A Cop’s-Eye View of the Disaster

At 8 in the morning Tuesday, I went to the Manhattan district attorney’s office for a meeting with an assistant DA about a child abuse case. Before I got upstairs at the courthouse, I passed a TV screen showing the bizarre image of the Twin Towers with obscene gaping holes. I had not heard the attack. As I stood there, trying in vain to fathom an innocent explanation: scale models, trick photography, Photoshop? I saw the first video of the second plane crashing through the building.

I did not think very hard about it, but I figured people would need some help, so I went out to the street and started walking toward the trade center. The meeting with the ADA could wait for a little while. I still didn’t grasp the enormity of what had happened. I remembered reading of how a bomber once crashed into the Empire State Building. It was tragic, but the building and most of its inhabitants survived.

As I got closer, there were uniform cops telling people to go uptown, away from the scene. I pinned my shield to the lapel of my suit. I realized that there were other detectives, federal agents, off-duty cops headed for the scene.

Only the top 15 or so stories of the south tower were visible to me over the tops of other buildings. So when it crumbled, I assumed that the plane had exploded and that only those top stories were gone. I didn’t realize that the whole building had collapsed. Dust began to fall on me, but I was shielded from the bulk of it by the north tower. I poked my head into the First Precinct station house, but it was largely empty. The cops there had already headed toward the building, in cars, on horses, on scooters, and on foot.

A team of detectives with whom I used to work, from a couple of precincts away, had jumped in their cars and headed for the scene when the first plane hit. They had been much closer than I was when the south tower fell, and I encountered them as they fled the falling debris. They had heard over the police radio that cops were to meet east of the scene on South Street. They talked me out of my plan to keep walking south and found a spot for me in one of their cars. One detective turned to me and asked aloud why there was so much plaster dust. I didn’t know either. Later I found out that it wasn’t plaster, it was ash from jet fuel burning away the structure of the towers.

We got stuck in massive vehicle and pedestrian traffic before we got to our meeting place. We got out of the cars and stood helplessly on the corner watching the World Trade Center burn. Objects fell from the lower windows of the building. Someone said they were people, but it seemed stupid to me. I couldn’t understand why someone would leap from a part of the building that wasn’t even on fire. There was rumbling and the second tower disappeared into a growing cloud of blackness.

As I we watched, the dust began to fall in much thicker clumps. A man took out a camera and began to take pictures. Another man, covered with ash, was offended by the photographer’s voyeurism. He attacked the photographer. We subdued the attacker. As I looked into his face, it changed from vengeful to sorry. He apologized to me. I let him go. A couple of women standing next to me started to cry.

The sergeant took another detective and ran to the meeting point. When he came back he told us that detectives were to meet elsewhere, farther uptown. We piled back into the cars and headed there. Fighter jets flew overhead, lower than they normally do in New York City. I am sure they scared some people, but they made me feel safe. They would shoot down any more suicide planes.

From there, we were split up and sent to hospitals. We were to keep track of the victims, record their information, locate injured firefighters and police officers. We were to try to notify the families of the injured civilians. We were to keep an eye out for injured suspects. The hospitals we went to were all above 50th Street.

At my hospital, there were doctors and nurses waiting on the cordoned-off street for the injured. A trauma-specialist convention had been going on nearby and many of the doctors who were attending it had come to the hospital to lend a hand. As the injured came in, we were slowly overcome by the realization that there were far fewer than we expected. We hoped that was because there were far fewer victims than we thought and not because there were so few alive. I got sicker and sicker of watching the news footage of planes flying into buildings.

We made our lists and tried to make the phone calls. It made me happy to call the wife of a security guard to tell her he was all right. I figured that if I told her that I was a detective she would immediately think I was calling to tell her that her husband had been killed, so I got it all out quick, “Your husband is OK, Mrs. Hugo. This is Detective Miller.” I was glad that I didn’t have to make any calls that went the other way. The few happy calls were not enough to buoy anyone’s mood.

I called the precinct where I had worked in uniform and found out a cop that I know is missing. He was a good man. I hope they find him. We got word that upward of 50 cops and over 200 firefighters were missing. I took a break and went outside for some air.

As I gazed into the afternoon sun, a man came up to the security guards who kept the uninjured from wandering into the triage area. They tried to wave him off. He seemed very insistent. They called me over. He had a flyer that he had printed, with pictures of his fiancée. He saw my detective shield. He asked if I had seen her in the emergency room. I had not. He asked me to post the flyer in the hospital. He was going to all the hospitals. I looked at the description. She worked on the 92nd floor of the north tower. I took the flyer. I walked away before he saw me start to sob. I took the flyer to the guy taking down all the names of the injured.

I went into the lobby and sat down with a fellow cop. He handed me a Times from a pile of newspapers he had found. It had always been a joke with us that he read the Post and I read the Times; that he was straightforward and conservative and I was a liberal who liked big words. I thought I might lose myself for a few minutes in one section or another of the newspaper. The New York Times comes out very early in the morning, long before any planes crashed. I had to put the paper down; it was about a different city than mine.