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New York's Finest

An embattled police department responded to the catastrophe at the World Trade Center with displays of uncommon courage.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

(continued from page 2)

To put that number in perspective, consider that the most NYPD officers killed on duty in an entire decade is the 57 police lost in the gangland violence of the "Roaring Twenties."

Burke, a union delegate for the department, lost one man, officer John Perry. Many of the victims -- police and firefighters alike -- weren't on duty that day, but Perry wasn't even supposed to be a police officer on September 11: that morning, he had gone to One Police Plaza to resign.

"He was putting in his paper to resign," says Burke, "but they were evacuating the building." Standing outside police headquarters, Perry met up with a captain and raced to the World Trade Center, thoughts of resigning gone. The captain and Perry were separated. The captain survived; Perry died.

When the towers collapsed, Wilson and his men were covered in soot and debris. "It was like a tornado," says Wilson. Above, the roar of American fighter jets sounded like a new attack. In the blackness, people cried for help.

In the ruin of the towers, a bucket brigade was assembled in a frantic search for survivors. Burke stood on the ruined mass of steel and dust that had been New York's tallest buildings. "We stood on top of the World Trade Center," says Burke, a thickly built man with a crew cut and heavy mustache. He had never been to the top of the building when it was intact.

Burke was at the front of the line, digging. "I lost a man," he says. "You want to get down there and get your fingers dirty, your knuckles scraped. I needed closure. I needed to do something. I got choked up. I cried my eyes out."

Crying has become a familiar ritual for these police. Detective Herb Fonseca, a 19-year veteran of the NYPD, is a quartermaster of sorts, providing the equipment and supplies required at Ground Zero and the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Months after the attacks, grief is now an integral part of his days and nights. "If you cry once a day, you survive," he says with a small smile.

Officers struggle to find words for their families, steeling themselves in front of loved ones. "My daughter knew [what was going on]," says Sgt. Ricardo Estupinan, 38, who, with his partner John Albarano, evacuated the Empire State Building on September 11. "My son is three and a half, but he knew something is wrong. And I hated him knowing. I said, 'Bad guys did bad things.'"

Some good has come of September 11: the city of New York has learned to love its police. Where officers were sometimes met with glares and hatred, citizens now cheer. Burke, exhausted and riding home from a long day at Ground Zero, heard screams along the West Side Highway. He thought it was a riot, and lifted his weary head.

"All these people were screaming, 'Thank you! God bless you!' They were an inspiration. As tired as I was, it gave me a boost. I have to let people know how inspirational those people were." Burke pauses, the memory heavy on his face. "I love to joke, but there's something about this Trade Center," says Burke. "My whole life, nothing's affected me more than that day. That beautiful Tuesday morning." The pain bleeds through his words.

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