Back I the 70’s where I spent my childhood in the foster home, there were many vacant properties throughout the neighborhood with trees growing wild, wild berries and weeds…lots of them too, not to mention the greatest weed of them all…no….not that kind…Poison Ivory.
During the hot summer days you can smell the scent of the wild forest next door to us. Even now, when I would walk my Boston Terrier across the street where I live today, I smell that same scent just like I did as a little boy.
My brother and I would walk through the paths that the neighbor kids made as a short cut to get to the next street so they didn’t have to walk around the block to get to their homes. We would reenact scenes from that old series back in the 70’s called Lost in Space.
We both pretend that we were Professor John Robinson and Major Don West on a mission to find fuel for the Jupiter 2 and end we end up fighting make-believe monsters throughout our mission. But after a while we get bored and needed something else to do.
Now right at the end of our block was this big fenced in lot with lots of long steel beams laying on the top of the flatbed trailers and they were all over the place….bunch of orange ones were set on one side and the grey ones on the other and stacked.
The neighbor kids would all go there to jump on them during that summer which I believe was 71 or 72. We called it Jumping trailers. That’s all we did…just jump from one to the other till the neighbors called the police on us.
That was the best part because they show up and yell at us through their windows to go home and we go running away like little girls screaming and laughing while squeezing our way through the open part of the fence…then they just drive away.
The reason why I am sharing this story with you is because I was reminded by my friend back in 2002 that the very steel we were all jumping on was used for the Top of the Twin Towers. I climbed on those orange steel beams countless times as a little boy…and over 40 years later I was doing the same thing……on 9-11-2001.
Over nine hours later after the towers came down, I was finally giving orders to suit up and wear the necessary gear to assist in search and rescue. We had to go through one step at a time to gather what we needed from tables that were lined up side by side.
Gloves, boots, mask, protective glasses, flash lights, construction helmets and most of all….shovels. We all worked in groups with either a Lieutenant or Sargent leading the way. We all had to sign off on two-way radios should we separate for any reason and updates from the main staging area for the Port Authority Police.
Once we were ready we all started walking just a few city blocks south to the World Trade Center, or what would be known as Ground Zero, the ground was getting thicker and thicker with white powder that almost look like a dry snow.
I remember stopping for a couple of seconds to look closer and for some reason I had to touch it without gloves….it felt like baby powder to me with a smell to it that I couldn’t describe. Then I did something I have no reason why.
I made an imprint with my boots on an area that wasn’t disturbed by the many foot prints that have walk this path down the West Side Highway and thought of the words spoken by Neil Armstrong…I small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind.
That’s what I was thinking at that very moment as if time just stood still and only me holding the powdery substance that was left behind from the two steel giants that once stood towering over the Manhattan skyline…then I heard a distant voice that seem to get louder as my thoughts started to fade away….Ashton let’s go.
I just looked around and was bracing myself what I was about to see as we got closer to the site. The streets were silent and no one was talking. As we looked around, the building above us all look like they were breathing…I can’t describe it any other way.
It was dark for a couple of blocks till we started hearing generators for the lights that were being installed all around the perimeter where the towers fell. Then we all stopped just yards away from where the towers once stood and all we saw was smoke from fires still burning since the morning.
Hundreds if not thousands of rescue workers and civilians all lined up on the mountain of steel, passing to each other buckets filled with debris from the Police and Fire Fighters digging in search of anyone that might still be alive underneath all that ruble.
That night there were only two fellow officers from my department that were found alive…and that gave us all hope that there will be more. But as the hours passed and days come and gone, that wasn’t the case anymore. This Search and Rescue had now become Search and Recovery.
After spending some time with my supervisor who was burden with guilt for sending the three officers to the World Trade Center, I reassured him that no one ever thought that the towers would fall. I reminded him that what he did was what any supervisor would have done, and he shouldn’t feel guilty.
But I guess that’s easy for me to say…I wasn’t the one who made that decision. So with that, I left him alone. I walked over to the officers standing by the heavy equipment blocking the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, and asked them to keep an eye on our patrol Sergeant until he leaves.
I then got into my truck and headed into New Jersey to my command. As I walked in I could see my friend who was also our union delegate, standing inside the Tour Commanders office and I could also see in his face of not only concern but of disbelief.
Not mind you, I still have no idea who else responded from our command besides the three officers I already knew about. So I walked in the office and asked what was going on. That’s when my friend took me aside by the arrest room next to the Tour Commander’s office and informed me that they found our friend Kenny’s hat and memo book.
At first I wasn’t sure what he meant because Kenny had transferred to another command close by and I didn’t make the connection why he was telling me about his hat and memo book being found. Then I realized that what my friend was telling me.
Kenny responded from his post where he was assigned at the 33rd street PATH train station in New York City, and commandeered a NYC taxi with his rookie partner besides him and rushed to the World Trade Center.
That’s when it hit me… Knowing Kenny, he rushed in to aid with the evacuation with all the other police officers and firefighters when the towers fell on all of them. Everything now seem to be in slow motion inside my head.
I started to realize that not only so many civilians lives have been lost, but how many have we lost from my department? How many Police Officers did N.Y.P.D. lose? How many fire fighters did F.D.N.Y lose? I walked away in total disbelief and headed inside the locker room to get suited up.
I remember as I was putting on my uniform, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that we had three officers missing from my command, including my friend Kenny from the P.A.T.H. command where he transferred just five months earlier from the Holland Tunnel after working there for over eight years.
After getting dressed I walked back to my Tour Commanders office for instruction when he told me to grab a vehicle and drive over to the staging area on the lower west side of New York City, just blocks away from where the World Trade Center once stood, and see the Commanding Officer assigned there for further instructions to assist in search and rescue.
I immediately took the keys to the patrol car and headed to New York City. My stomach was all twisted and I felt my body shake as I was driving through the tunnel, but it was fear that was causing the shakes…it was my adrenaline rushing throughout my body.
I wanted to do what I was meant to do my whole life….my job. As I exited out of the tunnel into New York City, I was overwhelmed how many emergency vehicles flooded the West Side Highway. It look like a nightmare of an endless traffic jam for at least 12 city blocks.
So many vehicles double and triple parked that it was hard trying to maneuver my patrol car between most of them as I made my way to staging area where the Port Authority Police Department was gearing up for search and rescue operations.
As I got out of my car, I looked down just a few blocks , all I could see was smoke…nothing but smoke. I walked inside the building where so many of our officers were waiting for instructions, I over heard one cop say to another that we lost a lot more officers then we thought. I also learned a new term…Ground Zero.
As I sped up The Garden State Parkway and onto the New Jersey Turnpike Northbound heading to the Holland Tunnel. There were signs stating all roadways o New York City has been closed to all motorist except emergency personnel only. We needed easy access in and out from every bridge and tunnels connected to New York City and we couldn’t have traffic building up to prevent the thousands of first responders to reach the World Trade Center.
As I was riding along the New Jersey Turnpike, to my right I could see the smoke bellowing out from where the Twin Towers use to stand from across Staten Island. I remember feeling beyond belief that those two steel giants that would rise up from behind the roadway like the Sun rising was no longer there.
I kept repeating Holy shit over and over again as I was getting closer to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge connecting Staten Island to Brooklyn. There was no traffic on this iconic bridge either…for a moment it was just me till I noticed a few NYPD Police cruisers come up to my left doing at least 100 mph…because I was doing 80 and they made me look like I was standing still.
As I approached the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, I showed the officers standing in front of the barricades my Police I.D., they let me continue to drive through the tunnel, but not before I was asked by a patrol Sargent if he can ride with me along with two national guardsman…No problem I remember saying.
They all loaded up their gear in the back of my Expedition and we continued on into the tunnel not knowing what was waiting for us on the other side. As we exited, my green truck has now looked like someone poured white baby powder all over it. We couldn’t see much as we exited and it has been almost three hours since the towers fell and all I remember seeing was paper raining down on us as well white dust floating about like fog .
We were already coughing because the air condition was on and the dust found its way through inside the vehicle. I remember the Sargent looking at me without saying a word…the expression on his face was enough. As I turned to my right onto West side Highway we only made it about 50 feet when a Battalion Chief came up to my vehicle telling me I had to turn around and cut through the Riverside Highway to get to the Holland Tunnel.
I let out the two guardsman and the patrol Sargent right there and continued up the highway along the east river and gotten off Canal Street exit. I remember seeing hundreds if not thousands of pedestrians walking across the Brooklyn Bridge heading to Brooklyn. Canal Street that use to be stand still traffic was empty and reach the entrance to the Holland Tunnel in seconds where it would easily take me 15 minutes sometimes longer any other day.
I pulled up to find one of Port Authority’s heavy equipment truck blocking the entrance to the New Jersey side while at least four of our cops standing in front of it. I got out of my vehicle and walked over to the Police Booth that stands on the corner next to the entrance of the tunnel where I worked countless times to direct traffic, and approached my patrol Sargent who just gotten off the phone and asked him where he wanted me before I put on my uniform.
He was standing by t booth while looking down as if he was in deep thought. To be honest, I don’t think he even noticed me standing in front of him never mind heard me. But he did have this look on his face that right then and there, I knew something was terribly wrong. So I asked if he was ok, but my Sgt. just mumbled something being his fault. Not understanding what he meant and now concerned, I asked again if he was alright? He then lifted his head and said …I sent them and they never came back.
Not everyone can remember what they had for breakfast just 24 hours ago, but everyone remembers what they were doing and where they were at when our country was under attacked on 9-11-2001. Considering it was September, it sure felt more like July…Hot and Sunny…..not a cloud in the sky. You can say it was a perfect summer day.
I was on my desktop computer when I got a phone call from my wife at work asking me if I was watching the news. She had told me that a small plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and that it was on fire. I went downstairs and turned on CNN and sure enough, smoke was coming from the top of one of the towers.
Just like many others watching the breaking news on all the networks, I too believed it was a small plane and that the pilot might have lost control and crashed into the North Tower. So, I just watched for a few minutes and decided to call my command and asked if they needed me to come in considering that my tour didn’t start till that afternoon.
There wasn’t any sense of urgency from my dispatcher and she informed me that enough units were on the scene as well as F.D.N.Y and N.Y.P.D. But to be on the safe side to just keep my phone line open just incase. So I just hung up and sat in the living room and watched like everyone else was with speculations.
I didn’t really put much thought into it other than feeling bad for anyone that was in that plane and the people below that might have gotten hurt from falling debris from the plane. My brother Timmy had just called me and asked if I was watching what was being shown when something caught my attention on the left of my screen when I saw a commercial jet crash into the South Tower followed by an intense fireball.
I remember yelling “Oh Shit” at least three times asking my brother if he had he seen what just happened also. He was also yelling on the other end of the line at the same time that we were under attack. For a moment, I couldn’t think of anything other than witnessing that commercial airliner exploding inside the Twin Tower.
As I was agreeing with my brother just as my door bell rang..it was my neighbor Ralph, and from the look in his eyes, he was shocked what he just saw just like the rest of us. Something wasn’t right, but we did agree on one thing…We were under attack, just didn’t know by who and for what reason.
That’s when all first responders from the City of New York…Police, Firemen, EMS were all ordered to report to our respected commands immediately. I remember calling my command and was told by my dispatcher to report to my Sargent on Duty for instructions as soon as I can get there.I wasted no time.
I packed up some clothes, shoved them in my duffel bag and called my wife to let her know that I was leaving and that I may be up there for a few days. I remember her telling me to be careful while telling me how much she loves me. She also reminded me to call her as much as I can to let her know that I was alright.
I then jumped in my Ford Expedition known as the Green Monster, and headed to the gas station to fill up. I also had to stop by my local police station to borrow a flame ball ( police jargon for that emergency red light we put on the roof of our vehicles) so other motorist can see that I was responding to an emergency.
As I was driving, my cell phone rang and it was a fellow officer and friend asking had I left already knowing how far I lived. He was coming from Brooklyn which was only less than a half hour to Jersey City. I remember telling him that I was driving like 90 miles and hour and I should meet him in about an hour at our command. My last words before I hung up was …. On My Way Brother.