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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 1)

Lt. Giuseppe Petrosino, the department's first Italian-American detective, founded the city's bomb squad to fight the Black Hand, an early version of the Mafia. He was murdered in 1909 in Palermo, Sicily, while gathering intelligence against the Black Hand. He remains the only NYPD officer killed in the line of duty outside of the United States.

Heroism like Petrosino's has a long tradition in the New York City police department, and the officers who responded to the September 11 disaster -- the department's bloodiest day -- carried it out valiantly. The police marched forward as civilians ran for safety. They dug for buried comrades in the wake of the collapse. And they listened in pain as their brothers died.

The horrid, unforgettable roar of a jet slamming into the steel and glass behemoth of Two World Trade Center shocked Sergeant Wilson as he and his men raced to the crime scene. A parade of injured streamed by. "What freaked us out was there were businesspeople running past us, burned on the face. They were completely fried, but they're not stopping." The team finally made it to the towers. Both were in flames.

It was only minutes after the second impact, but the ground already resembled a battlefield. Body parts and the mingled wreckage of airplanes and skyscrapers littered the street. A massive airplane tire sat in the middle of the block, being guarded by an FBI agent in shock. Above, people were jumping.

The jumpers will haunt Wilson for the rest of his years. Women with their purses. Men clutching their briefcases, papers streaming as they fell. One man desperately held a tablecloth, perhaps hoping to fashion a parachute; another fell gripping an office chair. The most haunting vision was the couple. "They stood out, held hands and jumped," says Wilson. "They held hands the whole way down."

With the world coming apart around him, Wilson tried to maintain order. One of his men tried to say a Hail Mary as each jumper leaped to escape the inferno. "He couldn't keep up. Finally I had to tell him, 'Enough,' " says Wilson.

A fellow officer directed rescuers at the base of the trade center, his eyes looking up, trying to keep the rescuers and those fleeing on the ground safe from the people above.

Wilson, like most observers, expected the towers to remain standing. "I never expected that thing to come down," he says.

Rescue workers -- police, firefighters, paramedics -- filled the staircases as the first building collapsed. The police had a chilling window on the death throes of their fellow officers, who called for help on their radios.

"I was on citywide radio listening to the screaming of our brothers and sisters," says Patrolman Burke. Officer Moira Smith was trapped inside the north tower as it collapsed. The injured Smith radioed for help, describing her position. "She was doing a great job," says Burke. "She was very calm," says Wilson. "She just faded away." Smith is believed to be the first female officer in the NYPD to die on duty, one of 60 NYPD and Port Authority police officers to perish in the World Trade Center.

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