In the aftermath of 9/1 1, public safety organizations from around the country volunteered to help New York City. Five police agencies in Miami-Dade County, Fla., under the auspices of State's Attorney Kathleen Fernandez-Rundle, sent a cadre of officers to assist the New York Police Department. In the first several weeks after the attacks, there was an outpouring of assistance from neighboring states. As those initial responders returned to their homes, they were followed by this South Florida contingent, who were in New York from Sept. 28 to Oct. 7, 2001.
Leonard Matarese, now Buffalo's human resources commissioner, was president of the Miami-Dade County Police Chiefs Association and helped lead the group. He kept a journal of the group's activities, which he e-mailed daily to fellow officers and friends in South Florida. These are excerpts of those e-mail messages.
We left in 15 marked police vehicles from the Justice Center in Miami Friday afternoon, sent off by several hundred clapping, flag waving men and women who work there. Running up I-95 as we passed vehicles we more received waves and applause. We drove straight through, reached New Jersey about 5 p.m. Saturday. NYPD advised us to go to the Holland Tunnel. Approaching, I got to see Manhattan for the first time without the two white towers.
I was in college there when the towers were being built, lived there several times and visited Manhattan regularly. Seeing the skyline without them drove home the enormity of what had happened.
The Holland Tunnel with no traffic, red and blue lights silently flashing, was an eerie experience. Entering lower Manhattan was like arriving in an occupied city with thousands of police officers from cities around the country and hundreds of guardsmen on every street corner.
We drive to Greenwich Village to the 6th Precinct where we have been assigned. The lobby of the building had become a shrine to the two officers from there who were killed at the WTC. A photograph of a smiling dad holding his kids, another of an officer laughing, flowers, lighted candles, drawings of the towers being hit by airplanes with thank yous written by local school kids set the tone for the building.
The 6th is adjacent to the 1st Precinct, just north of the WTC site. From every avenue in the 6th you used to be able to see the towers. Now you see the smoke, lessening every day but still there. The officers have been working virtually non-stop, always at least 12 hours but sometimes 18-to-20-hour shifts, with almost no days off. They spent their first days on the site digging by hand. That detail now has been reduced to 10 officers per 12-hour shift. Most of the digging is now being done by machine, but they are still working there searching for two of their own.
The 6th is a small precinct in one of the city's most unique neighborhoods. I remember visiting the village many times as a student at Rutgers in the late 1960s and early 70's. Very upscale, sophisticated area, lots of restaurants, shops, etc. The precinct is in the middle of the block on 10th Street and the entire block has been made a security area. Everyone entering must show ID; only residents and their guests are permitted.
Within the precinct there are several high concern buildings, which also require constant protection. And the NYPD bomb team is housed in the 6th as well, making it an especially high-risk target. We were asked to cover some of the security posts so that the officers assigned there could have a day or two off and also to partner up with NYPD officers to patrol.
* * *
We split into two platoons, with another chief and myself in charge of each, and are sent to the Javits Center to find lodging. They found us a hotel that donated beds on the west side at Broadway and 77th. Driving through the streets of Manhattan in our Florida police cars, people were streaming out of bars, restaurants, shops, their apartments to come to the street and applaud us and yell "Thank you" and "God bless you." We had not done anything yet, and we were being thanked. Not one of us made that drive without tears in our eyes.
* * *
After sleeping, we hold a platoon meeting and drive to the 6th. Our officers have taken over the precinct security as well as providing patrol assistance. No one gets into the station without an ID check. It really struck me how upside down things were when I saw one of our South Florida police officers checking the identification of an NYPD officer reporting for duty at the precinct he has worked in for nine years!
We have our police vehicles at the four corners of the block; our cops check everyone in and out of the area. What strikes me is how cooperative everyone is, no matter how many times they are asked for ID. New Yorkers come up to us, shake our hands, thank us, give us food. It seems a little like the Allies must have felt when they arrived in Europe at the end of WWII.
Our arrival was supposed to allow 10 officers to have their first day off in three weeks. We were relieving a group of officers from Virginia. An officer from their department was killed in the line of duty several days ago. So instead of taking the day off, the NYPD officers traveled to Virginia for the funeral. What a terrible irony.
* * *
On Sunday night I am taken to the WTC site. It was starting to rain hard and getting quite cold, which added to the sense that we were going into a different world.
The whole area is lit with a very bright white light shining onto the site, then bouncing up, bathing the surrounding, remaining and badly damaged buildings. As we walk in, we pass the temporary morgue -- two large white tents adjacent to the site where the victims are taken, then moved to other places.
Here is a pile of rubble perhaps 15 stories high. Giant I-beams twisted like a piece of licorice, chunks of concrete the size of a car and what I thought was dirt everywhere. Turns out it is not dirt, it's the pulverized remains of the millions of yards of concrete that used to be the twin towers. Still standing is a part of the building's facade that you've seen on TV so many times and standing next to it is a stairwell, maybe four or five flights high.
Hundreds of pieces of equipment are moving millions of tons of steel and debris. The ironworkers and construction equipment operators are doing most of the labor, with the firefighters climbing over the piles of rubble whenever there is a possibility of a victim being found. Some of the real unsung heroes are the ironworkers pulling the scrap pile apart, hanging from cranes and girders. I mention to the cops that we and the firefighters knew what the possibilities were when we signed up, but these guys, hey, they just wanted to build buildings!
The scene is so enormous that even though I have visited here many times, I can't orient myself. After the cops help me, I realize that I am standing almost exactly where I stood, looking up the towers, with my family just the year before during our last visit.
We continue to walk around the perimeter, passing the supply points housed in the lobbies of the buildings surrounding the Trade Center. In the entrance to what were some of the country's most magnificent office buildings are now stockpiles of heavy equipment, food, rescue supplies. Everything that the rescuers could need is there -- towels, eye wash, gloves, shoes, socks, blankets. It looks like a military supply base crossed with a pharmacy.
There is nothing but steel and dirt. I stare for minutes at the pile of rubble, which is only feet away, and can see nothing but dirt. No pieces of computers, parts of desks, telephones, cabinets, nothing. Everything has been incinerated totally and completely. That is why it is so important that the victims' families see this, to understand why there are so few bodies. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" is a reality here.
A cruise boat has been converted to an emergency service workers cafeteria. We walk down a dock and pass the makeshift memorial set up under a tent at the edge of the site. Here each of the services that lost people has set up a shrine to their brothers: NYPD, FDNY and the Port Authority Police. A photo of everyone lost is here, along with candles, poems, dolls, mementos.
It is truly devastating to see the faces of the heroes who now lie under the pile of rubble to my left, and you simply cannot see this without your heart breaking. We pause silently there for several minutes as firefighters and other officers come by, touch the pictures, wipe their eyes, pray silently.
I talk to a firefighter, who tells me they have just entered a stairwell where they have found many firefighters' and police officers' bodies. He is relieved that they have made this grisly discovery. "It's good we got them. Now their families can have some closure," he tells me.
The firefighters have that 1,000-yard stare you hear about with combat veterans. You can't capture in words what you see in their eyes as they walk by you. Walking back to our police car, I look back at the site, still unable to get my mind around what I am seeing. The officers tell me how much better things look than just a few days ago.
"They've removed about 25 percent of what was here just a couple of days ago," they say. "Now that it is a recovery situation, the heavy equipment is moving things much faster. The area we just walked in only a few days before was littered with crushed police cars and fire trucks, steel and concrete, completely impassable."
* * *
Last night provided a little comic relief. Three knuckleheads decided to break into an apartment near the precinct. There must be 200 police officers within a five-block area. The patrol unit responds and rolls up on these guys, who take off on foot. The officers jump from their car, and the chase is on!
A radio call goes out and about 50 cops from around the country start running down 10th Street. The bad guys turn the corner and run right into this crowd of 50 or more blue knights. Their eyes open up like saucers, and they look like the proverbial deer in the headlights.
The two of them dive under a parked car, pushing each other. Suddenly they find themselves surrounded by what looks like half an NFL team with guns drawn. They meekly slide out from under the car, look up and see all these different police uniforms. I'm sure they are still figuring out what the hell happened.
Meanwhile, the third guy takes off in a different direction with two other cops chasing him. A citizen is in the process of unlocking his personal vehicle as the bad guy runs by and this Good Samaritan casually sticks his leg out, tripping him right into the arms of another cop. A scene right out of a movie.
But the best part comes next. Apartment residents up and down the street watching the episode through their windows open them up and give the cops a long ovation, yelling, "Thank you, NYPD; thank you, officers!" The cops are really moved by this. One tells me he has never had that kind of thing happen to him in his 20 years on the job.
* * *
Officer James Leahy from the Sixth Precinct was on routine patrol as the planes struck the towers. He and his partner raced to the WTC about 10 blocks south, in the 1st Precinct. Leahy was helping firefighters carry oxygen bottles up the stairs when the building came down.
We went to a fund raiser for the family of Officer Leahy. The cops from the precinct had shirts made up with his name and shield number and the picture of "the other twin towers" on the back. They gave one to each of us.
As I drive through the city, I meet hundreds of cops -- different uniforms from different states, big cities, small towns. We stop and chat as if we are long-time friends, then move on to our posts. The camaraderie is overwhelming. I think we all sense that we are in for a long haul on this nationwide, and we all know that at any time we can be called on, as the New York City people have.
* * *
As the week ends it seemed like the city was picking up a little; more people out but still somber. The NYPD cops were terrific, giving us shirts, badges, patches. The precinct has a nice museum of police paraphernalia, and I left them one of our badges, which they promptly put up in the display case.
After work on Friday, at 6 a.m., we met with a group of the NYPD officers and shared a couple of beers. For the rest of the world it was early in the morning, but for us it was about 5:30 p.m. It was really an opportunity to say goodbye, and the NYPD folks over and over again thank us for our efforts.
Now it was time to head home. I called Amtrak asking to take the Auto Train home, and we and our police cars got a free ride -- their "contribution to the cause," as they put it.
* * *
In the morning we load our police vehicles onto the train. The Amtrak police are on full alert but knew we were coming and are very helpful. As we walk into the terminal in our dirty uniforms, we get a round of applause from the customers waiting there. After a night's train ride, we arrive in Sanford, Fla., with another five-hour drive to our homes.
* * *
Over the next several weeks we are invited to several meetings of service organizations. They want to hear about our experiences and thank us for representing South Florida. With so many people here having New York connections, there's always someone telling about losing a loved one in the attacks.
A reporter asked me what I learned from this experience. I tell her this was a reaffirmation of my career choice. The newspapers were full of stories about how people were re-evaluating their lives and careers as a result of the attack, often walking away from successful jobs to seek out something more meaningful. That's something none of us had to do.
I also had confirmed what I already knew, that we really have outstanding young men and women protecting our nation.
Typically, the older generation wonders whether the next generation has "the right stuff." But watching these brave firefighters, meeting these dedicated cops and medics, working under conditions none of them even dreamed about a couple of weeks ago, talking with the National Guardsmen standing in the cold rain, seeing the ironworkers risking their lives to retrieve victims' bodies, watching my officers perform so admirably, seeing the Red Cross volunteers and people from all walks of life, all races and religions, giving daily, convinced me we have nothing to worry about -- these guys and gals, our young Americans, definitely have the right stuff!