Featured Story

Island police officer remembers 9/11 and Ground Zero

He has many memories of those September days 20 years ago, but one is especially haunting. It’s of sounds he heard while searching for bodies on the massive hills of debris from the fallen towers at Ground Zero.

“On the pile, we’d hear sounds — something like smoke detector alarms — going off somewhere in the rubble,” Shelter Island Police Sergeant Terrence LeGrady said recently. He explained that firefighters have alarms on their oxygen tanks to alert them when the supply is running low.

“They were from the firefighters who had died, their bodies somewhere in the pile,” he said.

He paused, before adding, “So many of them.”

Bright and clear

In 2001, Sgt. LeGrady was a New York City Police Department officer working out of the 102nd Precinct in Queens. On September 10, he started an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. He wasn’t working with his partner, Officer Brian Simonsen, on that shift. Officer Simonsen had been assigned to duty starting at 7 a.m. at a polling place in Queens for the Democratic primary.

It had been a relatively quiet night, Sgt. LeGrady remembered. When his shift was over on the bright, clear morning of the 11th, he took the Long Island Expressway to Coram, where he and his family were living at the time.

“On the radio, the first reports were of a plane hitting one of the twin towers, but a small plane like a Cessna,” he said. “When I got home and turned on the TV, there was the second plane hitting.”

He got a call to return to the 102nd. “At one point all traffic heading west was closed,” he said. “I had to show my Police Department ID to get through.”

That was the start of nearly two weeks of practically non-stop duty. At times, he would go 40 hours without sleep, living on coffee and adrenaline.

Assigned to security duty at a Queens synagogue that morning, Sgt. LeGrady finally got back to the precinct later that day, where Officer Simonsen arrived at around 9 p.m. He had been pulled off polling place duty when the election was canceled and had reported to Ground Zero.

“He was like everyone who went down there,” Sgt. LeGrady said. “At a loss for words over the enormity of it.”

The partners began a shift that night at 11 p.m. patrolling their precinct. Over the next several days, the partners, who were close friends, became even more solidly bound by their experiences, which included day after day at Ground Zero, for more than a week.

Officer Simonsen, 42, was killed in the line of duty on Feb. 12, 2019. “Our families were always together,” the sergeant said, in and out of each other’s homes, with all holidays spent together. He and his wife Laura have three sons, who referred to Officer Simonsen as Uncle Brian.

“He was the kindest, the sweetest man you’ll ever meet,” Sgt. LeGrady said. He noted that his friend’s nickname was “Smiles,” because “he lit up every room he ever entered.”

Partners on patrol. Sgt. Terrence LeGrady, left, with Officer Brian Simonsen. (Courtesy photo)

A city responds

That first shift in the Queens neighborhood during the early hours of Sept. 13 revealed to the partners “something I’d never seen,” Sgt. LeGrady remembered.

“Going for coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts, people were insisting they would pay, and others were coming up to shake our hands or give us a hug,” he said. “On the street, people were cheering us, and all of the NYPD, and the Fire Department. There were people literally running after our patrol car, cheering.”

Soon the partners were assigned to Ground Zero, on one of the many bucket brigades. They dug through rubble on the pile, the steep, unsteady hills of twisted steel beams, crushed offices and everything that went into two, 110-story buildings, including the 2,606 human beings who worked there, and the 412 first responders who rushed to try and save them.

The Island responds

Shelter Island responded on that cloudless, sun-filled September day 20 years ago, when teams of Island volunteer EMTs climbed into two ambulances fully loaded with emergency medical supplies and drove west.

The teams — composed of Helen Rosenblum, Ed Boyd, Faye Rodriguez, Chris Drake, Ed Kotula, Peter McCracken, Bud Fox, Ken Klenawicus and Ben Jones — weren’t sure what they would find in the city. It was just necessary to go immediately and do what they could to help.

They first stopped at Red Cross headquarters in Mineola before being dispatched by New York City EMS to lower Manhattan. Driving through Queens, the Islanders saw the smoke rising from lower Manhattan.

One ambulance crew was stationed under the Brooklyn Bridge while the second ambulance was sent farther north. “We were fully prepared, but by the time we arrived, there was really nothing to be done,” Mr. McCracken said. “It was all over — the only thing going into the Ground Zero zone was heavy rescue. We handed out respirator masks and helped the firefighters and rescue crews decontaminate.”

He remembers the dust, the darkness and the quiet, with no traffic, no cars, and no people walking around. “It’s still unbelievable,” Mr. McCracken said.

The Island ambulance crews stayed at their posts throughout the night. Shortly before dawn on the morning of September 12, they headed back home. Though the crews weren’t able to help victims, Mr. McCracken is proud to have provided assistance to New York City’s first responders.

He still thinks about that brilliant blue day, particularly on the anniversary, and sometimes goes down to see the new Freedom Tower and the area where he was stationed that night 20 years ago.

“We were honored that little Shelter Island got to go in and help out,” Mr. McCracken said.

Dangerous duties

Sgt. LeGrady had to pause for a moment to describe the sensory and emotional overload Ground Zero produced.

It takes time to describe what is, still in his memory, “overwhelming.” The dense smoke, the smells of incinerated rubber, steel and plastic “concocted this distinct odor.” It was also extremely dangerous duty, with other structures nearby in danger of falling, and “there were still fires raging, and there were voids — it’s the only word I can use to describe them — all over the place. Really deep holes around you when you were on the pile, always shifting,” he said.

They were coached to respond to a set of whistles. “One whistle and everyone remained still, like statues, because the pile could be giving way under us or another building could fall. A second whistle, and you ran like hell because something was going on.”

All buildings nearby were windowless, the glass gone in the catastrophic collapses. Spray paint crudely drawn told rescue workers that buildings had been searched and cleared. One building had the spray painted words: “Temporary morgue.”

As they worked, “there was always hope,” Sgt. LeGrady remembered. “There was an underground parking garage, with shops, and a kind of mall, and we thought people might be trapped there still alive. But, no.”

20 years on

His memories include those piping sounds of oxygen tanks running low that firefighters who wore them would never hear. But just as unshakable are the memories of the cheers New Yorkers gave him and Det. Simonsen in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and how they wanted personally to make their respect for them known, and to thank the officers.

The career police officer has taken every Sept. 11 off since 2001 as a day of reflection.

But this year, a fellow Island officer needs the day, so Sgt. LeGrady will be on the job.

The 9/11 memorial at the Center firehouse — an iron girder from Ground Zero. Its only adornment is a brass Fire Department insignia and the number ‘343,’ a reference to the number of firefighters who died that day. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy photo)