The Long Shadow of 9/11, One Policeman's Story

The annual Tribute in Light marking the 17th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center is tested in New York City on September 5, 2018 as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

There are many Americans who believe that 9/11 is a thing of the past. My childhood neighbor is not one of them. A retired Sergeant in the NYPD, he struggles with bone marrow cancer to this day.

On 9/11, the Sergeant (as I will call him to protect his privacy) was notified by two of his officers that they could see smoke coming out of a large, burning hole in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. From his uptown precinct, he donned his dark blue uniform and raced to join his fellow officers at the World Trade Center. By the time he arrived, a plane had hit the South Tower.

While he was helping the evacuation effort, the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 am. As they did not have masks, he and his fellow NYPD officers — their dark blue uniforms now white from burning dust — had to breathe in the toxic air in order to continue aiding the evacuation. The same happened when the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 am.

For the rest of the day he and his fellow NYPD officers worked, carrying out Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's orders that the 1 million people in lower Manhattan be evacuated. By the end of the day, with this monumental task completed, the Sergeant brought two of his fellow officers to his home in a small town an hour north of the city. He saw his wife and two young daughters, and he and his officers washed their uniforms. It was only then that he noticed that rubber on the bottom of his boots had melted, presumably from the burning debris (scattered for miles in every direction) he had to walk on. They managed to get about an hour of sleep before heading back to the city. In our small town where many NYPD and FDNY first responders lived, six families were not as lucky as the Sergeant's. Those six families would never see their husbands and fathers again.

The Sergeant was part of the search and rescue effort for two months. For the first few days he had to work without a mask. Like hundreds of thousands of others, he breathed in the toxic fumes of ground zero. When he retired in 2008, he discovered that he had bone marrow cancer.

Thanks to successful chemotherapy and blood transfusions, he will not be joining the growing list of those who have died from the ground zero toxins in the near future. The number of people who have died from the toxins is expected to soon surpass the death toll of the attack itself.

For many years after the attack, the men and women of the NYPD and FDNY were recognized for what they are: Heroes. Their insurmountable courage, and their willingness to sacrifice, served as an inspiration to millions of police and firefighters all over the world.

Some have forgotten, but most of us never will.

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