On September 11, 2001, the world changed. Actually, it stopped. The most horrific attack on US soil rocked the globe on a sunny Tuesday morning. While we all prepared for the day and got ready for work and school, 19 terrorists with hearts of evil turned passenger planes into missiles to take out key US targets; targets that would stab the US in the heart like a dagger.
The two targets that literally made the world turn on its head were the gleaming Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan. The Twin Towers were a major part of the New York City skyline and, therefore, were the ideal marks for an attack of such magnitude.
We all know what happened: one plane struck, then another. Screams, gasps, smoke, fire, explosions, eruptions, blood, bodies falling from the sky, endless death.
Then the unbelievable and unthinkable shock of the towers collapsing. The videos and photos of terror personified only capture a small portion of what happened that day. For those of us old enough to remember, we know where we were, what we were doing and how our brains could not process what was happening.
On this darkest of days, however, bright lights shone through in the form of brave men and women who ran into the dark when others were running out. Police officers, firefighters and first responders raced to the scene and ran into the towers to get as many people out as possible. There was no time to stop and think of what could happen; it was just time to go and help.
We had the chance to talk to some amazing police officers about 9/11 and how it affected them, their careers and their lives.
Bergen County Detective; Brad Waudby, who has been on the job for 12 years, was a sophomore at West Point Military Academy on 9/11/01. After a morning class, Brad’s father messaged him to turn on the news and during his next class, he saw the second plane hit; his professor said we are now going to war. Brad was born and bred in New Jersey and many of his friends’ parents worked in New York City. Bergen County is only an hour outside of Manhattan.
Brad shares: “In December, I traveled to Ground Zero and was driven into the pit by NYPD. All I smelled was jet fuel and burning flesh. Remains of a firefighter were found and removed that day. This made me determined to take action to pay back the cowards who did this by defending the people of this great nation every day. One of my most prized possessions is a piece of the towers cut by an iron worker into the shape of the towers. It is a reminder of why I put on my shield and do my job. The memory that stands out in my mind the most, however, is going to the family observation deck at Ground Zero and seeing a photo of a father playing football with his son. I started to cry because that child will never be able to do that again. We cannot forget 9/11.”
We also got the chance to speak with a current Port Authority (in NYC) officer who was only in middle school on 9/11/01. He has been on the job two and a half years.
He shares: “Our teachers rounded us up for an assembly when the first plane crashed into the tower. I remember a friend commenting how could the pilot not see a giant building. But then we found out shortly it was an act of terrorism and the hit was intentional. Once the second tower was hit, students were being pulled out of class by the faculty and staff to let them know their parents, who worked in NYC, were okay. We left early and I remember seeing convoys of military vehicles pass through to head downtown to Ground Zero.
I have always wanted to work in public service and help people; either military or Law Enforcement. I interviewed and tested in various departments then took the Port Authority test in 2013. Port Authority lost 37 officers on 9/11, the most losses for one police department that day. I wanted to be part of something bigger and I aim to honor them by wearing my uniform and patrolling the Holland Tunnel, one of the major entries to Manhattan.”
Sergeant Juan DePena with the Hudson County (NJ) Sheriff’s Office has been on the job for over a decade and just started his 15th year. Juan wasn’t always in Law Enforcement and was downtown working as a stockbroker on 9/11/01. He was directly across the street from the towers.
Juan shares: “I was on the phone with a client and looked out the window on 9/11 and saw the first plane hit the first tower. My wife worked in that building and I rushed downstairs as soon as the second plane hit moments later. The heat was so intense from the impact site I could feel it on the street and I was panicked thinking my wife was in there. Fortunately, my son was being fussy at daycare during drop off so she was on the train to work when the attacks happened. I remember the chaos: the desperation of the people jumping from the windows and their bodies obliterating upon ground impact. Everyone was desperate to escape the city and had to wait for hours in long lines for the ferries back to NJ. I thought my wife had died; I hugged her the second I walked in the door.
That horrible day made me realize that life is too short not to live your dreams. I always wanted to work in Law Enforcement but kept putting it off. 9/11 made me realize I wanted to do more with my life, to have a calling and help people. I wanted to protect people from the evil that made itself very visible that day. Life was bigger than me, I realized, and there is no greater honor than to run towards danger when everyone else is running away from it. I make sacrifices daily that may benefit others and I wanted to do something special, to be more than I was.”
In closing, we must remember; we need to watch the videos, hear the stories and give up the comfortable space in our minds that says this will never happen again. We have to expose ourselves to what happened that day so that we can realize that our way of life, our freedoms and our rights are always being threatened; but they are also being fought for and protected by the men and women in blue, our first responders, military and Veterans. In honor of those we lost and in honor of those who currently serve: WE CANNOT AND WILL NOT FORGET.