Monday, September 11, 2017

A Brooklyn cop tells his 9/11 story

My 9-11 Story. For my son, Michael.
PO Nick Pierro, 78th Pct
September 11, 2012 at 6:01pm

My son was born after the attack on September 11, 2001. Since his birth, I’ve wondered how and when I will explain in detail what happened on that day. Will he understand? Will it affect him in any way? Will he feel like I did when I learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor, because that felt like ancient history to me. That would be sad. I told myself that without being too dramatic or depressing, I will make sure he understands 9-11 on a personal level. I saved pictures, books, every newspaper from that week and I have a story to tell. One of the very first books I ever bought Michael was “The Man Who Walked Between The Towers” by Mordicai Gerstein. It's a beautifully illustrated children's book and it tells the story of Philippe Petit, the man who tightrope walked from tower to tower in 1974. The last page simply states, “And now the towers are gone” with a drawing of the empty skyline.

I wrote this letter on the 11th Anniversary of 9-11. Like 2001, it was a Tuesday and also like 2001, the sky was deep blue and the weather was perfect. I dropped Michael off at school and on the way home I was listening to Elvis Duran and The Morning Show. They were talking about 9-11. I had a horrible thought. What if I died before I ever told Michael about my experience that terrible day? What if I began to forget the details? He's going to be curious. That would be awful. So, I decided to write it all down. Now, he will be able to read it whenever he wants to.

The summer was coming to an end, non-eventfully, in 2001. On Saturday, the 8th of September, my Mom hosted a birthday barbecue. My sister Angela’s twins, Luisa and Nicky, and my cousin Carmela's daughter, Cari, were all turning 6 that week. Carmela's son Christopher had a birthday in September as well and Uncle Sal was turning 60. It was a beautiful day and we had a lot fun. We ate. We drank. We laughed. Who would have thought life was about to change for all of us?

The next day, Sunday, September 9, 2001, was also a beautiful day. That morning I drove to the Meadowlands to see the New York Jets play Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. I picked up my friend, Geri Crane, in Bay Ridge and we took the New Jersey Turnpike to Giants Stadium. In the first few seasons of the HBO series, The Sopranos, the opening credits included a shot of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano driving along the turnpike, smoking a cigar. He looks towards New York City and you see a beautiful shot of the Twin Towers. After the Towers came down, they eliminated that piece from the opening. We both looked to our right and there they were. I secretly wished I had a cigar. We commented on how lucky we were to live here. “Look how beautiful.” Geri said. I took it all in and that image, which was probably the last time I ever looked at and admired those majestic buildings, is seared into my brain. Peyton Manning ran a mostly no huddle offense that day and killed the Jets.

September 11, 2001

I was working in Park Slope, Brooklyn, as a New York City Police Officer in the Seventy Eighth Precinct. It was gorgeous outside. I was standing at roll call in the 78th Precinct Station House and I was told that I had to go to our Health Services Division at 11 a.m. to be random drug tested. I had over 17 years on the job at the time and it was the very first time that the computer randomly picked my name. Since I would be out of service for a good part of the day, they partnered me a rookie, Charise Miller, and assigned us to the Conditions Auto. She was a very nice girl and not in our precinct for very long.

While we were dismissed from roll call at 7:59, Flight 11 took off from Boston.

The first thing we did upon turning out was head to the Park Café on 7th Avenue in Park Slope for breakfast. I knew the owner, George, for over 10 years at the time. They made a good breakfast there. Charise and I sat at the counter and we were served by my friend, Dionny.

At 8:14, Flight 175 took off from Boston.

At 8:19, American Airlines informed the FBI that Flight 11 had been hijacked.

At 8:20, Flight 77 took off from just outside Washington D.C.

At 8:42, Flight 93 left Newark, New Jersey.

I had the usual: coffee, eggs over easy, bacon and well done home fries with rye toast. We were almost done eating when a radio transmission crackled through the typical white noise of a busy diner. We all thought about what we heard for a second. Dionny was the first to comment. Smiling, she said, “Nick. Did they say a plane landed on the World Trade Center?” I said, “No, they said a plane HIT the World Trade Center.” We waited to hear anything else. My first thought was maybe a small Cessna, flying over the Hudson and pilot era was to blame. All of a sudden, the radio transmissions started to pick up: fire; airliner; outer borough emergency response … this wasn’t good. This was more than a Cessna.

At 8:46 Flight 11 hit the North Tower.

We were waiting to hear more information. We didn’t think it was a big deal at first. I told Charise we have to see what’s going on. Not yet understanding the magnitude of the events that were about to follow, she said, “I hope they don’t hold us past our tour. I have to pick up my kids after work.” We got into the car, drove south on 7th Avenue to 9th Street and made a right turn, west, to get closer to Manhattan. At 3rd Avenue, I made a right and headed north. There’s a spot on 3rd Avenue, between 3rd Street and 6th Street where the Gowanus Canal branches off and ends perpendicular to 3rd Avenue. That spot gives you an unobstructed view of lower Manhattan. I wasn’t the only one with that idea as a crowd was gathering. I could see the smoke billowing from the North Tower. As I pulled up, I noticed a black limo racing up behind me. I had our local news station, 1010 WINS, turned on. The on air reporters were as confused as all of us. From what I saw and what they were saying, I knew it was a commercial airliner. My portable PD radio was on and we heard transmission after transmission of panic and urgency. A lot of emergency vehicles were speeding north on 3rd Avenue to make the left onto 3rd Street to get into Manhattan. The spot I was at was getting congested with people and cars stopping to watch. It wouldn't be long before 3rd Avenue would be completely impassable. I figured we could stay there and keep the avenue clear. Just as I put my vehicle into park, I looked to my left and I saw the second tower explode. I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. How could a fire in one tower make the other tower explode?

My mind was racing through a myriad of possibilities. As I stepped out of the marked police vehicle, the limo driver behind us ran up to me and in a very thick Israeli accent screamed, “It’s terrorism! It’s terrorism!” What the hell was he talking about, I thought to myself. My radio was blaring. Cops in distress, calling for help and back up. The news radio station personel, accustomed to just reading the news every 20 minutes were very emotionally charged up. You could hear the worry and fear in their voices. People were running up to me and my partner looking for answers. I had none. Then the news report coming from my car radio stated, “We’re getting confirmation. It was a second plane that hit the towers.”

At 9:03. Flight 175 hit the South Tower.

The limo driver heard that as well. He grabbed my arms and looked into my eyes. He yelled, “I told you! I told you! Terrorism!” I thought to myself that they finally came back. After the terror attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, I said repeatedly that their intent was to bring down that building and they failed. I truly believed that. We later learned that my annalysis was absolutely correct.

My brain was on overload. I was listening to people screaming at me. I was listening to my portable radio and the news radio from the car. The sirens from dozens of emergency vehicles were as loud as can be. I was in uniform. I'm supposed to help. Everyone was looking between the chaos in Manhattan with the two towers engulfed in balls of fire and me and my rookie partner. Charise was silently looking west towards Manhattan. We started to clear traffic from the avenue. I was loud and direct. “Move the car, now!” People knew I meant it. Most were moving. A car pulled up and a guy jumped out and ran to the sidewalk, leaving his car double parked. I yelled, “Hey! Move that car!” He looked at me and said, “I’m on the job,” which meant he was a cop. I couldn’t believe it. I yelled again, “I don’t care what job you’re on! I have to keep this street clear. Don’t you see all the emergency vehicles?!” He knew I was very serious. He got into his car and parked it down the block. How many of those first responders that passed me on 3rd Avenue never came home?

Another car pulled up and double parked, facing south. Although the car was in a spot with a direct view of the Towers, the driver was not looking towards Manhattan. The driver was female. She was wearing a traditional Arab hijab and she was looking straight ahead. A male got out of the passenger side of the vehicle and ran past me into the building that I was parked in front of. That building happens to be the Al-Madinah School. It’s an Islamic school for kids from kindergarten through 12th grade. She was there to take her child from school. I told her to move and she ignored me. I yelled at her again, “I said move this car now!” She had no expression, stared straight ahead and kept both hands on the wheel. She wouldn’t move or say anything. Her husband came back and was not helpful. Finally, I looked at him and as loud and clear as I can be, I said, “If she doesn’t move this car now, I will personally drag her from this car and move it myself!” Just as her husband was about to get nasty, a gentleman from the school ran out, crossed the street and he got between us. He may have been the school principle. He said, “Sorry. Sorry Officer. She’s scared. She will move the car right of way. I promise. Please.” I calmed down. Her husband got behind the wheel and they drove away with their kid. I thanked the man and he went back into the school.

I walked back to the police vehicle to listen to the radio. It was chaos. I was taking it all in. There was a crowd gathered. The west side of of 3rd Avenue looks like a bridge but actually it's where a branch of the Gowanis Canal ends. I was watching the towers burn while listening to panic on the police radio and the news station. It was surreal. We see so many movies with special effects that my brain was having difficulty processing this entire scene as reality. It must be CGI. It looked like a movie. Your brain can play tricks on you. God help us. It was very, very real.

I only imagined what was happening across the river. Cops were screaming over the air. ”Central ... they’re jumping!” Keep ‘em coming!” We need plenty of buses!” A bus is an ambulance in police and fire terminology. Jumping... It was so bad that jumping from 95 stories high was the better option. Oh my God, I thought, this was unimaginable. With my back leaning on the RMP (police vehicle), I tried to call my Mom. The phone was dead.

I looked up and was amazed at this huge flock of birds flying across the river towards us. As I kept staring, my eyes began to focus and I realized that it wasn't birds at all. When the planes hit the towers, anything that was on the floors that the planes hit was pushed out the other side of the buildings. Most of that stuff went straight down to the street. As you can imagine in an office building that size, where each floor was a square acre, there was tons of paper inside. What I saw were thousands of pages of 8 by 10 office paper, caught up in this beautiful late summer breeze, floating across the river with no sign of falling to the ground. I couldn’t stop staring at it. It was mesmerizing.

My partner was obviously as shaken up as I was. I was getting asked all kinds of questions. It sounded like another language. I couldn't make out a single word. I was listening to the radios. I looked at Charise and I said, “Something’s going to happen.” She asked me what I meant. I said, “Well, it can’t keep burning like that. Firefighters can’t get up that high to put that fire out. I hope the tops the buildings don't tip over onto the street.” I was now fixated on the towers and praying to myself. I was preparing myself for something very, very disastrous.

At 9:37, Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon.

When the news came over the radio that a plane hit the Pentagon, I never felt so helpless. Was this going to be it? Is this war? Will I ever see my family again? Will there even be a tomorrow?

The news said they were getting reports that Washington grounded all flights but the news also was reporting that about 8 more hijacked planes were still flying and unaccounted for. I really never felt so helpless.

I was still staring at the Towers. The fire was intense. I couldn’t comprehend what must have been happening there. Then it happened. It was around 10 o'clock. I saw the top of the roof of the South Tower. I gasped, as did everyone else. We all watched that beautiful building disappear into a cloud of smoke. Instantaneously, people began to scream and cry and hug one another. So many dropped to their knees and began to pray. My partner grabbed my arm and when I looked at her she began to cry. There was a girl standing next to me. She was white, tall, skinny and had a black dress on. She was trembling with tears in her eyes and didn’t say anything. She pulled out a cigarette and couldn’t light it because her hands were shaking so much. I helped her and then asked her for a cigarette. I needed something to give me a time-out for a second.

At 9:59, the South Tower collapsed.

The radio transmissions were barely audible. People screaming, cursing and begging. You could hear fear, horror and worry. Most at the scene didn't even know what happened. They couldn't see. It must have felt like the end of the world. I could see this with my own eyes, but I was in Brooklyn. What could I do? The worst feeling I ever had in my life.

At 10:07 we hear that a 4th plane, Flight 93, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

At 10:28. the North Tower collapsed.

The skyline that I loved and knew so well was no longer there. Just smoke, and the office paper was still floating, but now it crossed the river and was over our heads, in Brooklyn, as if it escaped the horror in Manhattan. As I was looking up at the paper and praying, two United States Air Force F-14 Tomcats came screaming over our heads, from behind us towards Manhattan. I’ve only seen them fly like that in person at Jet games, after the National Anthem. Where my seats were in Giants Stadium for almost 30 years, they always came from behind me then as well. It looked familiar, but this time was much different. I wanted to hug those pilots. I wanted to see them attack and kill someone like in the movies. I wanted something to cheer about. But who can they attack? There’s no one to fight. These people are cowards. They hide in caves. They're throw backs to the 6th century. They’re savages.

The radio was stating that there must have been over ten thousand people killed. Unimaginable. I finally got through to my Mom. She asked if I was okay. She wondered if I was down there. She was relieved when I said I was in Brooklyn. We stayed on 3rd Avenue for a while, until the crowd wondered off. I called my precinct. The lieutenant answered the phone. I said “I know this is a stupid thing to say but I obviously did not go for my drug test.” My job was weird sometimes. You never know what they’re thinking. He told me it was okay. My precinct was holding many jobs and we were gong to try to 'clear up the clock.'

There were disputes. One in a taxi garage on 4th Avenue and one landlord tenant dispute on 8th Street. I think I threatened all the parties involved on both jobs. Could you imagine the nerve of some people? As if I wanted to listen to their nonsense for five minutes. I don’t think so. Eventually we went to Methodist Hospital on 7th Avenue in Park Slope. We were worried that Manhattan hospitals would not be able to handle all the victims and we thought that a lot of them would be coming to Park Slope and other outter borough hospitals. Not even one. Then, a male black, teenager, from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan came running to the emergency room entrance. He couldn’t speak as he was out of breath. He was sweating and he had what looked like white powder on him. All he said was he was lost. When the 1st building collapsed he began to run and he never stopped until he was in front of me. That's quite a run. They took him in and calmed him down.

I drove into Prospect Park to try and find my friend, Jessie Cowan. She's a mounted officer for NYC Parks. I finally found her. We looked at each other and we were both speechless. We were glad to see each other, but not sure what to say. Jessie said she was going to the site. She said that Battery Park is NYC Parks Department property and she has to go to help. While we were chatting, a sheet of office paper floated down to the ground right beside us. I immediately knew what it was. Jessie picked it up. It had World Trade Center letterhead on it. She folded it and kept it. I told her to be careful, we hugged and parted.

I went back to the station house. It was early evening. I was standing on the front steps and walking up the block was John Ventimiglia. He’s an actor. He played restaurant owner Artie Bucco in The Sopranos. He was living on Carroll Street. He was walking with a woman who was crying. I met him before. I took a report from him not long before that day when someone broke into his car. He recognized me. “Nick, right?” I nodded and shook his hand. The lady said nothing. She was his neighbor. She went to him because she knew that he knew some of us at the precinct. John told me that her husband worked in the World Trade Center. She hasn’t heard from him all day. She was freaking out. She thought maybe we knew more than what she was getting on the news and from her many phone calls. John and I looked at each other. We both knew that the odds of her husband being alive were slim, but we tried to give her hope. While we were talking on the precinct steps another sheet of office paper floated down to the ground. I kept that one. John and his neighbor thanked me and walked away. I never found out what happened to her husband.

One of our guys, Alex Mahadio, was unaccounted for, for most of the day, along with one of our cars. There was no sign of him. As I got into my car and turned onto Flatbush Ave, I saw Alex in the missing car driving towards the precinct. I stopped him. “Alex! You’re okay! Where the hell were you?! We’ve been looking for you!” He was covered in white dust. In his very thick West Indian accent, he said” What chu mean, where was I?! You heard people yelling on da radio, 10-13?!!! Dey needed help! I grabbed a car and drove tru da Battery Tunnel!” Alex is lucky to be alive.

We worked all night long. Restaurants and people in Park Slope were dropping off food and supplies. We were taking turns driving firemen from the firehouse on our block to the site. Jimmy Aitken, another cop in the 78th Precinct, drove from Las Vegas. He said there were no flights so he rented a car and he never stopped. The roads were clear he said. The back seat of his rental car was full of empty Red Bull cans. Anytime a cop stopped him, he showed them his credentials and they wished him luck. With his pedal to the metal, he flew to New York City.

The next day, I finally went down to what they were calling Ground Zero. Cops and Firemen were calling it The Pit. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It looked like a post-apocalyptic movie set. The huge skeletel remains of the once majestic Twin Towers, ripped open and smoldering. Firetrucks, crushed and piled on top of each other, like Tonka Toys in a land fill. People walking around, emotionless. Zombielike. Chilling. I couldn’t believe the smell. I never smelled anything like that before. It wasn’t a gross smell. It didn't make you sick. It was just different. I went down a few times. I was on the ‘bucket brigade’ as well. That was when we would dig and pass along these five gallon buckets all the way to the guy in the dumpster. One day I was the dumpster guy. Cadaver dogs would sniff the buckets. If they detected human remains, they would give a sign and that bucket would be handed over and inspected. Whenever they thought they heard a noise coming from within the rubble, someone would shout. Then all machinery would halt. Everyone would stop moving and talking. The Pit went from being an environment so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think to a place in total silence. Someone would yell into the rubble, “Hello?!” We would wait. “Hello!!” Nothing. Then, without saying a word, all the noise would be cranked up again. Hundreds of people hoping, praying, someone would answer back. They were all gone.

They were afraid One Liberty was going to collapse. They had lasers trained on it. If the building so much as trembled an alarm would go off and anyone near it would run like hell. It went off often. One Liberty is still standing.

There was a lot of food from many restaurants down there. There were many Scientologists offering massages and back rubs. They were nice people, I thought to myself. Many volunteers from every state in the country, offering water, cigarettes, candy bars, anything that was donated. We just kept digging. All that digging… No one. No bodies either. What happened? They turned to dust. You could walk through the rubble all day long and see nothing. I figured that with over 200 floors between the buildings there must have been hundreds of thousands of telephones. I dared my friend to find one. Just one. A toilet bowl? A desk? A door? Anything? Nothing but dust.

The first time I saw my parents after the attack, we were basically speechless. I was so tired and emotionally drained. My dad was sitting in a chair with some papers in his hand. He looked at me, above his reading glasses. My Dad was a NYC firefighter for over 30 years. He retired in 1992. They had not yet released the names of the murdered FDNY personnel to the public. Dad went to the local firehouse on Cross Bay Blvd in Howard Beach and they gave him the list. He was carefully and thoroughly going through it, one name at a time. We learned that 343 firefighters were killed that day. It was unbelievable how many deceased firefighters my dad knew and worked with. Guys that were probies that he helped as young firefighters and were now bosses; guys that he worked with for years; sons of firefighters that he worked with. He was sad. Dad rarely shows emotion and he really didn't that day, but I could see the sadness and disbelief in his eyes. I felt bad for him. I walked downstairs while he was still holding that list of names.

One thing my Mom told me was that a friend of ours from Canarsie, Peter Milano, was among the missing. He worked in Cantor-Fitzgerald. The Milanos were a big part of Canarsie. A great family. Good people, as we used to say. Everyone knew them. We grew up around the corner from each other. One of my best friends was his brother, Frankie. Peter was a gem. I tried to process what they were going through. Peter's brothers and his sister and their families. Peter's own family. His wife and kids. I remembered Peter's parents and going to both of their funerals. When you are overwhelmed with sadness, there comes a point when you just get numb. You can't fit anymore grief inside you. I prayed that he would show up, somewhere, in some hospital. I was wrong. Like so many others, he just disappeared. People just disappeared. It's unimaginable.

I thought it would be therapeutic for my dad to get to Ground Zero and see for himself what happened. You may have seen it dozens of times on TV but being there was something else. It was a totally different experience. I had to work and the Police Department was on 'all hands on deck' mode. I mentioned this idea to Jessie. Getting near the site was no simple task, but with her NYC Parks Department credentials, she took my father along and they spent the day there. He wasn't there to work. He needed to see people he knew. He did. Plenty. They even found time to share a story and a laugh. It was a good thing. I am thankful to Jessie for doing that. I was at the Staten Island landfill that day, standing alongside a conveyor belt, watching debris passing me by. Whenever I'd see an artifact, an ID card, a piece of bone, I'd hit the stop switch and place the item in a bucket. I did that all day long.

There was a restaurant on Canal Street called Nino’s. The owner, Nino Vendome, closed the restaurant to the public and kept it running with volunteers 24/7 for people working at Ground Zero. Food was constantly donated by other restaurants in New York. I ate there often. There were cops, firemen, sanitation men, iron workers, construction workers and more. Everyone sat, taking a break and telling their stories. It was an amazing little place. It really helped to keep things in perspective. It reminded us we were not alone. One day a volunteer handed out a notebook. She said that that Nino was going to write a book about his restaurant and what happened one day. She asked if we would write something in the book and put our name on it. When I got the book, I wrote “In the middle of Hell, there was this piece of Heaven. Thanks. PO Nick Pierro, 78th Pct” I don’t think he ever wrote that book.

In the days and weeks following the attack, I attended many funeral services, including Peter Milano's. It seems like it is never going to end. I guess I'm right. It will never end. There will always be anniversaries, and museums, and memorials. There will be many more people still dying due to whatever it is we breathed in the time we spent down there. There will always be thoughts and prayers for those we lost. We will never forget.

Thanks for reading.

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