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Light of Disaster Shows One NY Cop Who He Is

Recovery: Bearing witness to the fragility of life reminds policeman what he's working for.

April 28, 2002|PAUL MAURO | FOR THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — A few nights after the Sept. 11 attacks, a woman on North Moore Street took one look at me in my dirty uniform, started crying, and silently handed me an apple. It was a moment so charged with metaphor, I got confused; I couldn't even thank her. I'm sure she still thinks I was an ungrateful jerk.

You want to hear a strange truth? There's a part of the cop psyche that's tremendously uncomfortable with such moments. Clutching that apple, I couldn't help wondering: What happens when I go back to writing tickets? What happens when the apple woman hears I took her brother in on an old turnstile warrant? What happens when it's business as usual?

But that's the thing, this time. This one is so big, business as usual may never fully return. Forget relations with the public; that's not what I mean. The real change is probably--had better be--in us. If Osama bin Laden has reminded America of who we are as a nation, he's reminded New York's cops of who we are as well.

I grew up in this city, in a family of cops--my father, my uncles, even my grandfather back in Italy. But in my 20s, while my relatives told war stories over barbecues and backyard beers, I was a professor teaching English at a university. It wasn't until my 30s that the tug of police work asserted itself, inevitable as weather.

In five years on the force, I've done beat work in uniform and plainclothes narcotics work, but I know I'm still pretty inexperienced. Yet, compared to the average citizen, I feel I know this city the way one knows a difficult sibling.

So, on the morning of the attacks, I recognize our immediate dilemma. How do a handful of cops clear half a city block of people who are certain they have to be here? By dark, I've had so many worthies give me a hard time that I'm numb to the shock of it.

Two actually choose to ignore my pleas to keep the area clear for body removal just so they can walk their dogs, hideous little designer creatures I have to restrain myself from punting into New Jersey.

And the volunteers! They come in droves, ragtag groups drifting up to the checkpoint, young men and women in their 20s mostly, yearning to do the right thing. But when told there's nothing for them to do here, they encamp all over, turning the night of Day One into a crisis Woodstock.

Late into that first night, when we've been standing on the same corner for 14 hours without knowing what day we'll finally get home or how completely our lives might be changed, two young women separate from the volunteer army and tentatively approach us. My alarm rises vaguely when I see one of them gingerly carrying a box.

She's on me before I can protest, coming right up to me and my partner. She asks us if we're hungry and tells us that she and her roommate have made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for us, if we want them. Which we do, desperately.

Looking into the box, I see that inside each sandwich bag is a little note: "Thank you for your bravery," and "God bless you." I have the first of what will be many moments when I find it difficult to speak.

Late that first night, I have occasion to wander right down to the site. The dust is still heavy, and I can see only about 10 feet in front of me. Wandering in this gloom, I have the strangest encounter: Four people in medical scrubs suddenly appear and ask if I have seen anybody who needs medical help. One nurse pulls down her surgical mask to ask if I am OK. She smiles at me so beatifically that I wonder, for the briefest moment, if I am still back at the checkpoint, have fallen asleep on my feet and am having a strange Fellini-esque dream.

They are gone soon, these apparitions; there is nothing for them to do.

During the early morning of the second day, we accept a grim reality: Forget triage. The destruction is so great, there are very few wounded. Seeing the site up close, I don't wonder. I wonder instead at people's faith, that they can look at this and think anyone could have survived it.

After four hours of attempted sleep during which I imagine my nerve endings humming to each other, I'm back for the evening of Day Two, assigned over by the river. There, I discover that, when there is no triage, there will be a morgue.

A group of eight or so professionals--medical examiner, fire department paramedic, police department chaplains--hunch on folding chairs, waiting. Then the call goes up outside the tent: "Heads up. Body coming!"

The worker lugs it onto a makeshift table composed of a sheet stretched over plywood. We crowd around, our heads bending to the bag. Will it be a cop? A fireman? Will it be some horror I will never forget?

The paramedic unzips the black plastic bag. This is human? That is my first thought as her gloved hands sift the contents. But then I see. On a mat of gray dust and paper fragments, a latticework of ribs. No blood or flesh, nothing that is not simply gray and woolly with ash.

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