Not many people will ever forget that 2,752 people—including 23 NYPD and 37 Port Authority officers—were brutally murdered in New York on 9/11. But after five years, it appears many may be forgetting the men and women—including officers from the NYPD and Port Authority—who were injured and wounded that day.
There are no statistics as to the exact number of officers injured on 9/11. There are also no statistics as to how many officers are still suffering from the effects of spending hours at the site, sifting through the debris at first in hopes of finding survivors, later in the grim task of searching for remains.
It’s rare that anyone thinks about the brave officers who survived the attack but lost pieces of their bodies and souls to its effects. There are many of them. The following is a look at two of them, one from the NYPD and the other from the Port Authority.
Officer Joseph DeMorato
Besides his wife and kids, Joseph DeMorato had two great loves. One was being a paramedic; the other was being a cop. Five years after 9/11, he has his family, but he doesn’t have his work. His career ended as a result of the World Trade Center attack.
The NYPD would not release information to Police on how many of its officers were wounded on 9/11, and it would not cooperate with this story. But DeMorato says based on what he saw that day that he is a member of a large club that no one wanted to join.
DeMorato says he always wanted to be a cop. And when he finally was able to get on the job, he took it very seriously, even to the point of running a few miles and working out just about every day. He believed that if he stayed fit, he’d be on the job and healthy until his retirement.
Then on Sept. 11, 2001, DeMorato was working a routine election detail when he got the call to report to the Trade Center. From that moment on, his life would never be the same.
Descending Into Hell
DeMorato jumped into a police van and took the tunnel into Manhattan.
He came out of the tunnel and into a scene from hell. “There was debris everywhere and smoldering bodies. It looked like a meat packing truck had dropped its load. All we saw was debris and body parts,” DeMorato says. “It really looked like a war zone; there was carnage and parts of the airplane. We didn’t know what was going on.”
DeMorato had no real time to react emotionally to what he saw. But he remembers that the cop who was driving did. “After he ran over a body, the other cop started crying, and I said to him, ‘Just get us to where we need to go,’” DeMorato remembers.
Arriving at their mustering area, the 10 officers in the van were ordered to stay within sight of their sergeant. It was an order that became impossible to follow.
The Thunder Clap
Looking up at one of the towers, DeMorato saw “people trying to shinny down the side of the building, people falling down, people jumping out of windows.”
He wanted to do anything he could to help. But his immediate task was to direct the civilians away from the towers. DeMorato focused on the living, trying to get them to safety.
Then he felt a rumbling and what sounded like thunder.
The first tower was collapsing.
A large, thick cloud of dust, and smoke, and debris came down the street, knocking DeMorato down a stairway. “It felt like someone took talcum powder and stuffed it into my face. I couldn’t breathe. I felt myself falling but couldn’t feel any stairs. The cloud just blew me down,” he says.
Knocked off his feet by the force of the cloud, DeMorato tried to breathe, but he was drowning in the dust. He tried taking small gasps of air, but dust filled his mouth and nose.
DeMorato was sure that he was dying. “The only thing I could think of was, ‘Here I just moved into a new home, and I would never see it.’ I was worried about my wife and my kids and who was going to take care of them.”
Thoughts of death quickly passed. DeMorato was determined to live and to get back to work. He remembered that he was wearing a bandana under his helmet. He stumbled to his feet and put the bandana over his mouth. A woman with a baby carriage bumped into him, and he gave the bandana to the baby and pulled his T-shirt over his mouth.
Not realizing how hurt he was, DeMorato focused on getting the civilians who had jumped into the Hudson River out safely. Before long, help arrived.
“I don’t know how they got there so fast. I don’t know if it was just that I experienced big lapses in time or they just got there, but there were boats from New Jersey that were out there helping,” DeMorato says.
DeMorato and a group of officers then headed down a street where a man begged them to help his wife who was trapped in a building. They went to the apartment, but the woman was dead.
DeMorato contacted his lieutenant who was trying to locate all of his officers. When DeMorato mentioned one that was missing, he was told that officer had showed up at headquarters, put his gun and shield on the desk and said, “I quit.”
One of his fellow officers noticed DeMorato was injured. His knee was so swollen his pants were tight around it. He was brought to a central place, his gun and ID were put in a plastic bag, and he was escorted to a hospital.
A few months later, DeMorato had surgery to reconstruct his knee.
But the knee was just the most visible of his 9/11 injuries. Although he had a complete physical exam only a few months prior to 9/11 and was then pronounced in top physical condition, after the attack DeMorato began to suffer from lung, stomach, and heart problems.
Eighteen inches of his colon was removed, and he was diagnosed with scarring on the bottom of his lungs and valve problems in his heart. DeMorato was 36 years old on 9/11. In the years since, he’s had five major surgeries.
And the physical injuries were just the beginning of the wounds DeMorato suffered on 9/11. The atrocities of that day have also left emotional scars.
DeMorato has dreams where he sees the faces of the people he helped as a paramedic. But the most haunting dream, the one that recurs the most, is one where he is standing at the top of a well that is filled with dead bodies. The well is covered, but the victims’ limbs are protruding out. A group of people from the Trade Center buildings are walking toward him, asking him for help, but he can do nothing. He is helpless.
DeMorato says the department’s bureaucracy has been less than sympathetic to his condition. He’s on disability, but the NYPD makes him jump through a lot of hoops, and they still haven’t given him his retirement ID.
He’s also not very impressed with the agency’s approach to his physical and emotional problems. They tell him that in time it will pass. “I’m still waiting for it to pass…. I’m still waiting,” he says.
Inspector Larry Fields
The Port Authority Police suffered more casualties and more devastation from 9/11 than any other law enforcement agency. They were headquartered in the Twin Towers, they knew the people who worked there, and they spent what seemed like endless shifts going through the rubble after the attack. More than two percent of the 1,400-sworn force was killed.
Inspector Larry Fields was at the bus terminal in Manhattan when a fellow officer was talking to personnel at the Port Authority PD’s headquarters at the Trade Center. Suddenly the person at the other end yelled “earthquake!” and the phone went dead.
Fields and the other officer quickly commandeered a bus, told the riders to get off, and asked the bus driver to take them to the World Trade Center. In the short time it took to go down 9th Avenue, they were amazed to see that New Yorkers had already responded. Civilians were stopping traffic on the side streets so the emergency vehicles could get downtown.
At the towers, Fields took command of a seven-officer team. He was leading his team under the North Bridge when he ordered them to stop. He had looked up and caught a glimpse of something coming down at them. As it got closer, he realized what it was.
“It was a person who had jumped from the tower and was basically free falling. He landed pretty close to us and just disintegrated,” Fields says.
Once inside the building, Fields’ priority was getting people out.
Fields found himself on the mezzanine level in exactly the same locations where he had been after the 1993 bombing. While he was getting the people out, he began to think that this time it was safer. After all, the building had lights and was not filled with smoke this time.
Then he heard a loud explosion and someone yelled, “It’s a third plane!”
Fields wasn’t sure what it was. “In my mind it did sound like a plane was coming into the building,” he says.
But it wasn’t a plane. The explosion sound was from the failure of the building’s structure. The walls began to crack and the huge chandeliers shook. Fields’ team began to run.
“When I looked back I saw a great cloud blast through the windows,” Fields remembers. “The blast was so strong that when I dove to hit the ground I didn’t hit it, I just surfed. That is when I said some quick prayers and thought I was going to die. The blast literally just lifted us up and blew us away.”
After it was over, there was an eerie silence and total darkness.
“I was trying to breathe. I had to pull my shirt over my head because I couldn’t breathe. I was gagging for breath. It became so thick I had to stick my fingers in my nose and mouth to clear it out. There was a point where I actually thought I was going to die,” Fields says.
Fields’ survival instinct is strong, and it was not his time.
He yelled for his fellow officer and, as they kept yelling to each other in the darkness, he reached out and touched his arm. “He had short sleeves on and hairy arms and that is how I knew it was him. I could touch his arm but I couldn’t see him,” Fields says.
They then led the survivors as they struggled in the total darkness to find their way out to the light. They were among the lucky ones.
When they were about a block away, Tower One collapsed.
Still in Pain
Fields was not just a survivor of 9/11, he was also a casualty. Both his shoulder and knee were injured in the blast.
But whether it was adrenaline, shock, years of training, or a combination of all those factors, he continued to head uptown and set up an emergency center in a local college. Within a few hours, he had food, water, medical supplies, and personnel at the scene.
Reflecting back, Fields says he was just on high alert. People tell him he spoke with them and he doesn’t remember. “The brain filters out certain things the brain doesn’t want to remember,” he reasons. Still, he does remember most of what happened that horrible day.
Fields is still living with the physical pain from his injuries and might face surgery. He says a strong family has helped him.
Unfortunately, no surgery can help Fields recover from the emotional impact of what happened on 9/11 and one particular memory that haunts him.
In an effort to protect one of his men who had suffered a heart attack a year earlier, he made a decision not to let him climb the tower’s stairwell. The officers that went into the stairwell lived; the other officer never made it out.
“I kind of wonder if I had let him go in, would he have survived, maybe he would be alive,” Fields says.
When the pain of his physical injuries gets bad, Smith sometimes thinks that it is a reminder: “It brings back certain things to you.”
But he has a lot of support and a department that he says has been fully supportive—not only to him, but to his fellow officers as well.
Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Police Magazine.
Legacy of 9/11
Besides those who were killed and injured at the World Trade Center, there are countless other first responders who are feeling the effects of 9/11.
The United States Government Accountability Office released testimony before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives in 2004 that confirmed a wide variety of physical and mental health effects being reported in scientific literature. Their conclusion was “the primary health effects include various injuries, respiratory conditions, and mental health effects.”
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the primary injuries were inhalation and musculoskeletal injuries. During the 10-month cleanup period, despite the dangerous nature of the work site, responders reported few injuries that resulted in lost workdays.
Now, a range of pulmonary and respiratory conditions have also been reported. These include wheezing, shortness of breath, sinusitis, asthma, and “WTC Cough,” a persistent cough accompanied by severe respiratory symptoms.
The report estimates 40,000 responders were in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site on 9/11, during the days immediately following, and during the cleanup operations.
Just this year, a New Jersey coroner attributed a 34-year-old NYPD detective’s death to dust from Ground Zero. It is the first linked by an autopsy to toxins at the site.
There are research studies presently being conducted, and class-action lawsuits have been filed. Experts say they are worried about a rare lung-scarring disease that could be fatal to the responders. Another concern is the potential for an increased rate of cancer. An estimated 1 million tons of dust poured down from the towers and surrounding buildings destroyed on 9/11. Concentrated in the dust and debris were asbestos, building materials, glass fibers, and other carcinogens.
In July, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that the thousands of lawsuits that allege respiratory illness by police officers, firefighters, and some civilians will all be tried in one central location, federal district court in Manhattan.
Many of the lawsuits contend that New York City and the Port Authority failed to monitor toxic conditions and to provide proper respiratory masks and other equipment to the officers and other personnel who worked the Ground Zero site.