MY CITY OF RUINS
“This is war."
11 September 2001
Baker Shift (8X4)
Approximately 0840 Hours
September 11, 2001. 9/11/01. 9/11. 9-1-1.
No introduction needed. Thank God I am off today. Thank God I am home, safe with my wife and pets. Thank God I’m not in New York or Washington. Or on a plane. Thank God.
This is the second of two days off this week and I am in bed, sleeping peacefully when the first plane hits. My wife, who was laid off last month from her job at a faltering tech company, is downstairs watching the Today show on NBC and balancing the checkbook. She wakes me just after the second plane strikes.
“Honey, two planes just hit the World Trade Center.”
I am groggy and out of it when the television in our bedroom flares up and shows these terrible images: The smoke, the fire, the falling debris… and… is that… people? People jumping. Holy shit.
The Today show is replaying the second strike as I focus in on the screen. Katie Couric is jabbering away about the first plane, trying to find the words to describe what no words can, when suddenly we all see it together. The entire world sees it together.
The second plane hits.
I see it hit. My wife does too. But she already saw it live. I see it on tape. We are right here watching as the world starts crashing down. We are here…watching. I say the only thing I can think of to say:
“This is war.”
I swear to God those are my first words.
My wife just stares at me, then back at the TV. Bailey, our newly acquired “ghetto dog” is sleeping next to my side of the bed. Guinness, our cat, is on the nightstand next to my wife’s side. The sun is shining bright. The air is cool. It will be hours before Tom Brokaw will make the same proclamation. But I know it right now, right when I see that second plane hit the second tower. And I say it first.
“This is war.”
As we watch the horror build, I make phone calls. First to my dad. His wife - not my mother - answers.
“Are you alright?” I ask.
“Yeah, sure… why?”
She doesn’t know yet.
“Turn on your TV.”
There is a pause.
“Oh – my – God. What is that?” She sounds scared.
“Is dad home?”
“No. He’s teaching today.”
“Get to him. Let him know. Make sure he’s OK.”
I am remarkably calm. I have to be. People are counting on me to protect them.
(I think back on it now and I realize that was the key: I didn’t overreact. I stayed calm. My wife needed that. My dad's wife needed it. I needed it. I think this is what police officers do, natural police anyway. They keep their cool in emergencies. They have to. We have to.)
Just then a reporter from inside the Pentagon joins in the conversation on the TV.
“There has been an explosion…some sort of an explosion here at the Pentagon…”
“They just hit the Pentagon.” I tell my dad's wife over the phone. “It’s started.”
(I really believed that this was just the beginning. And it would have been if not for heroes like Todd Beamer and others aboard American Airlines Flight 93. It is my belief that this plane was bound for The White House. This country owes those members of Flight 93 a debt of gratitude that we will never be able to repay. Up to this point, the most noble thing I had done was save a dog from certain death. Those men and women saved this country from a catastrophe that we might never have recovered from. Losing those towers was hard enough, and every time I think about it I get madder and more incensed…but to have lost The White House…such a historic building…)
“They hit the Pentagon?” my dad's wife’s fear is growing and I can hear it in her voice.
“Yeah, look, call dad. Get with him. Make sure he’s okay. Then, if you want you can come over here.”
“Will you have to go into work?”
It is a question that I had not thought about yet.
“I don’t know yet. Let me look into it. I’ll call you back.”
She is crying. I hang up and immediately stand. My wife looks scared as well but also, something more. Angry.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to shower. I have to be ready in case they call me into work.” But first…
I march downstairs to the garage and grab our American flag. I storm outside and slam it into its holder defiantly. And I stand. I look at the sky…searching for smoke. Searching for planes. There are neither. I will later learn that all air traffic has by this time been grounded. Other people in other places are reacting with the same level headed clam that I was. Then I notice that no one else on our street has hung their flags yet. I am the first. This makes me a little proud and a little sad. In the weeks that will follow, there will be a mad scramble in every store to purchase American flags. On the one hand, I am glad to see so many people showing their patriotism, but on the other…I am pissed that so many people had to buy them in the first place. If you love your country so much, why do you have to buy a flag on September 12th? You should have already had one.
I head back inside and shower, preparing myself for the call-to-arms. It never comes.
I dress in my police sweats and drift back to the bedroom. I bring with me my two loaded magazines from their holders on my duty belt and set them on the nightstand next to my fully loaded Glock 17 9mm. I am preparing for anything.
(It seems silly now to have been so fully ready for an attack on our house, I mean after all, who’s going to bother with Owings Mills, Maryland…but at the time, and anyone that lived through it can attest to this, there was a feeling that anything might happen next. It felt like the end of the world. For many people, it was.)
An hour later, the first tower falls. I can sense it coming.
“That thing is gonna fall.” I declare.
And just then it does. Then the second one comes down. It is a horrible thing to see.
After several hours of staring slack jawed at the TV, I finally decide that if the call comes, I am not going to answer the phone. I am not proud of this, but I promised to be honest in this book.
“If the phone rings, you answer it.” I am pointing at my wife. “If it’s work, tell them I am not here.”
“You’re not going in?”
“No. If this is the end, I am staying right here to protect you.”
Hours pass. Reports come in. Casualties mount. Calls are made. To my wife’s parents, to my grandparents in New Jersey, and every time the same question:
“Will you have to go into work?”
I call Mike, a fellow officer and friend, who is at work. He tells me that the city is in a high alert status, but that everything is calm for the moment. We both guess that everyone is inside watching TV. He also tells me that the powers that be have not yet begun to call in off duty personnel…and it doesn’t look as if they are going to do so. I call Marc. Marc is at home and tells me that Rick has gone in to volunteer his services. Rick, Marc and I share the same leave group, which means that Rick has gone in on his day off, leaving his pregnant wife at home alone to do his duty. I feel compelled to do the right thing. I decide to call the district.
I dial the Northwest District and ask for the Administrative Secretary, Ms. White.
“Hello, this is Ms. White.”
I can hear the confusion and chaos in the background.
“This is Officer *****. I have the day off but I wanted to know if you were calling us in yet. I am available if you need me.”
She puts the phone down and I can hear her asking…
“Are we bringing in off duty personnel?”
I can’t hear the answer. I begin to worry. I don’t want to leave my wife alone, but this is the job.
“Officer?” She is back on the line.
“Okay, we are not calling anyone as yet. You are back tomorrow, yes?”
“Yes. Eight to four.”
“Okay. What we are doing is starting twelve hour shifts as of now, so when you come tomorrow, don’t come at eight. Come in at noon and be prepared to work until midnight.”
“So roll call will be at noon or at eleven thirty-nine?”
Another long pause as she inquires.
“Thanks. I’ll be there.”
(I later find out that roll call was at eleven thirty-nine, and I was half an hour late the next day, but no one seemed to care. As long as I showed.)
I hang up and tell my wife the news. I make more calls. I finally reach my dad. He is alright and in fact is canceling his afternoon class. He will be home soon. Just then, I notice a white van parked in front of our house. I am still in the bedroom on the fourth floor and the van is parked directly in front of our driveway. Three men get out of it and walk over to the cable box located in our front yard. Two of the men are black and one white. The black men hang around the truck and the white man begins opening the box. I grab my Glock and head downstairs. I don’t say a word. I don’t want to scare my wife. She follows me down anyway. When I open the door, I keep the gun hidden behind it, in my right hand. I look at the three men for a minute. The white man looks up.
“How you doing today?” he asks.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
“Oh, were just fixing some cable problems in the area. Won’t be but a minute.”
It is then that I notice the man’s shirt. It reads: Comcast Cable. But the van has no markings.
“Do you have your radio on in the van? Do you know what’s going on today?”
“Yeah, we heard something.”
Something? Is this guy serious?
“You might want to cancel your other work for today. People might not react well to a nondescript white van parked in front of their house with three guys working on electric cable boxes given everything that’s happening.”
“Yeah, I just called my boss and said the same thing. We’re done after this job.”
“Oh, Okay then. Well be careful. It’s getting crazy out there.”
“Yeah, we wouldn’t want to get shot.”
He has no idea that I have a loaded gun pointed right at him, or how close he came.
The week that follows is a grueling one. We work twelve hours shifts for a straight week. But I never once complain. Nothing we are doing even comes close to what is going on up in New York, down in Washington and over in Pennsylvania. Their clean-up efforts are all the news media talk about. That and the tiny information they had gathered about the terrorists. And the body count.
My Aunt Kris, my dad’s sister, works for Campbell’s Soup and she travels to New York to volunteer and help give out free soup to the rescue workers who work around-the-clock digging and pulling wreckage from Ground Zero. She sees their faces, feels their pain.
I volunteer, along with almost every other Officer that I know, to go to New York or D.C. and help out in any way I can. But help is coming from everywhere and we are needed in our own city.
Oddly enough, very few people stop to say “Thank you” to myself or any of my friends and fellow officers. But that’s okay. The weeks following September 11th aren’t about being thanked. They are about standing up.
A lot of guys I know joke about the overtime money we are making and how they will spend it. But I feel that this is blood money; money earned on the pain and suffering of others; no joke can make that feel right. Those poor souls lost in New York, Washington and in a field in Pennsylvania. And I don’t like making that kind of money. I would do it for free.
If you weren’t alive to witness the events of 11 September 2001, believe me when I tell you… the way we live our lives changed forever that day. But not everything about the way we lived. Just a few things. We have refused to be beaten into fear. Things have gotten better since, but they will never be the same. Ever. But the terrorists really only succeeded in doing one thing that day, and one thing only: they unified The United States.
I was the first person on our block on 11 September 2001 to hang our American flag in front of our house. By week’s end, everyone had one up.