Thirty-seven. That's how many New York/New Jersey Port Authority Police officers came to work on Sept. 11, 2001, and never went home. More than 2 percent of the agency's complement of 1,400 was killed in the attack, and to add insult to extreme injury, its headquarters were on the 67th floor of 1 World Trade Center.
Since the attack most of the members of the department have still had little or no time to grieve. And they need to grieve. The devastating loss of their fellow officers, the memories of a horrific morning that will be forever etched into their minds, the frustration of not being able to do more, the survivor guilt, and the endless days and nights searching for bodies have all taken an indescribable toll on their minds, bodies, and souls.
Now 12 months later, they are slowly putting the pieces of a broken department back together, but the nightmare is far from over. How could it be?
Long, Grim Shifts
Unlike the other rescue workers who worked at the WTC site after the attack, including the New York City police and fire departments, the Port Authority Police did not rotate their search and rescue detail. The same 40 officers worked 12-hour days, 7 days a week; days that were filled with an emotional and physical pain that only they can understand. Even the post-traumatic stress disorder experts, who were brought in to help them cope after the site was closed, told them there was no precedent for the PAPD experience. "They told us there was nothing they could relate it to," says Officer Peter Speciale. "They said we should have been rotated out."
The Port Authority cops all say it was their job, but it was a job that no one could be prepared to do. And only the people who were there can describe it.
"When you are in the hole and someone passes you the torso of what used to be your fellow officer who you knew and then they pass the skull of a woman he tried to save, that is when the gravity of the situation starts to hit you," says Officer Karl Olszewski. "But you can't stop because someone is yelling at you to pass another item. Then a container with body matter or another part comes by, and you see 20 red bags with bodies and other bags with body parts.
Olszewski continues: "Then you realize you are covered with remains and you smell of death. You wipe your hand near your mouth and you taste death and you reach for water and there is none. So you spit and spit. But you can't get the taste out of your mouth. You wash out your mouth and it's still there. You begin to think about it, and you finally walk out to get some fresh air. But you find yourself just waiting in line to get back into the pit because that is your job."
To most people outside of the New York City metropolitan area, the Port Authority Police is an unknown entity. And perhaps that's why one of the emotions the PAPD officers had to cope with was a feeling of neglect, a painful realization that the lost Port Authority officers were the forgotten heroes of 9-11.
The pit at Ground Zero has been cleared of bodies, debris, and rubble, but the memories of the terror, sacrifice, and bravery of 9-11 remain.
In contrast, the New York City Police and Fire Departments reaped the lion's share of public support, adulation, and largesse. Port Authority officers say they don't begrudge the city cops and firefighters their recognition, but they would have liked to have been included. "A lot of companies were giving Disney vacations and such. Our guys had to stand on patrol and watch the other departments go on these vacations," says Sgt. Michael Florie.
"We felt ignored", says Officer Peter Hernandez. " It affected us department-wide. We communicated with all the agencies; we were the first in and the last out. We were forgotten about. It is frustrating and it does hurt."
The First Responders
It should hurt. Taking nothing away from the other agencies involved, the Port Authority cops displayed exemplary courage and professionalism on 9-11. Since the Port Authority owned the Twin Towers and the other World Trade Center buildings, its officers were the first of the first responders: the first firefighters on the scene and the first rescuers. And they were effective. It's estimated that their efforts helped save as many as 22,000 people.
For the men and women of the Port Authority, the attack was just the beginning of a long and arduous ordeal. For the first three weeks after 9-11, Port Authority Police worked 12-hour days with no time off. Then they were given one day off per week. After Thanksgiving, the officers were given two days off every other week. When the site was closed in May, the Port Authority officers were allowed two days off per week for the first time in eight months.
"We worked so hard because we wanted to give some kind of closure, not only for the cops but for the civilians as well," says Officer Peter Hernandez, whose assignment before last September's atrocity had been to patrol the Twin Towers. "I knew a lot of civilians in there. I saw their faces in the morning, during lunch, coming to work, leaving from work. I knew a lot of them by name."