and sacrifice. It is a shame, though, that it took the deaths of 70 law officers to teach that important lesson.