Saturday, September 7, 2013


September 11, 2001 began like most mornings. It was around 6 a.m. that I gave my wife Hala and 11 month old daughter Celine a kiss before walking out the door of our apartment. Given it was New York City’s primary election day for the mayoral candidates, Hala and I had plans to watch the election results with the Mayor at The Dylan Hotel, on East 41st Street, that evening. I confirmed our plans and told her I’d see her later. Little did I know no one would be voting that day.

I was in sweats, ready for my daily work out in the gym in the back to the Commissioner’s office at NYPD headquarters. The drive from my apartment took about 40 minutes. By the time I arrived, I had read through the crime stats from the night before and had been briefed by the detectives in my car. Nothing, that I recall, was out the ordinary. If we all were lucky, it would be a peaceful day with the election going smoothly.

I went to my office, put a few things on my desk, and then started running on the treadmill while watching the news. It was a blue sky day, the kind you’d want for any election. I finished my workout about 0745 and then went over some paperwork in my office. When I finished, I went to take a shower and was standing in my bathroom shaving when John Picciano, my chief of staff, and Detective Hector Santiago started banging on my outer door. When I opened it, I still had shaving cream all over my face and a white towel around my waist. “A plane has just hit Tower One,” they said, almost in unison. I looked up at the TV over my treadmill and saw the news coverage. I walked quickly through my office to my conference room to look at the Towers...a clear shot from my windows. I was horrified by what I saw.

The devastation to the North Tower, 1 World Trade Center (WTC), was mind-boggling. I wondered how a small plane could have done so much damage. The news began reporting that it was a jet airliner. A jetliner?

Within minutes I was there, standing on West Broadway on the north side of the building, right next to 7 World Trade which housed the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. The front of it had been damaged by the explosion of the airplane hitting the building. There was no way to get into the building or to the Office of Emergency Management. There was debris falling from the top of the North Tower. People were running out buildings, screaming and crying. A police sergeant ran towards me and my men, screaming for us to get back. "Back up, back up!" he yelled, "They're jumping!"

As most Americans watched their television in horror as men and women jumped to their deaths from the 95th floor of the building, I witnessed their last moments alive. One by one, then two and three at a time, they jumped and fell to the ground. I felt completely helpless. There was no way to stop them...or to help them. They were escaping the towering inferno in the only way they could.

About 15-20 feet to my right, just off the curb, was a hot dog vendor who too realized what he was seeing. He began screaming at the top of his lungs, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” He moved closer to me, gesturing and grimacing wildly. Then, he simply stood still, still screaming but not moving. He was so loud I couldn’t hear what my people were shouting to me. I yelled for them to get him back and out of the way. They moved him behind me and north of Barclay, and, luckily they did because had he stood there much longer, he would have died instantly from more falling debris.

Unanswerable questions

The city's response was in motion and, as bad as it seemed at that moment, it was about to get severely worse, not only for New York City, but the entire nation. As I turned around to give an order to one of my men, an enormous explosion and fireball blew out of the north side of the South Tower around the 85th floor. As I looked straight up, I was confused at first. What the hell just happened? Then I heard a member of the NYPD aviation unit on the radio say that a second jet airliner had just hit the South Tower on the south side, opposite of where I was standing. In that instant, I knew we were at war. An enemy was attacking us. I yelled for John Picciano, my chief of staff, to get me air support and close down the airspace.

How many planes did they have? Were they also on the ground? Where would they strike next? Would they try to kill the mayor? Me? My mind was racing with unanswerable questions.

We ran for cover as debris from the plane and building showered down on top of us. A two foot chunk of metal from the plane struck one of my detectives in the back of the leg, nearly knocking him to the ground.

I told my staff to call the mayor's car and divert him. Have him meet me at West Broadway and Barclay. Forget meeting at 7 WTC; it was too dangerous. About three minutes later, the mayor arrived, jumped out of his truck and ran up to where I was standing. Joe Lhota, his deputy mayor, was there too. I began telling them about the second plane hitting Tower Two just minutes before, just as I was standing there. We were looking up at the buildings and saw the rainstorm of white papers, chunks of metal, and….people. Suddenly the mayor realized that people were jumping to their deaths to escape the raging fire. He looked at me, stunned. It was obvious that we were likely to lose everyone and everything above the impact area of where the planes had hit. We realized this was like nothing we had ever been through before.

The mayor grabbed my arm and said, "We're in unchartered territory." I assumed at the time that he was referring to the damage and devastation to the Towers and at the size of the response to come. However, in the days that followed the attack, and realizing an enemy had succeeded in the unimaginable—a catastrophic attack in the heart of our country's financial district—those words had a whole new meaning.

There were no warning signs of the attack, but New York City's first responders in the FDNY, NYPD, EMS and Port Authority Police could not have accomplished more than they did that morning given the circumstances. With strength, determination, valor and grace, they executed plans and protocols that had been developed over the years, resulting in the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from lower Manhattan and the impact zone, the rescue and evacuation of thousands from the two buildings, and the establishment of one of the largest crime scenes in U.S. history, all in the face of death that, by day's end, claimed nearly 400 of their comrades.

‘We’ve got this, Boss’

The mayor and I wanted to see the damage to the other side of the buildings so we walked to the fire department’s temporary command center. We met with the Fire Department's First Deputy Commissioner, Chief of Department, and Chief of Operations, three of the most experienced fire fighters in the country with well over 100 years of combined experience. Also there were Father Mychal Judge, the Fire Department's Chaplain, and Sergeant John Coughlin from the NYPD Emergency Services Unit (ESU). They briefed us on their assessment of the damage and the response. As the mayor spoke to Father Judge, I spoke to Sergeant Coughlin. Despite the death and devastation around them, they were all examples of grace under pressure. John briefed me on the ESU teams on site; you would have thought he was briefing me on a minor water main leak. He was confident, courageous, and defiant. "We’ve got this, Boss," he said, and he knew I believed in him. Just 10 months earlier, he had helped save my baby daughter's life when she was choking. I already knew Coughlin was a hero. They all were. As we walked away, heading back north on West Street, I told him to stay safe. Father Judge blessed us all. It was the last time I would see any of them alive.

One of my detectives had commandeered a small office on the corner of Barclay Street and West Broadway for use as a temporary command post. We walked from West Street back to that office. The mayor called the White House from a hard-line phone. He wanted to ask for military support. After finally getting through, he was told that the Vice President would come on the line momentarily. All of the sudden, the mayor abruptly hung up the phone, looked at me and said, "That's not good. They said they're evacuating the White House and they think the Pentagon has just been hit."

Before I could get my mind around his words, the building we were standing in began to tremble as if a freight train were coming through the side of it. Joe Esposito, the NYPD Chief of Department, burst through the door and yelled, "It's coming down!" Someone yelled, “Hit the deck!” A bunch of the mayor’s staff dove onto the floor. Some crawled under desks or tables. The building was rattling. No one screamed or yelled, but I could see the fright in their faces. I was standing, holding onto the wall and a file cabinet. None of us knew what was really going on. From where I was standing, I could see the windows in the corridor that led into the office. All at once, they were exploding. Something was happening outside…everything was shaking.

The South Tower of the World Trade Center complex, one of the biggest buildings in the world, crashed to the ground. We didn’t see it, but we heard it. Almost instantly the office was filled with smoke, dust, and a gassy smell.

When the rumbling stopped, my security team rushed the mayor, the others, and me to the back of the office. There was a door that entered into the hallway. One of my men was yelling into his portable radio, "Code Black!" the distress signal if the mayor or police commissioner was in trouble. The hallway connected to a maze of hallways, each with a door at the end. One by one each door was checked. Locked. We couldn't breathe. We were suffocating. I pulled my shirt up over my nose and mouth. I remember thinking: "All the shit I've been involved in... burning buildings, gun battles, drugs busts…and I'm going to die in an office!"

We couldn’t stay there

I didn’t know how much time we had. No one could rescue us because no one knew where we were. I doubted the “Code Black” was even transmitted due to all the crap in the air and whatever else was going on outside. I thought of my wife and baby. Little did I know, Hala was watching the news coverage, and they were reporting the mayor and I were missing.

We were surrounded by locked doors. The smoke and dust in the air were getting thicker. Breathing was becoming more difficult. I thought we were going to die there. Then, to our utter amazement, we heard keys jangling. Someone was opening one of the doors. We rushed in that direction and when the door opened, two maintenance men were about as stunned to see us as we were them... especially for them to see the mayor and me. We all took deep breaths of clean air. But we knew we couldn’t stay there. I asked them where the other doors went and if there was a back way out of the building. They said yes and we all headed for the far door that they opened with a set of keys. We all moved quickly down this new hallway, went through another door, and found ourselves in the lobby of 100 Church Street.

We were now four blocks away from the Towers, and as I looked out of the windows in the lobby of the building, my first thought was that we had suffered a nuclear blast. Everything outside was white. Ash covered the streets, cars, and buildings. There was nearly an inch of dust on the ground. As we walked outside, what struck me perhaps more than anything was that there was no sound. None. It was almost as if we had been placed in a soundproof room. The silence was beyond eerie…it was frightening. What had really happened? We didn’t know. People were walking around in a daze. Some looked like plaster statues. Some were crying. I heard someone mumble, "It's down...the Tower's's completely down."

Many of the mayor's staff wanted him to return to City Hall, but I thought otherwise. I didn't know how many more planes there were or what the next targets could be. I wondered if ground attacks were planned. I told the mayor, "You cannot go back to City Hall. It is too dangerous for you there. You have got to get out of here."

I needed to keep him alive. Continuity of government is critical at a time like this. I don't think he was thinking of it that way, but for me, it was no different than the U.S. Secret Service keeping the president airborne and out of Washington, D.C. until they could determine further threats.

We began walking north. We had to set up a command center, but where? It was still difficult to breathe but not as bad as when we were stuck in that office. Then came that noise again. People behind us and around us began running and screaming. "It's coming down," and within seconds, the North Tower collapsed. Another blizzard of ash, dust and soot. Again, it was difficult to breathe.

First we went into a hotel and then a fire station. I ultimately recommended that we use the New York City Police Academy as a command center. It was nondescript and out of the way. When I spoke with the press and media, I told them to them to keep the location secret. If there were enemy on the ground, I did not want them to know the whereabouts of the mayor, governor or the command center.

Greatest rescue mission

By 12:30 p.m., the mayor, fire commissioner, nearly every city agency head and I met at the academy to begin managing the crisis. Governor George Pataki and his senior staff responded. The mayor and I later went to Saint Vincent's Hospital to check on casualties. Doctors and nurses were standing and sitting outside, waiting for those who might need medical attention. Few arrived. Little did I know then, that was a good sign for all of us. It meant the first responders had done a better job than anyone could have imagined. More than 100,000 people had been rescued or evacuated from those buildings and the surrounding area. This was one of the greatest rescue missions in U.S. history, and the men and women of the New York City Fire and Police Departments, EMS and the Port Authority Police were responsible.

I returned to police headquarters late that afternoon. Joe Dunne, my first deputy, came into my office to tell me the families of the 23 missing police officers from the NYPD were assembled in the auditorium, waiting for me. Meeting the families was one of the most difficult moments of that day, but it was also one of the most inspirational. Fearing the worst, I tried to remain hopeful and optimistic. I shared their pain, but I also had great pride in our department...its heritage, its camaraderie and its ability to take care of its own. The family members were an inspiration to all of us. I often think that they were a greater inspiration to me than I may have been to them.

Late that night, the mayor left the academy for home, and I left for my office. Before going to headquarters, I returned to what became known as "Ground Zero." I needed to see it again. I walked through the smoke and debris and saw a small group of people walking toward me. It was the mayor and his staff. We met for a moment. We barely spoke. We stood there looking at the damage and devastation. For me, it was like looking into the gates of hell, the smoke and fires and the smell. It was hard to breathe. I thought of those we were missing. I thought of the men and women who were there working. How could this happen and why? All in one day, I had witnessed the worst and the best in humanity...the evil that had attacked us and the courageous men and women, working tirelessly around the clock in an attempt to rescue any possible survivors.

I slept in my office that night. I woke to the sound of fighter jets patrolling our skies. New York City was a war zone. I cried and I prayed to God for strength.

Completely gone

Every day I witnessed great heroism and experienced great loss, as did all of America. Any of us who were at Ground Zero for any period of time saw things that would haunt the strongest of men. I clearly remember the day I got the news that they found two of my cops. I went to Ground Zero immediately. Every worker at the site came to a standstill as I walked toward my First Deputy Joe Dunne and the Chief of Department Joe Esposito. There were hundreds of workers, but it was still and silent. When I got to Dunne and Esposito, I said, "Who is it?" They told me the names of the two cops. I then asked, “Where are they?”

They both pointed towards two orange Home Depot buckets, 10 to 15 feet away from where I was standing. I slowly walked toward the buckets, looked around and saw nothing. When I got up to the buckets and looked inside, each contained an exploded gun, a magazine, and, I believe, a set of keys and handcuffs. There was no body, vest, boots, uniform or belts...there was nothing else. These men were completely gone. Dunne had tears running down his face. He said, "There's nothing else."

To this day, I hate the sight of orange buckets.

The initial shock of finds like this was overwhelming to all of us. Some people took it harder than others, and some never recovered. The psychological impact of war can be devastating, and this was the first battleground in this war with our new-found enemy. The men and women serving on that battlefield we call “Ground Zero,” including many volunteers from across the country, somehow found the strength to work through these circumstances, through the death and devastation. The emergency responders deserve so much more credit than people have given them, not to mention the inference by many that they do not deserve the medical attention they have asked for. Anyone who refuses or questions medical support for the men and women who worked on those piles for days, weeks, and months at a time has absolutely no conception of what they went through.

In the three and a half months that followed, we were not perfect, but did the best we could. As I have watched other crises around the world in the 10 years since, I stand even more proud today of our first responders. Their successes and sacrifices have been unprecedented, and I believe there are none better.

Prior to September 11, 2001, I had already decided and announced I would leave office on December 31, 2001, with Mayor Giuliani, even though Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg had asked me to stay on as his police commissioner. Crime was down to a five year low, the morale of cops was up, community relations were stronger, and in just 13 months, we had reduced the response times nearly 50 percent for the first time in more than 10 years. I was proud of my accomplishments as police commissioner, but not as proud as I was of the men and women who worked under my command.

Day in and day out, they put their lives on the line for the people of the City of New York, but it was not until 9/11 that the entire world got to see them at their best. They never cowered, and they did not flinch. In the face of death, their strength, dignity, valor and grace were unparalleled, just as with their brothers and sisters in the FDNY and Port Authority Police.

May God bless those who were there, those we have lost since, and the families they left behind.

And may God continue to bless the United States of America.