This article written by Jeanne Woods
Everybody knows about Sept. 11.
Everybody knows how the buildings fell, how thousands were killed, how emergency responders ran in, and how those emergency responders died. You know that day, Rand. That’s the day you talk about never forgetting.
But you don’t really know about Sept. 12, Sept. 13, Sept. 14. You don’t understand the October, the November, the 2002, the beyond. You don’t know the cost we paid for all those days past 9/11.
I’m here to make sure you do.
On Sept. 12, 2001, after working 18 hours the day before, I woke up and went to work. Every single cop in this city went to work. That’s 40,000 of us.
Add in every firefighter. Every EMT. Every one of us who could walk or crawl went to work, because we had to, because we wanted to. As the city was in ruins, as the world was in slow motion turmoil, we went to work out of duty, not to our departments, but to our fellow man.
We didn’t worry about the cost.
Then, after work, after we’d spent 16 straight hours answering calls from scared New Yorkers and standing guard on foot posts and supporting distraught families and looking for missing people and investigating anthrax reports, those of us who could took off our uniforms and hung our shields around our necks, and went back down to Ground Zero as volunteers.
The world was falling down, and people needed help, help that we could give. We were willing and qualified, and we were told it was safe.
In 2001, I was 28 years old. I was young, I was lithe, and I was smaller than most of the men on the bucket brigade. I wasn’t as strong, or as knowledgeable, or as experienced as them. But I did what I could, because I could. I carried buckets, I dug holes, and when the cadaver dogs took a break, I crawled into the smaller spaces, my nose touching the ground, checking for life, checking for the remains of life.
For those of you who have only seen death in a casket, understand it isn’t always like that.
It’s terrible, it’s horrific, and it’s sometimes grisly. We didn’t find everybody we wanted to, or in the ways we wanted to. But we accounted for everyone we found, even when I quite literally held what was left in the palm of my hand. I put parts of people into blue latex gloves and tied knots in the top, securing remains for families, for salvation.
The rescue, the digging, the sacrifice and the honor went on for weeks. For months. For those assigned to Fresh Kills, it went on for years.
We never asked the cost.
Each day, after hours of work and hours of volunteering, we went home, to rest our bodies, if not our minds. We went home exhausted and grey with dust and smelling of Ground Zero.
That smell. If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand that smell, which rose from the rubble and carried through the city, rising up the rivers to the outer boroughs. That smoke and that scent filled our nostrils and permeated our clothes, and wound through our internal organs in the fingers of the nightmare we now live.
That smell is killing us now. It killed my academy friend Sgt. Christopher Christodoulou, with an aggressive Glioblastoma tumor that took the kindest man I’ve known. That smoke wove through Lt. Chris Pupo, infecting his blood with multiple myeloma. Pupo and I worked together on 9/11, and all those days after. His laughter was contagious, his spirit more so.
All of the rest of us are scared, not just of nightmares from the past, but from the possibilities of the future. Every cough, every lump, every odd heartbeat is cause for concern, cause to either run to the doctor or willfully ignore in an attempt to deny reality. This was the cost of our actions, the cost of doing what was right.
We didn’t ask cost then. You don’t get to ask it now.
At the bottom line, it all comes down to saving just ONE life.
This article was first printed in the New York Daily News.
Woods is a retired NYPD sergeant.
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