Editor's note: Bernard Kerik, former New York City police commissioner, wrote this first-person account of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, for Newsmax magazine's special 9/11 10th Anniversary edition. To receive a copy of this special edition with the "America Rises" photo that inspired a nation, please Click Here Now.
Within minutes I was there, standing right next to 7 World Trade Center that housed Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Office of Emergency Management. The front had been damaged by the explosion and there was no way for me to get in. There was debris falling from the top of the north tower, and people were screaming and running. “Back up,” a police sergeant yelled at us, “they’re jumping!”
One by one, then two and three at a time, people jumped and fell to the ground. I felt completely helpless. There was no way to stop them or to help them. Standing to our right was a hot dog vendor, screaming at the top of his lungs at the horror he was witnessing.
As I turned 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. I never saw the second plane because it flew into the south side of the building.
My staff and I ran for cover as debris from the plane and building showered down on top of us. A 2-foot chunk of metal from the plane struck one of my detectives in the back of the leg, nearly knocking him to the ground. As I looked up at the two burning buildings, I heard a member of the New York Police Department aviation unit on the radio say that a second jet airliner had just hit the south tower. I yelled for John Picciano, my chief of staff, to get me air support and close down the airspace.
About three minutes later, the mayor arrived. As he looked at the damage on the north side of both buildings and watched the falling debris, he suddenly realized that he was looking at people jumping to their deaths, rather than be burned alive in the towering infernos. He was stunned at the sight.
A bit later, he grabbed my arm and said, “We’re in uncharted territory.” I assumed at the time that he was referring to the devastation to the towers and at the size of the response to come. However, in the days that followed, realizing that 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 could not have accomplished more than they did that morning, given the circumstances.
With strength, determination, and valor, they rescued and evacuated of thousands of people. Then they established of one of the largest crime scenes in U.S. history, all in the face of death that, by day’s end, had taken close to 400 of their beloved comrades.
The mayor, several others, and I walked to the fire department’s temporary command post just west of the towers. We met with the fire department’s first deputy commissioner, the chief of the department, and the chief of operations, three of the most experienced fire fighters in the country. There was also a sergeant there from the NYPD Emergency Service Unit. They briefed us on the damage and the response. As we left and walked north on West Street, Father Mychal Judge, the fire department’s chaplain, blessed us all.
It was the last time I saw any of those men alive.
One of my detectives, Hector Santiago, had commandeered an 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, where the mayor called the White House. He was told that the vice president would come on the line, but suddenly the mayor hung up and said, “They’re evacuating the White House. 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, burst through the door and yelled, “It’s coming down!” and then for the next 10 seconds or so, the south tower of the World Trade Center complex, one of the biggest buildings in the world, crashed to the ground. The street outside and the building we were in were showered with debris and dust.
For nearly 25 minutes, no one knew where we were. We were stuck in a maze of underground hallways, until maintenance personnel helped us find our way into the lobby of 100 Church Street. We were now four blocks away from the towers, and as I looked out of the windows, my first thought was that we had suffered a nuclear blast. Everything outside was white and there was nearly an inch of dust on the ground. As we walked outside, what struck me more than anything was that there was no sound. Nothing.
People were walking around in a daze. They looked like plaster statues. Some were crying, and some were mumbling. “It’s down . . . the tower’s completely down.” 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. I don’t think he was thinking of it that way, but for me, it was no different than those in 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. 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.
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. I met with the press and media outside of the building and told them to keep the location secret. If there were enemies on the ground, I did not want them to know the whereabouts of the mayor, the governor, or the command center.
By 12:30 p.m., the mayor, fire commissioner, nearly every city agency head and I met at the academy to manage the crisis. Gov. 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.
I returned to police headquarters late that afternoon. The families of the 23 missing police officers from the NYPD were assembled in an auditorium, waiting for me. Meeting them 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. The family members were an inspiration to all of us.
Late that night, the mayor left for home, and I left for my office. Before going to headquarters, I returned to 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 stood there looking at the devastation.
For me, it was like looking into the gates of hell, the smoke, the fires and the smell. How could this happen? 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 to rescue survivors.
I slept in my office that night. I awoke to the sounds of fighter jets patrolling our skies. New York City was a war zone. I cried, and I prayed to God for strength.
On Sept. 27, 2001, I wrote these words to Mayor Giuliani: “Just as the finest steel sword is forged, tempered, and strengthened by the scorching flame and heat of the furnace, shaped and edged under the repeated heavy blow of the hammer on the anvil, in similar fashion, the indomitable spirit of New Yorkers shall emerge from this firestorm stronger, keener, and more resolute.”
That spirit continues to be a beacon to us all. May God bless our nation, those we have lost, and those who remain.
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