It was an everyday morning. Almost.
The only thing out of ordinary was I had to put my uniform on early, well before my tour, and get to court. The rare subpoena for Family Court was the source of my irritation at everything and everyone between me and there. Of course, me – an irritated cop? Again, everyday.
I left my house extra early to get to headquarters, meet up with everyone’s favorite, Greece Police Sergeant Joe Antinora, grab a patrol car and beat morning rush hour into downtown Rochester. On the drive we recalled the details of the family trouble we’d been called to testify about. It was a custody issue with people screaming at each other out in the street.
The only victims in the whole thing were the kids who had to watch mom and dad acting like children. Oh yeah, and the cops who were forced in the middle of it, I thought sourly. It was bound to continue in court.
We scored a convenient parking spot in the garage under the Hall of Justice and managed to find a much-needed cup of coffee and breakfast at the Hall of Justice cafeteria. Nothing like food and good conversation to erase the irritation. Sgt. Antinora never seemed to get irritated.
My cellphone rang. It was my youngest sister whose husband was a cop. I answered. “Get to a TV,” she instructed. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center in New York City.” It was the first of many “holy shit” moments to follow. Nine days earlier, my wife and I had sailed past those towers on our way home from our honeymoon.
I told Sgt. Antinora the news and asked someone where we could find a television. There was one in the waiting room at the District Attorney’s Office. We found our way there and joined several people already watching live coverage of the unfolding disaster. In growing shock, we saw the south tower get hit. Joe and I looked at each other and knew.
No accident. Something is happening.
We stared at the television and listened to the hushed tones of conversation in the now packed waiting room. Shock and realization slowed time. Word came the Pentagon had been hit. Just shy of an hour after impact, we watched the south tower collapse.
Joe and I agreed. It was time to go. Something’s wrong.
The scramble to go down a mere three levels to the underground garage took forever. By the time we hit the ground floor of the Hall of Justice, the word had spread they were evacuating the building. It seemed to take even longer to get out of the garage in light of what we’d just seen.
While we were waiting in line to get out, a plane crashed in Shanksville, PA. Parking attendants weren’t collecting fees. They’d opened the gates and everyone was getting out.
When we got back to headquarters we checked in and were told to go out on the street. We’d be working until otherwise advised. I called my teacher wife. She and our daughter happened to be in the same school building. The conversation was short. Get home. Don’t know what’s going on. Check in later.
Patrol that day included frequent stops at firehalls to grab glimpses of the frantic efforts on the ground in New York City. It was a day for AM radio in the car, listening to developments at the Pentagon and the plane crash in Shanksville, PA.
It was no longer everyday.
Some can’t handle the unusual. Late that afternoon, on a tiny side street near the Greece border with Rochester, the call came in for a Regional Transit Bus with a man on it claiming he had a bomb. By the time patrols got there, the driver had managed to get everyone off the bus and only the male and his satchel remained.
In fluid fashion we scrambled to contain whatever was going on. I was assigned a post with a rifle covering the front door of the bus. Someone made shouted contact with the man on the bus. He was cooperative, but making no sense. He came off the bus carefully, as instructed. He was taken into custody and given a ride to the hospital. His satchel contained only one significant item and it wasn’t a bomb.
It was a Bible.
As vivid as 9-11, was the day after. Our police department sent two officers to New York City to help, only to be turned away because of the flood of assistance already at its borders. Our community was unusually quiet. Silent. Everyone behaved. It was as if we were struggling to breathe after a punch to the stomach; so many lives lost, the idea someone had the audacity to attack our country.
Every 9-11 since, the day begins, for me at least, with an air of sadness tinged with anger. For a few years afterward, I had my own personal practice to watch the documentary “9/11.” It took little to reignite the fury I shared with many Americans. But life, as it should, somehow gets in the way and the movie now has a revered spot in a drawer to help me remember again, another day.
This year I mark 9-11 by instructing recruits at the Rural Police Training Academy at Genesee Community College in Batavia. I’m not sure yet how we will note 9-11 … it’s a class of trainees, most of whom were likely in elementary or middle school back in 2001.
The one thing I KNOW is 9-11 changed law enforcement for the better. Out of tragedy, change.
Before becoming a cop, I spent several years as a journalist reporting on the police. I never understood the parochialism and territorialism which existed between agencies. After 26 years a cop, I still don’t understand it, and at best, can only chalk it up to politics. Being human.
But post 9-11, I watched new national standards elevate interagency coordination at an operational level. The unspoken change, which we sorely needed, happened – and that was improved, genuine cooperation between cops, no matter what agency they were from. I saw it, I experienced it, and I hope it continues.
What bothers me most outside the loss of life on 9-11, and of those who since sacrificed themselves for our security, is we have already forgotten what we were attacked by – religious and social extremism. I prefer the light-hearted punned quip of the cartoon character Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
In this time of social and political extremism within our own borders, as we continually fight among ourselves, we need to reflect, and more importantly, step back. We need to allow opportunity for cool heads and warm hearts to prevail – like they did on 9-11 – a day on which we came together as one.
Then, and only then, can we return to the everyday.
Hank Kula is a retired police sergeant with 26 years in law enforcement. A certified crime scene investigator, crash reconstructionist, and former journalist, Hank works as a police instructor with recruits, veteran officers, and supervisors. His instructional specialties are in crime scene management and investigation, photography, communications and public information. Click to view more articles written by Hank.