“9/11 was not just one day. It was that day, as well as the days, months and years afterward.”
Those words hung in the air in the commons area of McColl Elementary/Middle School, spoken by a former New York City policeman who was on duty that terrible day in 2001.
This September 11 marked the 16th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that rocked America to its core. MEMS commemorated the occasion with a patriotic program the previous Thursday, September 7, with Officer Felix Cruz as special guest speaker.
Cruz, a friend of MEMS Principal Dr. Mark Phillips, wore his dress uniform for the presentation, the same uniform he wore to the funerals of many fallen comrades.
As difficult as it is to do, he said, he shares his story as often as he can because “I want to get the word out to never, ever forget.”
Cruz was with the New York Police Department from 1999 to 2003. He remembers September 11, 2001, starting as “just a regular day,” with him reporting to the 100th precinct in Queens at 5 a.m. to begin an election detail.
At 8:46 a.m., the first plane hit the first tower at the World Trade Center.
“At first we were told it was just an accident,” said Cruz. “Like everyone else, we turned on the TV, and we were watching live at 9:02 a.m. when the second plane hit. At that point, we were told we were under attack.”
Officers like Cruz returned to their precincts to await instructions as to what to do next. “We were scared,” he recalled. “We weren’t trained for a terrorist attack.”
He attempted to describe what he first saw at Ground Zero: a white haze, smoke, papers flying in the wind, windows blown out of all the surrounding buildings, debris, car parts and body parts everywhere.
“It looked like a bomb had hit Manhattan,” he said.
There were 400 first responders on scene, and word came down that they should run because one of the buildings was coming down.
“I was 29 years old at the time,” said Cruz. “I was thinking that I would never have the chance to get married, have kids. I thought I was going to die.”
The building buckled, but did not come down, and the first responders returned to the scene.
Cruz described the haunting experience of knowing that people were buried under the rubble, but being unable to reach them.
“You want to save everyone,” he said. “And unfortunately that day, and the days afterward, we couldn’t.”
One of the hardest jobs he had was working security at the barricades around Ground Zero in the days following the attacks, as people, desperate for news about their loved ones, came up asking for help.
“All we did was start hugging people,” he said.
After a few days, the mission changed from rescue to recovery, and he recalled draping American flags over the bodies of the dead as they were found.
After sharing his memories, Cruz presented a slide show of photos that depicting the scene through his eyes in the days following the attacks. He read from a police officers’ memorial and paid tribute to all the police, firefighters, Port Authority workers, military and civilians who paid the ultimate price, saying, “They are all heroes.”
He concluded by talking about the significance of 9/11, both the horror and the sense of unity that came from it: “A part of America died that day. But we came together as a country.”
Along with Cruz’ presentation, the program at MEMS included the performance of patriotic songs by the school’s first graders.