9/11 reflections: Cops who traded their lives for our freedom
An NYPD sergeant shares the memories of his friends who willingly ran into the burning towers and participated in the largest rescue mission ever in the history of New York City
This essay, penned in the weeks immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was written by John Lambkin, a now-retired officer with the New York Police Department’s Emergency Services Unit.
By John M. Lambkin
The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York City raised the question: How much freedom should we trade to achieve security? There will be many economists, social scientists and business groups who will attempt to extrapolate the monetary, business and social costs to our society in any reduction of our personal freedom. Before we begin to assess those costs I would like to share with you an essay on bravery and personal loss that cannot be so easily calculated, yet must be.
I, like many throughout the country, as well as the world, watched in stunned silence from the safety of my home as two jumbo jets crashed into the World Trade Center towers on that bright September morning. Once again terror had hit New York City. Watching as the second plane banked and dove into the South Tower, I knew this was no accident and that I would be going to work.
As New York City police officers assigned to the Emergency Service Unit, we consistently handle various accidents and emergencies, but we never envisioned this level of horror. This elite team of police officers – who are all well trained and dedicated to saving lives – would see true evil that day. I remember that ominous winter day in 1993 when the Twin Towers were first attacked by terrorists. Seeing the immense crater and devastation made us think that the Towers were able to take so much, but still would be there when the dust cleared.
How wrong we were
Our unit has been sent to airplane crashes and disasters before but never would the price be so extraordinary. As I drove into the city, my mind was filled with thoughts of my colleagues and friends. Did they make it out? Did all the people who worked there get out before the towers collapsed? Driving over the George Washington Bridge I looked southward and all you could see against the azure sky was a malevolent gray cloud covering the whole of lower Manhattan, like a shroud that descended and encircled the tip of the island. I knew that my friends were in those buildings helping get everyone out to safety. That’s what we are trained to do and we do it knowing the dangers.
When the first tower was struck, units from all over the city began to mobilize and mentally prepare for what had happened and for what they would now be called to do. The men from Emergency Service Truck One on East 21st Street in Manhattan would be the first to arrive. Dominick Amendolare, the truck sergeant, would take his team of men into the North Tower to rescue those still remaining within. Taking the North Tower was just a twist of fate – it would save all their lives.
Sergeant Rodney Gillis, from Truck Eight, would take a squad of men into the South Tower, as would Sgt. John Coughlin. With Police Officers Brian McDonnell, Steve Driscoll, Vincent Danz, Ronnie Kloepfer, Santos Valentin, Thomas Langone, Wally Weaver, Paul Talty, Jerome Dominquez and Detective Joe Vigiano, they all would help to save hundreds of lives that day, but they would trade their lives for such heroics. At 9:56 a.m., all of our worst fears would be realized – the South Tower collapsed entirely. In an instant eight women would lose their husbands, two their fiancés, parents their sons and 24 children would never see their fathers again.
The whole building is gone
Officer Kenny Winkler was outside on the corner of Vesey and Church Streets next to Truck One when he heard the deafening roar – like a freight train. He looked up to see what appeared to be confetti flying but was actually the steel of the South Tower raining down. He hurriedly crawled under the truck, narrowly escaping the downpour of steel death. What he did next in the ensuing confusion saved the lives of Dominick and his men, as he was able to radio and tell them to leave the North Tower, which was now in danger of collapse. Dominick’s team of Cliff Allen, Roger Mack and Dave Norman were up on the 31st floor when they heard Kenny’s call, but they had to ask what part of the tower came down.
Kenny was quite clear when he said sadly, “The whole building is gone.”
As the team began their descent downward they passed numerous firefighters, stopping several times to administer oxygen to them and to let them know all had been ordered out because of imminent collapse. On the 31st floor, Dave Norman saw Firefighter Dave Weiss, who had recently been honored for a daring water rescue in the East River, and told him that the South Tower had fallen and everyone was getting out. Weiss said that they would not be long and would be right behind him. Sadly, Dave Weiss, and those firefighters with him, never made it out.
They should be right behind me
As the team worked their way down they met up with Sgt. Michael Curtin, a supervisor from Emergency Service Squad 2. With him were officers John D’Allara, Mark DeMarco, Bill Beaury and Detective Claude “Danny” Richards. Mike’s squad had heard the radio call and were on the third floor and going down when they told the other team they are getting out. DeMarco and Beaury were now running along the concourse level as debris is falling around them. Mike, John and Danny were still behind them as they ran into the Custom House. As soon as they got into the building, at 1028 hours, the North Tower came rolling down upon them. DeMarco says, “Everything got black and as I was being covered with wreckage I just prayed for my family and asked God to make it quick.”
After what seemed like a lifetime, Mark and Billy, now choking on the hot concrete dust that had surrounded them, got up and began to feel their way out. They are in total darkness – the Custom House had been ripped open by the steel beams from the North Tower creating a massive breach in the center of the building. Mark, in the pitch-blackness, placed a hand on the wall and for no real reason went to his left and as they inched along they made their way to West Street – had Mark turned right from where he was he would have unknowingly walked into the abyss created by the tons of falling steel. He missed death by mere inches.
Once down onto West Street Mark asked, “Where are Mike, John and Danny? They all should be right behind me.”
No one can give him an answer. Mike would be the first to be found in the Custom House on March 6, 2002, Danny would be next on March 29, 2002, and finally John on April 11, 2002. Once again, two more women would become widows and five more children would lose their dads.
Arriving at Ground Zero around 1100 hours that morning, I was absolutely stunned at the devastation and chaos I encountered. Concrete ash covered everything – bits of clothing, paper and metal parts dangled from the trees. Fires were raging, and people were running in confusion, yelling that there are more planes on the way. Steel I-beams protruded grotesquely out from the neighboring buildings.
All that was once the heart of these Towers had been ripped out and strewn about the streets.
Search and rescue teams were formed and sent out into the 16-acre site with one mission, to find people. Working our way into the thickest part of this carnage did not seem like the brightest of ideas, but we had people to find. That’s our job. The next several hours went by in a blur of activity. We were standing hundreds of feet in the air atop twisted steel beams, the surrounding buildings are all aflame, and structures are still collapsing. The constant threat of death hung in the air, but we still search for the thousands of victims who never made it out. Throughout the day we all were hearing different reports on the missing people. It is heart-wrenching not knowing where your friends are. Were they under all that twisted steel, pulverized concrete and fire?
The members of the NYPD Emergency Service Unit would work non-stop at Ground Zero, digging, shifting and raking looking for all those that were lost that day. The lost were people with hopes, dreams and lives to be lived, not just remains to unearth. Once found they were placed gently into stretchers, flags were draped over them and then saluted a final goodbye as they were escorted out of Ground Zero. I will forever remember the smell of death, wet concrete, and burning steel that constantly assailed my olfactory sense.
The physical and emotional effect of all that has occurred has yet to be fully realized. After the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma, the divorce level alone of those involved in the rescue rose by three hundred percent and that recovery effort took only a month. What will the cost of this extended recovery be? Of the 14 ESU cops who died only five bodies would be recovered – the remaining nine may be lost forever. The pain and suffering that each family and their friends have to bear are enormous. Only time will tell what damage this hurt will inflict upon all of our lives. In a span of just 32 minutes, thousands of people would die and the lives of many more would be forever altered.
What would I trade for freedom?
In the next eight months, there would be many funerals where men and women would weep openly at the inspiring eulogies given by wives, children, parents and friends. The strength and courage shown by these families is amazing, but you look and see a deep pool of sadness in their red, tear-stained eyes. This unit would no longer have Mike’s strong guidance, Wally’s gentleness with animals, Santos’s love of a joke and John’s quirky sense of humor. Brian’s stoicism, Tommy’s expertise, Vinny’s spirit and Ronnie’s love of the game – all gone. Jerome loved to ride, Paul was the ultimate family guy and Steve loved being a cop. Joe Vig was just larger than life, Rodney had a smile that could light up Manhattan, and we miss them all very much. We loved all these men, they were our family, and now we will not be able to share laughs and life’s precious moments with them ever again. How do you calculate the loss of so many close personal friends?
This is an essay for my friends who willingly ran into those burning towers and participated in the largest rescue mission ever in the history of New York City, rescuing thousands. They traded their very lives so that we would be able to go on with ours. When debate arises on what we would be willing to trade to be secure think of these men and ask, “Would I trade my life for freedom?”
This article, originally published 09/09/2011, has been updated.
About the author
John Lambkin is a retired sergeant from the New York City Police Department (NYPD) after serving close to 21 years, the majority of that time with the Emergency Service Unit. He is a certified Emergency Medical Technician, PADI Open Water Diver, Defensive Tactics Instructor, and Ground Defense Instructor. Mr. Lambkin also trained extensively in the disciplines of Emergency Response to Terrorist Bombings, Hazardous Materials Incidents, Chemical and Biological Counterterrorism, and Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents. He was the team leader when the Federal Emergency Management Agency activated the New York Task Force Urban Search and Rescue Team during the days after September 11, 2002.