DAYS JUST AFTER 9/11

A CHANGED MAN:
NYPD Officer Paul Mauro, who scribbled notes to himself at Ground Zero in
the days after Sept. 11, says the terror attacks reminded city cops who they are.

May 6, 2002 -- EDITOR'S NOTE - On duty at Ground Zero in the days after the World Trade Center attacks, NYPD Officer Paul Mauro kept jotting down notes and stuffing them into his pockets. He knew he would need to write about it someday. This is his story.

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 thinks now 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 again? But that's the thing, this time. This one is so big, business as usual may never fully return. Forget the public, that's not who I mean. The real change 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.

LATE into that first night, when we've been standing on the same corner for 14 hours without being sure of what's to come or what day we'll finally get home or how completely our lives might be changed, two studious-looking young women tentatively approach us. On my lips is yet another demand that they get back behind the police lines, but the words catch in my throat and my alarm rises vaguely when I see one of them gingerly carrying a box.

She's on me before I can protest, right up to me and my partner, and she asks if we're hungry. She and her roommate 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." And so I have the first of what will be many moments when I find it difficult to speak. AFTER  four hours of attempted sleep, I'm back for the evening of Day 2, assigned over by the river, where 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 awaiting the next arrival to the tent.

Then the call goes up outside the tent: "Heads up. Body coming!" That a single rescue worker can carry the body bag gives some indication of what's inside.

The worker lugs it onto a table made up of a sheet stretched over plywood. We crowd around. 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. Within 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. Only occasionally is there more than this. One bag reveals a severed human foot, the toenails painted a heartbreaking violet. And this is what shocks you, what sits you down with a nauseated, displaced feel of a world spinning awry. Not the gore or the lack of it, but the small details that point tellingly to fragile lives caught in the maelstrom. Those details are what I'm here for. I'm one of five cops tagging and bagging anything that might be linked to one of the dead. It's far, far tougher than viewing human remains.

A leather shoulder bag holds a management textbook and a notebook. The textbook has a woman's name on the front in a graceful, feminine hand. The notebook has her weekly classes written into the scheduling grid. Little reminders are written beside the schedule: "Keep up with the reading!"

You wonder: How could these things survive intact and their owners be so completely erased?

WE'RE digging now, anybody who can. It's still only Day 3, and the chances of finding somebody alive are, in theory, still real. It's a cyclical process; you pull carefully at the impossibly antagonistic tangle of metal and concrete, until eventually, a major beam or girder is exposed. Then the ironworkers hook a crane line to the girder and hoist it free.

There is something mythic in the sight of the cranes in operation. At one point, I look up from the wreckage to see an ironworker descending from the heavens, poised atop a huge metal hook at the end of a crane cable. Behind him, the red arm of a derrick scrapes the sky.

A crane, off to my right, is noisily hoisting a half-melted girder free of the rubble when a chorus of despair goes up.

I turn in time to catch a glimpse. It is a young woman, or rather the top-half of one, stuck to the top of the beam. Her arm flaps free once, a disembodied wave; then the torso falls free, disappearing anonymously back into the wreckage.

WHEN the first building came down, a sergeant from my precinct was on the street outside. He's long and lanky, and when he dived under a car for shelter, an arriving emergency vehicle ran over his legs.

Another sergeant dived under a fire truck, and later described the debris hitting the truck as sounding like someone dropping Volkswagens from 50 stories. As he lay there, he thought he heard gunshots, but dismissed the idea. But he was right. Other cops were shooting out windows of buildings so they could dive to safety inside.

Those are what passed for success stories down here. IN THE weeks that follow the attacks, I will be handed a bottle of water by Matthew Modine, drink beer with the New York Rangers, and be the recipient of best wishes from Jason Alexander and Kevin Spacey. For one night, Midtown becomes "celebrity Ground Zero." A telethon is being held to benefit victims and their families. After Billy Joel's rendition of "New York State of Mind," I am deputized to drive him down to greet the workers at Ground Zero.

Upon rounding a corner and taking in the panorama of the destruction, Joel gets the "cannot speaks." The workers all know this feeling, and they happily ignore the fact that the star is openly weeping as he signs their hard hats.

The city will eventually forget us. After all, we are just doing our jobs. We'll be the enemy again soon enough. Which is fine, that's the nature of a contentious and complicated relationship.

But we, the cops, we had better remember - not what we've seen, but what we've done. It's the way you remember the things you've done that make you who you are.

 


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