Time is relentless. This year will mark the 18th anniversary of the day our world changed forever. In a few short years, the entirety of high school students will be taught about 9/11 as something they weren’t alive for.
There are endless accounts of loss, survival, bravery and outright heroism through the eyes of those who lived that day first person. I sit here and write this as someone who wasn’t a police officer then. I wasn’t down at the World Trade Center that day and I didn’t lose a family member or loved one. On 9/11, I was dispatching for the New Jersey State Police, assigned to the midnight tour. I was sleeping when the first plane struck the tower. My wife, who was/is a 4th grade teacher, called me and woke me up after the second plane struck.
It’s hard to really describe my emotion as I turned on the TV and saw the two towers ablaze. My older brother worked in that area and I, luckily, was able to verify pretty quickly that he was safe and among the crowds being herded out of that area. Like the millions of others watching the events of that day unfold, I simply sat in stunned and speechless horror. As someone who grew up seeing the ‘Twin Towers’ visible from all parts of New Jersey, I knew the skyline would never be the same. As a grown adult, I knew our WORLD would never be the same.
I went into work a little early. I knew that we HAD to be getting flooded with calls. The New Jersey State Police call centers serve as ‘answering points’ for the vast majority of cell phone generated ‘911’ calls. As such, thousands of calls being made from that area and from inside of the towers were being answered by my coworkers. Dispatching, done correctly, is one of the most underrated and undervalued cogs in the law enforcement wheel. If you ever listen to the audio of any critical incident, you get a very real sense of how vital these men and women are. Especially in smaller departments, the calls for service are personal for a dispatcher. They live those calls with their patrols. It’s not just a voice on the other end of the phone/radio. And so it was for the men and women answering the phones that day. They had the TV’s on. They knew what was happening. More importantly, they knew what the caller was up against. Yet, their job was to instill calm and confidence at a time where fear was everywhere.
In short time, the calls coming in transitioned from calls giving names, floors and locations to calls giving names of spouses/family members/loved ones and messages the caller wanted delivered. They knew they weren’t getting out.
Then the calls just stopped coming in.
We lost a lot of dispatchers following that day; and there is no shame in that. Being broken by the horror of having to have those conversations with so many people coupled with the helpless feeling of being separated by a telephone line is nothing to be ashamed of. The New Jersey State Police dispatchers are some of the best in this area and they showed it that day.
As a nation, as we put more time between 9/11/01 and present day, the ‘meaning’ of that day will change. The generation of people who lived that day are giving way to the generation who were alive for that day but didn’t live it first person; and that generation will eventually give way to the generation who wasn’t even alive for 9/11 and knows nothing other than the Freedom Tower, reflecting pools and a museum. The disconnect is tangible and you can see it in the way that the World Trade Center plaza is, very literally, a tourist attraction littered with selfie-sticks and group poses cut specifically for Instagram accounts. Simply put, not everyone down there is mourning. But I’m here to tell you, with a little decorum and reverence still being required, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
A few years back, our partner, Laurie Tietjen, who runs the P.O. Ken Tietjen Memorial Foundation in honor of her brother, Port Authority Police Officer Kenneth Tietjen who was killed on 9/11, approached the Holland Tunnel (NJ) Command and proposed an idea. Recognizing that, if we are going to keep the memory of those lost day alive, at some point the mourning needs to transition to a celebration of life. As such, Laurie asked if we would be willing to host a BBQ. She was done mourning. She wanted to turn the corner. She has been ahead of her time and has created a model of what is to come. Her BBQ’s, quiet and intimate for friends, family and civil servants, have taken on a life their own. She provides food for the Holland Tunnel command, a secondary and different Port Authority command, and then travels the surrounding NY area simply to say ‘Thank You’. In doing so, she brings together generations of people that bring very different experiences from that day, including family and coworkers of those that were lost that day. EVERYONE leaves with a new ‘memory’ or a previously unknown story. As a family member of someone who was lost that day, her BBQ’s have been an outwardly selfless acknowledgment of her brother’s sacrifice and the sacrifice that our police, fire and EMS made that day and continue to make. Everyone who lost that day heals in their own time; and some never really heal. Seeing people gather in her brother’s name has done her heart good.
There is a saying that I use often: You will be remembered in the same manner that you remember. In that mindset, it is paramount that my generation honor the lives lost in the manner which we’d want to be honored. As a police officer, I live in awe of the men and women who worked that day. The uncommon valor that came from common men and women should serve as the gold standard for what it means to be a police officer…to be a fireman. We can train all day, every day. NO ONE knows how they will respond until that bell rings. Like Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The first responders who rushed to that scene that day heard that bell; and they set the bar for my generation and all generations that will follow them.
At a time where our governmental leaders could care less about the police officers currently serving, let alone the ones who have gone before us; at a time when it’s more acceptable to disrespect a police officer than thank one, now more than ever, we need to embrace our own and remind the families of our lost ones that their loss was NOT and NEVER WILL BE for nothing. Our fraternity is under attack and, if we crumble, there will be nothing left. If we don’t remember and honor, then how can we expect anyone else to?
I will close with my annual promise to my friend, 9/11 survivor, BBO member and retired Port Authority Police Officer Will Jimeno. Not only do I help Will keep good on HIS promise, but in doing so, I reaffirm what I still believe about this job, regardless of how desperately our politicians are trying to trash law enforcement.
Port Authority Police Officer Dominick Pezzulo was assigned to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on the morning of 9/11/01. Same as Will, he was part of a group of officers that, along with Sgt McLoughlin, gathered rescue equipment and oxygen tanks and were heading for a freight elevator when the first tower collapsed on them. Of the three men to survive the collapse, Dominick was the least injured and the only one not trapped under debris. Now, as someone separated from that day and that circumstance, I want you to consider this: This man, a former high school teacher with a year on as a police officer, with a wife and family of his own, just survived a building landing on his head and was mere feet from freedom. Yet, this same man voluntarily stayed in hell with his friends and coworkers based solely on an oath he took and the patch on his sleeve. As Dominick worked to free his trapped friends, the second tower collapsed causing the debris to shift and trapping him under concrete. His last words to Will were, “Just remember me. I died trying to save you guys”, a promise that Will has kept every day since then.
I neither knew nor worked with Officer Pezzulo and I have never met any of his family members. Yet, I have had an etching of his name, taken from the memorial plaza, in the back of my locker since the day the footprint pools were completed. It faces me as I get dressed every day and serves as a daily reminder of what I’m supposed to be.
As this year’s anniversary approaches, be mindful that there are still thousands of loved ones who will never be made whole. Whether you visit the World Trade Center Plaza that day or any other day, please remember that, while you may not be mourning, there is surely someone there who is doing so quietly and likely to themselves. Please honor them with decorum; the same decorum you would want for you or your family member.
Here’s hoping that September 11th soon becomes a federal holiday, giving the day the remembrance it is entitled to, and not just skipped over and often not even taught in its entirety in schools. This generation owes it to the one before it and to themselves more than they realize.
9/11/01 – Never Forget – Never Forgive