'You're supposed to be dead!'
On Sept. 11, 2001, Dave Gallart was a 37-year-old father of two, assigned to the NYPD's Highway Patrol; this is his story of survival on that nightmarish morning
"Special operations training. Full uniform. 0800 report. Of course, John – my partner – runs late, so no time for breakfast."
Dave Gallart appears younger than his 59 years. Athletically built, well over six feet tall, he resembles baseball legend Keith Hernandez. On September 11, 2001, Dave was a 37-year-old father of two, assigned to the NYPD's elite Highway Patrol.
"All the good spots are taken, so I park at the end of the block. The classroom is loud, filled with guys from Emergency Service, Harbor, K-9. I ask a guy from Aviation if he landed on the roof."
We sit in a pub, just shy of 50 miles and 22 years from Lower Manhattan and that nightmarish morning. While several day drinkers watch games on flatscreens over the bar, a few couples at tables linger over late lunches.
"You know how it is ... hurry up and wait. No instructor in sight, so we follow the aroma of the coffee. When we get back, everyone's listening to the city-wide frequency on full volume. A cop is screaming on the radio, something about an airliner crashing into the World Trade Center."
Our pints arrive. Knowing whom we honor, we toast in silence.
"A sergeant runs in, and starts barking orders. He points at us; ‘Highway! Church and Vesey, forthwith!’ On the bridge, we get our first view of the towers, that smoke. John angles the dash-cam to capture the images, and says, 'We've got to preserve this for history.'"
He pauses, leans in.
"From the get, we're on auto-pilot. Every move, every action and every reaction is a result of our training and experience," he says, raising his glass in salute to unnamed mentors.
"We make downtown in less than 15 minutes. Beyond chaotic. Some uniformed Fed runs by, holding up his radio, yelling about a second plane. Then that piercing whine, the explosion. The echo goes on and on. It feels like we're inside a volcano. That's when I know we're under attack."
We sit in silence for a moment.
"Within a few minutes, three unmarked vehicles pull up. The back window of the middle car opens; it's the PC (police commissioner). He yells, 'Highway! Get me to the Bunker!'"
"The Bunker" was New York's Emergency Command Center, located at 7 World Trade Center.
"It's only a couple of blocks, but we have to navigate around hoses, debris, emergency vehicles, people running. Again, this is what we train for. We get them there in less than a minute. The PC orders us to stay put. While John is monitoring the city-wide frequency and the AM stations, I get out to look up. It's such a beautiful day, but it's difficult to see the upper floors. The sun is bouncing off all that glass and steel, the smoke. Stepping back to get a better vantage, I trip on something. A shoe," he says, his voice trailing off. "There are shoes everywhere. People had literally run right out of them and just kept going."
Our food arrives. He chews on a fry.
"I think my mind is playing tricks. The upper floors of the South Tower seem like they’re shifting, shimmying. John jumps out of the car and yells, ‘One of them is coming down!’ We run to the loading dock of another building, but the metal door is down. Pressing against it, facing in, hoping the concrete lip around the opening will afford us some protection. The collapse sounds like a freight train. I yell, ‘I never saw myself going out like this, brother!’ There’s a blast of extremely hot air. Then a lull; eerily quiet. There’s some dust, but we can see. I hear screaming; people are sprinting ahead of a massive grey cloud. We run to a subway station just as the cloud envelops us. At the bottom of the steps, the gate is shut. I shake it, cursing. Back to the top of the steps. I hear John calling my name, hear him coughing. Then I hear a guy shouting back at the bottom. I call to John. He finds his way to me. I tell him to grab my shoulder and I start back down, holding the banister, feeling my way. At the bottom, a transit worker wearing a helmet and orange vest pulls us in. I tell him to leave the gate open. Now we’re all coughing, hacking our brains out. He leads us down the platform to an anteroom they use for breaks. There are about a dozen other transit workers in there and some guy in a suit. Turns out he's Secret Service."
Cheering from the bar. We watch runners round the bases.
"In an adjacent room, I find a fax machine. By some miracle, there's a dial tone. I call the Highway Patrol. I recognize the voice that answers. He can't believe it's me. He says, 'You're supposed to be dead!' That cop still reaches out to me every year on September 11. I call him 'The Voice.' I hang up and say to John that if he makes it and I don't, he has to swear to tell my boys that their dad didn't give up, that if it's my day to die, it will be while fighting to get back to them. Then the lights flicker and the room starts shaking, the entire planet feels like it's coming apart. The North Tower is collapsing."
I suggest a break. After hitting the restroom, I text my wife and adult daughters: "Love you guys."
Back at our table, Dave continues.
"We discuss walking north along the tracks, but we're concerned about flooding and collapse. I grab the guy who had let us in, tell him we need to leave. He says his HQ told them to stay put. John says, 'Do what you want, but we're leaving.' Secret Service says he's coming with us. When we open the door, I'm expecting a wall of debris on the platform, but it's completely clear. We're able to walk to the exit unimpeded. Then we see that the stairway is totally clogged with debris; chunks of concrete, shards of glass, paper, wire and metal. No one says a word; we just start digging. All the transit workers join in. In about an hour, maybe 90 minutes, we dig a narrow tunnel through that mess up to the street. Everyone disperses quickly, but the Secret Service guy stops, shakes both our hands, says he needs to check in with his office, find his guys."
He pauses and takes a long drink of water.
"Without the towers to navigate by, it takes us a minute to determine which direction is north. The quiet is deafening; it feels like we're in that 'Twilight Zone' episode, the one about the bank teller who loves to read. We pass a newsstand. At the sight of the candy, my stomach starts screaming. I grab a Snickers bar and eat it in two bites. Then I leave $2 on the counter, using another candy bar as a paperweight. John laughs. He calls me a Boy Scout. In 10 minutes, we arrive at city hall. As we'd surmised, it has been set up as a temporary headquarters. We're covered head to toe in white dust. A paramedic is checking us over; we say we're fine. As far as we're concerned, we're accounted for. Now we have to go find the PC; he's our responsibility. I start to walk away and the paramedic grabs my left arm, but I can't feel his grip. John is hacking like an elderly sailor. The paramedic says we need to go to the hospital – that the numbness in my arm could be a cardiovascular reaction to everything I inhaled. We're still putting up a fight when a lieutenant orders us into an ambulance. I say, 'Boss, we have to find the PC!' She swears he's safe – that he's at a firehouse with the mayor."
He pushes away his plate and folds his hands in front of him.
"On the way to the hospital, EMS says to dispatch, 'I've got two Highway guys from Ground Zero.' That's the first time we hear that expression. Outside the ER they make us strip and throw everything into plastic bags. Inside, there are no patients, just doctors and nurses with empty gurneys. They work on us and ask questions: 'Does that hurt? Does this hurt?' Off in a corner, I spy a priest. It’s a Catholic hospital. He moves toward me. Holding up my hand, I say, 'No thanks, Father. I'm good.'"
He stares out the window.
"I give name, rank and serial number to a guy with a clipboard. He starts to walk away, then turns back and asks, 'Date of birth?' I look right at him and say, 'September 12, 1963.' As he writes, I see realization hit him. He starts to say something, then just walks off. The priest moves closer. He says, 'Happy birthday, officer.' Then, raising his eyes to the ceiling, he adds: 'I don’t think He's finished with you.'"
In memory of NYPD Police Officers John Perry, Jerome Dominguez and Bobby Fazio: End of Tour 9/11/01.