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.
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."[PAGEBREAK]
Most of the officers interviewed for this story say the past year has been a blur. For them there was Sept. 11 and then there is today; what happened in between has become indistinguishable. Indistinguishable, except for May 30 when the site officially closed as a recovery center. "May 30 was Sept. 12," says Speciale.
Each Port Authority officer has handled the grief and the stress in his or her own way.
Officer Christopher Roughan took out his frustrations at not being able to visit all the families of his fellow slain officers by collecting pieces of marble from the site and making it into crosses. Every surviving family from both his department and the NYPD received one. "When I do get to see them I would like to be able to tell them how proud they should be of their [loved ones] and hopefully they didn't die in vain," he says.
Many emotions remain raw for the officers.
"We all handle this in our own way," says Roughan. "Mine is to look at my children and know what was done here could have affected their futures if we had just given up."
"It hasn't ended for any of us," says Sgt. Frank Giaramita.
"When it is time and the memories and gravity of what happened hits me, I will start crying," adds Olszewski.
Most of his fellow officers agree. "Someday I will get the time to actually cry about this," says Roughan.
The Port Authority Police
The jurisdiction of the Port Authority Police Department extends far beyond America's newest patch of hallowed ground.
Port Authority Police are responsible for law enforcement at all of the facilities owned and operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Authority's police department has police jurisdiction in both states, but its primary jurisdiction is an area within a 25-mile radius of the Statue of Liberty that includes Kennedy Airport, LaGuardia Airport, and Newark Airport; the largest container port on the East Coast; and some of the most congested bi-state bridges, tunnels, and highways.
One year after the terrorist attack, these transportation hubs remain on high alert indefinitely. And to meet that alert, the Port Authority officers have to be even better prepared than ever before.
Part of the PAPD's training involves patrolling the local airports where the officers are also trained as firefighters, rescue personnel, and emergency technicians. If there is an aircraft accident of any kind, they are the first to respond.
"We have the largest air crash rescue facility outside of the military," says Sgt. Kenneth Kohlmann. "We operate the largest fleet of fire vehicles and have the largest amount of trained personnel."
"The advantage of police officers being cross trained as crash fire rescue is that nobody else in the United States can provide 50 officers within three minutes of a disaster," says Sgt. Michael Florie.
Port Authority Police personnel have also been given gas mask training and officers are now required to carry them in case of a chemical or biological attack. "I don't think any other department is going to have every officer trained and issued one. They cost more than our weapons," says Sgt. Florie.
The Port Authority Police Department still desperately needs personnel. But recruitment is up.
In April, a special class consisting of 83 former police officers from other departments graduated from an accelerated 8-week class, instead of the traditional 26 weeks. A second class of recruits will be assigned 10-hour days in order to graduate in 19 weeks, and a third class of former police officers will begin a new class in July for 8 weeks, with both classes scheduled to graduate this month.
The starting salary for the department is $32,361. After five years the average pay is $70,344.
Port Authority Police Capt. Joseph Morris arrived at the Twin Towers on the morning of 9-11 to find both towers burning and soon learned that he was the ranking officer at the scene.
He then made a couple of key decisions that saved his department even greater tragedy. Morris-now chief of the Port Authority Police-told his men to stay back while he went in to investigate. When 2 World Trade collapsed, he ran back to the command bus and dove in. "As I picked myself up from the floor, I asked, what next?"
Looking out over the devastation, he remembered what a Chief once told him after the 1993 bombing at the towers, "What we have is a tidal wave and it is our job not to drown in it, so we wait till things start to settle and start doing what we have to do."
Debris covered the bus half way up to the front window. It wouldn't start and officers frantically cleaned the filters and managed to drive it back two blocks. Then the second tower collapsed and it all began again.
Without radio communications and with cell phones no longer working, panic could have easily set in. But it didn't. And part of the reason for that was that Morris controlled the reaction of his officers.
"Cops always want to get right back into the action, but as a supervisor and leader you can't let that happen. You have to plan the next phase. I was not going to let anyone else get lost trying to save people," Morris says.
"I was walking down West Street before I first saw people in the air, bodies in the air, bodies on the street. One thing I've learned in 30 years was not to run down, to quickly pace, but not to run," Morris says. "My job is to slow time down, not to rush it. Holding people back and not letting everyone into the building was a good decision."
Morris says that most of the evacuation procedures worked, and that most of the lives that were lost were of those people who were located above where the planes hit the towers.
But he's quick to add that the 9-11 disaster was different than anything before because it had to be viewed as an attack and things "had to be set up further away from the buildings. We had to invade. Specialized units had to go in first, like the old miners with their blue canaries."
"Then we had to see how things were going, establish a beach head with a beach master, and keep in touch with the command post and see what other resources need to be sent out, not to just go in blind. With everything happening you have to expect a secondary attack. Even on the eleventh, the one thing that kept going through my mind was what next?" Morris says.
And preparing for what may come next has become a priority for Morris and his department.
"You have to be on your toes and look for terrorism, not just crime," says Officer Hernandez. "Forget the small stuff like robberies. Now more than ever, every item is suspicious, like a person with a video camera recording a bridge."
"You always have in the back of your mind something can happen again," adds Officer Christopher Roughan, "The job has more of a sense of anxiety and insecurity-it can happen anywhere again."
Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based writer who regularly covers the police beat for the New York Times. She is a frequent contributor to POLICE.