Chapter 6: Accounts of 9/11: The Heroes Speak
I pledged to the officers that our team would maintain their privacy. Therefore, I am not disclosing the names of any officer, nor am I telling their stories in full. Having conducted 1,800 interviews, however, I feel confident that I can relate a few brief sketches that illustrate the kinds of stories we heard and what exposure those police officers had, without divulging any specific details that would in any way reveal the identities of these brave men and women, and so, without breaking that trust.
As I spoke with more and more first responders, I learned that they all had common threads woven through them, but each was singularly gripping in its portrayal of true human courage and heroism in the face of chaos and terror.
An officer told us that he was at the site of the fire at the first tower. He and a partner saw debris fall, then herded people away from the base of the two towers. They ran under a walkway and to a garage across the street. Some ran up the stairs into the building; others ran down into the garage as the building fell. When the plume of dust and debris came their way, the officers closed the garage door. It became pitch black in the structure, and the noise was thunderous. Five minutes later, when they opened the door, they could barely see, and began to cough. When they looked to the area where the others had run, they saw that the others that had been with them—those who had run the other direction—were all dead.
Another officer looked up, saw the tower falling, and dove under a walkway. He covered his head and was pelted by bouncing debris. Because he was buried in dust, he had difficulty breathing. He lay in the prone position, certain that he was going to die. It was completely dark. He stood up, to try to get better air. He was convinced that the building had somehow collapsed around him, and that he was in a cave-like enclosure inside. For five minutes he waited to be rescued, breathing the thick, dusty air. He then sensed a bit of light and walked toward it, tripping on debris along the way.
After about a hundred yards it occurred to him that he was outside, and that the air was simply so thick with particulates that the light was not getting through. Rather than calling in sick or injured, he immediately began to look for survivors.
By the time I spoke with this officer, he had been working in the rescue effort for eighteen days of double shifts and had not yet been home. He had had friends who were just a few feet away from him when he dived into the walkways for protection. Those friends had not yet been found and were trapped beneath forty feet of rubble somewhere. He had a cough that was mildly productive, as well as gastrointestinal reflux symptoms. He had neither sought care, nor had he told his supervisors of his condition. Like many others, he had used his shirt or other pieces of cloth as a mask. Later, painter’s masks arrived from Home Depot. It was not until the fourth day that many rescuers received masks from the authorities, but most of those did not fit properly. The appropriate double-filter respirator masks helped filter particulates and fumes but made it hard for rescuers to communicate to each other during rescue work. Many had the attitude that they had already experienced a huge exposure and that the department was only now providing masks—and mandating their use—to avoid potential liability.
Another officer was assisting an injured woman when the first building began to collapse. He grabbed her and ran into the doorway of an adjacent building. The force of the collapse created a wind tunnel that knocked them both down and almost immediately enveloped them in a dust cloud—a cloud so thick that the officer reported tasting and swallowing the dust in the air. He also reported the intense darkness that the dust and debris created on that otherwise clear September morning.
It was about this time that he noticed that the woman was not breathing. He realized her face was covered with debris and dust, and he used his hand to reach into her mouth to clear it. He used his own saliva and a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation effort to clear her nose and throat. When she began to breathe, he learned she was asthmatic, so he covered her head under his shirt in an attempt to minimize further exposure. After about five or ten minutes it became light and they ventured out, and he eventually handed her off to a rescue worker.
He told us he wandered around in a daze, helping where he could, when the second tower began to fall. He did not hear any warnings yet. He looked up and saw the now-familiar brown cloud above him approaching. He remembered yelling, “Go! Go! GO!!!” but not being able to move. Finally, with a second or two to spare, he ran and dived through a glass window in a nearby storefront. The force knocked him to the floor and covered him with glass. He got up out of the thick dust. Seconds later, he was knocked to the floor again, when the dust cloud worked its way into the building from a stairwell and blasted him in another direction. After taking a few stitches, he was back at Ground Zero. He had tears in his eyes when he told us that no one had seen the woman or the rescuer from the first blast.
One cadet told me that he and a group of other cadets and officers were walking home from an off-duty security job and were just a few blocks away from the WTC when the first tower fell. Wanting to help, the small group rushed in the direction of the impact. He described the surrounding streets as a wasteland—like a lunar landscape—covered in dust, and devoid of any movement, light, or sound. Dirt and dust were thick in the air, and shattered glass from blown-out storefront windows and other debris were strewn all about. The matter was thick in their throats and in their eyes, and the sky was dark. It was difficult to breathe and see, and their throats were scratchy and dry.
Out of this quiet desolation, the cadet heard an eerie hissing sound coming from a gourmet coffee shot. Amazed and curious, he made his way toward the noise and discovered its source: the shop’s cappuccino machine was still running! Still in shock, the cadet walked over to the machine, and started making lattes for the rest of the crew. The officers and cadets drank them quickly, their throats no longer dry. They organized a brief plan of action and moved out towards the remaining tower of the WTC to help evacuate it. I never learned whether the other officers survived the second tower’s collapse; I could not bear to ask.
There are hundreds of similar stories. Many people experienced a huge exposure to potentially damaging agents but then continued to work for days in the tedious search and rescue, or in securing the perimeter. Many had ongoing exposure to inhalation irritants, carcinogens, infectious agents, and chemicals. They breathed particulates, fumes, and organics that have never been studied together in terms of effects. The toxins in the 50,000 computer screens, the pulverized, aerosolized, and heated human remains, the lime in cement dust, the fiberglass, and the asbestos are all a colossal problem. The smoke from the fires that flash when a beam is moved, creating a new pocket of oxygen to allow visible combustion, is also a cause for concern.
These workers returned to Ground Zero, day after day. Many went back, despite their chest tightness, cough, and intermittent shortness of breath. Others denied any symptoms. Initially, their supervisors did not seem to worry about the exposures. Many officers were adamant that they must not abandon their dead and yet-to-be rescued colleagues and fellow citizens. But now they were here in the clinic, quietly asking if they had been damaged or if they would get cancer. We had to tell them we did not know and might not know for a long time. We encouraged those with pulmonary symptoms to be seen and treated, and not to return to “The Pile.” We told them there were volunteers from around the world who would proudly take their place for a few shifts and fill the gap. With notable exceptions, this continued to be an ignored and untapped resource in many ways.
The officers talked about the opportunity to serve and protect as part of their jobs. They thought nothing of the risks they took on September 11 because they were, and are, “out there” every day. They shrugged off our thanks to them for their having set an example for the entire country. They thanked us for caring and for being there. They really did not see what they did at Ground Zero any differently from their other days on the job, except for the fact that they were receiving embarrassing recognition for it. As one officer said, “When you pull over a car or enter an alley to investigate a complaint—something we do every day and get grief about from those involved—we are at much more risk than what we have been doing at ‘The Pile.’”