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NYPD Detective Remembers 9/11: 'Running From the Dust'

NYPD Detective Remembers 9/11: 'Running From the Dust'
Survivors of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks make their way through smoke, dust, and debris on Fulton St., about a block from the collapsed towers Sept. 11, 2001 in New York. (Gulnara Samoilova/AP)

By    |   Monday, 10 September 2018 08:26 PM

It seemed the sun went down around 10 a.m. ET on Sept. 11, 2001, at least in lower Manhattan.

The day started out as most do, an easy pace, the usual rituals being conducted, commutes starting, and folks starting their days at work or school.

It quickly changed into a long and stressful day that stretched into weeks and months.

By 10 a.m., the city and the world had been plunged into watching what evil truly looks like. Much of Manhattan was in a twilight, masked by smoke that even the brightest sunlight could not penetrate. Several times it got so dark, it seemed like midnight during midday.

All forms of communication were basically cut off. No cell service existed after the two main towers fell. For us down at the site, we had no idea what was going on in the world.

Rumors swirled of more planes coming in. People would start running for no apparent reason. A military plane flew over causing panic on the ground. Quickly, order would be restored and the brave rescue workers would run back to dig and search. This would occur dozens of times during the day – hundreds of rescue workers running where they thought safety was, triggered by a rumor, sound, or partial collapse of a structure.

A temporary morgue inside the lobby of an office building – containing bodies of NYPD, FDNY and civilians – had to be hastily evacuated cause of fear that building, which was damaged in the collapse, might itself fall.

We ran into the lobby and grabbed the dead and ran across the street in hopes of finding them a safe place before they could be removed from the site. As I ran across Liberty Street with another cop I did not know, a crooked hand covered in dust and flecks of blood pointed at me from beneath the sheets EMS wrapped this soul in, perhaps as a warning of the future only they could now see.

The building never fell, but there was much of this mayhem the first day or two. Vesey Street, I recall, was covered in hundreds of high heels. Women who were at work kicked them off to run more efficiently from the towers.

Near late afternoon, someone mentioned a temporary cell site was up and running. I quickly checked my phone, and indeed service was up. I quickly called home. My wife answered clearly upset. My oldest daughter was in the background all excited and with many questions.

They knew right where I was and were worriedly watching the TV coverage live, cameras fixed on the site and listening to the speculation of the news reporters. I had more questions for them. Down at the site, we knew nothing of what was going on in the world.

About a minute into the conversation, 7 World Trade began to fall — 47 stories of building came down after burning out of control for much of the day. It fell into the just-settling debris of the two main towers now laying at her feet. Truthfully, my first clue was my wife and daughters' screams as they watched the live coverage and the talking heads yelling another collapse was occurring.

A millisecond later, everyone started running, myself included. It was obvious to my wife that I was running. They put two and two together and surmised I was in danger. I could hear them screaming through the phone as I ran.

The dust cloud blasted down the street like a freight train for the third time in a day, kicking up whatever was already on the ground and caught up to me like a lion chasing a wounded gazelle. It hit me in the back and passed me by as if it did not care, continuing down the street, going who knows where.

It was like someone sprayed you with a sand blaster.

Day turned into night and a silence that lasted too long. It was not just dust. It was heavy pebble-sized substances. It enveloped everything, reaching high into the air and even under ground, impossible to escape and impossible not to ingest. There was no escaping it.

Your mouth and underwear and shoes would be coated in it for months. It moved with such force, it blasted the leaves off the trees in the park that lead to the Trade Center. Leaves replaced by sheets of paper from the now-destroyed offices wrapped around branches. The trees now looked like a paper mache project from grade school.

The whole area was cloaked in an eerie ghostly grey hue for months. The dust so thick on everything, it acted as a sound barrier muffling sounds and vehicles by several decibels, knee-deep in some areas.

In the early days, there were no wash stations and no protective gear. We dug and carried the toxic dust everywhere we went – in our cars and ultimately home with our families.

We drank and ate meals with dust on our hands on the tables of the makeshift aid stations and churches that opened their doors to take care of us. We grabbed water and food that was not spoiled from abandoned bodegas and coffee shops that once served the towers – blowing and wiping the thick dust off before consuming any calories we could find.

Many blame the government for not telling us the danger. Believe me, we all knew. It does not take a scientist to know that that dust was not good for you. Nothing would have stopped me and my brothers and sisters from going down there and digging. Nothing.

Nevertheless, the dust is still with us. It kills on average 2.7 first responders per week. The NYPD lost 23 police officers on 9/11. So far we are closing in on 200 deaths in the aftermath from 9/11-related illness.

The FDNY lost 343 and will surely surpass that number in aftermath deaths in another year or so. They are in the 250 range as of this writing. You would think this far out the numbers would decrease with time.

However, in cases of toxic exposure to dust and particles, it takes time for symptoms to become a problem, as with mesothelioma and other long-term illnesses related to toxic exposure. As of July of 2018, 10,000 cases of 9/11 related cancers have been reported to the World Trade Center monitoring program. Last I checked, you are 450 times more likely to be afflicted with certain cancers if you spent 40 hours at the site.

People who were at the site for a day or so have been gone for many years already – myself having spent months. Some who were there until the last beam was removed are still here, although sick.

Family members and spouses who never set foot at the site are dead or sick – having ingested the toxic dust from clothing or in the family car brought home by their spouses. Those victims, showing unexplained illnesses I might add, are not recognized or covered at the present under the Zadroga Bill which affords 9/11 responders like myself healthcare will expire in 2020.

Nothing worse than bringing your work home, especially when it can kill your family, shorten their life, or, at the very least, make them sick. It is heartbreaking, really.

So, this day, 9/11/18 once again we should never forget what occurred.

But we all should recognize the continued pain and sacrifice that many of our responders and their families suffer. We will continue to die and fall ill forever until there are no more of us left, which might be sooner than later.

The dust continues to chase us, overtaking us one by one. It has no remorse, or care, and will never, ever settle. With each responder that falls, the fears that lay at our feet are kicked back up for all of us much in the way 7 World Trade did.

With each ache or pain or sudden illness, or the prolonged nagging chronic conditions that afflict us or our family members, you feel your time has now come: Time for you to take the march up the long ramp from the pit lined with our brothers and sisters.

We all will forever be looking over our shoulders. To say that it does not affect us is foolish and delusional. The sheer numbers do not stack up in our favor. For me to live to old age will be a miracle.

With each friend or acquaintance who dies from 9/11 illness, you feel like a soldier hiding in a foxhole, every death a shell landing closer and closer to your foxhole. Dirt and rocks rain down, hitting you in the helmet, and there is nothing to do but cover your head and hope the next shell is not a direct hit.

There is nothing to do but wait for it to stop.

Each report.  Every illness. Each cough.

We are still running from the dust.

We will be forever be on the pile.

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A retired NYPD detective remembers 9/11, a morning that started like any other, but wound up being like no other, leaving destruction and death that still comes for the heroes of the day.
911, remembrance, anthony agnelli, nypd, toxic exposure
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2018-26-10
Monday, 10 September 2018 08:26 PM
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