2010-10-01 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

By Jim Kelly, Retired NYPD Detective

Jim Kelly, a former New York City Detective, currently lives in Wilmington, NY. He was on duty on the tragic day of Sept. 11, 2001. He retired in July 2002 after completion of twenty years of service.

There is a moment of serious thought on the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, as many still cannot comprehend what had happened on that terrifying day and the months following in lower Manhattan.

On that day, I had worked 19 years with the New York City Police Department at the rank of Detective. On that morning my thoughts were of retirement, which was just a year away. The job I had was like none other. I just about saw everything that one could expect during my many years of service, but nothing compared to this most tragic day.

I remember that 9-11-01 started out as a beautiful day weather wise as I was preparing for work.

I remember hearing a loud “boom” then looking down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn toward “The City.” I was now seeing massive amounts of smoke from one of the World Trade Center buildings. Immediate thoughts came to my family, friends and neighbors as everyone in Brooklyn knew someone who worked at the WTC. 50,000 people worked every weekday inside the WTC, and the Path Trains, which were located on the bottom floor of the WTC, delivered a quarter of million more people daily from New Jersey.

Working with the Joint FBI/NYPD Task Force for 10 years now, I knew it was a terrorist attack from the moment of impact as there were many known recorded threats on our American landmarks.

Flashbacks came to me of the WTC buildings being hit on another fatal attack in 1993. These same terrorists used a truck bomb and had hit the foundation of the WTC in its downstairs parking garage. In doing so, the terrorists were hoping one building would take down the other in collapse. Each of those WTC buildings stood at a quarter mile into the sky and were a constant focus of these terrorists.

Immediate rescue efforts on 9-11 provided little in results, as constant fire, layers and layers of smoke and “lunarlike dust matter” in the air at the WTC site made rescue unapproachable.

I remember, we were directing hundreds of thousands of people who fled over the Brooklyn Bridge, people crying for their loved ones; NYPD and FDNY personal looking for their lost commrades who were now missing while on rescue missions.

Everyone had to keep flushing their eyes as irritation to them were constant; Emotional upset as 200 people were observed jumping to their deaths from the WTC to avoid death by fire; Confirmation was coming in of the Pentagon and Shanksville attacks; New Yorkers witnessing registered earthquake sounds and shakings as the WTC and her surrounding buildings were coming down.

We all thought to ourselves, “Was there more to come this day?”

By 3 p.m. on 9-11, one could never imagine an empty lower Manhattan, and all signs of human life other than rescue personal would be gone. The only “eerie” sounds to be heard were the hundreds of “Scott backpack alarms” which went off with a “chirping sound” from the dead firemen who carried these devices.

The other noise to be heard were those sounds of the fighter jets which were now scrambling above the Manhattan skyline. I was praying for my brother who was also a NYPD Detective, who many hours later I found to be safe.

For many lonely days and nights, rescue workers tried to look for survivors. For many lonely days and nights, we would learn that there would be very few, if any, to survive this devastating attack. Layers and layers of smoke and fumes would prevail for a week afterward at “Ground Zero.” Debris from the WTC was as high as a five-story building for many blocks in lower Manhattan. On the second and third days, emergency services would arrive from all parts of the country, but they too would not be used, as the WTC site debris and heat from fire would prevent immediate rescue efforts. NYPD, FDNY and outside agencies would work without rest and worked with full conviction for months on end.

I will always remember that, on or about the sixth day after the attacks, the weather which, was now hovering around 80 degrees, and gas lines, which were still on fire, had now forced a stench of death from the 2,604 loved ones whose bodies were now decomposing.

I remember vomiting four times from that smell of death while on the “rock pile” searching for bodies. I had learned that many of my personal friends who were model parents to children were now dead from the attacks.

One night, on or about the sixth day, I entered a small church located on Wall Street. It would now be a food center set up by the Salvation Army to feed and rest the rescue workers. It would be the same church our Founding Fathers attended during the start of this great nation.

Entering the church, there would be thousands of photos of loved ones who were inside the WTC and were being sought by their family members.

We knew that none of these loved ones would ever be coming home to those families. I entered the church at 3:30 a.m. — as I needed some rest and sat down in a pew. I was approached by a 60-year-old woman who held my hand. This woman told me she had been looking at me for close to 45 minutes as I sat by myself in the pew.

To casually break into conversation with me, this women mentioned that I looked like a seasoned detective and like the others, that my dark blue NYPD uniform was now gray in color from the collection of WTC dust. She also mentioned that my uniform had not been washed in two days and that I needed a shave. She asked me if I had spoken to my family and daughter. (I smiled at her comments, as it would be my first smile in close to a week.) With a slight laugh, I replied back to her that if I did not get a shave soon it could cost me a vacation day from the NYPD bosses.

This woman told me that she had come to talk to me because like many, many others inside that church in those early morning hours, that I too “Had that stare in my eyes.”

She made this comment because I had no idea I had been observed by her as having a blank stare, looking at nothing for close to 45 minutes. After her comment, I looked at her for a few minutes — perhaps to say, my eyes welled up. This woman was from a small town in Kansas and traveled days to reach New York City as a grief counselor.

She told me to look around the church as dozens upon dozens of other personnel from the City of New York agencies had now “Hit the wall.”

“Hitting the wall” meant that we were all too busy working the last six days with no rest and that the 9-11 reality had finally hit us.

I have experienced and heard of a thousand stories from many who were there at the WTC on 9-11. But this writing is not meant to be about me, as tens of thousands of other people can write along these same lines.

The purpose of this writing is to bring attention to why we must never forget what happened on that day. We must put this date into our school books without sugar-coating the facts and in full truth explain this tragic day to our children. America must never let her guard down against those who will do us harm.

Americans must look at the fatal videotapes of this attack and absorb what happen in full. America has rebounded from the 9-11 attacks as it has on her other tragic days of past history. America’s comeback, resolve and its people is what makes this country great and second to none.

But I pray that America will never forget 9-11, and neither should our children.

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