A Beautiful Day

By by Arlene Ajello

I came home for Christmas that year as I did every year. My family had seen more of me that particular year than they had in the sixteen years since I’d left. I am a New Yorker, born and bred.

However, I had buried myself in Chicago, working first as an options trader for a while, and eventually back to my first love as a Chicago police officer. Sitting at the Christmas table with my family, my brother-in-law pulled out his new gadget, an Apple iPod. He played music on the strange machine, mixing songs from Sinatra, Christmas tunes, New Age, and U2. When the band, U2, began to play “It’s A Beautiful Day,” a faraway look came over his face. He blurted out, “Yes, it was a beautiful day. I can’t believe it happened; I can’t believe I made it home alive.”

The big Italian Christmas feast we had all been enjoying suddenly became silent. I wept silently as I sat at the once joyful table. My brother-in-law quickly explained his harrowing ordeal, his sixteen perilous hours trying to escape New York City when the World Trade Center was bombed. He had never before talked about it, and I wondered why he chose this moment, particularly with my sister expecting her first child. I was surprised. He told us he’d hummed this U2 song while trying to get home that fateful day. Silence.
I noticed everyone looking at me. I had been working at the bomb site for months, first on the pile and then upstairs at One Police Plaza, in the “war room.” An extended family member had been callous during the aftermath of the bombings, and I have no idea why. She nicknamed me “The Ground Zero Hero.” I never said a word to her about her insensitivity and continued with my efforts at the towers through the year. I prayed that one day she might understand the magnitude of what had happened, and hoped no one she knew had been hit by the deadly terrorist attack.

I sat silently as they all stared at me as if I were an alien. I sensed they wanted to ask, “Why? Why did it happen?” I knew they were probably still in shock and denial about what happened. No one realized the full scope of what occurred on September 11, 2001. Frankly, I didn’t either. I only knew I had to be there; I had to help any way I could. My team of twelve and I went in on September 12, 2001. I was frantic; I was in shock. I was worried about my family and friends. We organized a crew from the Chicago Police Department to go in. Although I am a Chicago police officer, I’m also a New Yorker. Nothing was going to prevent me from getting to the incident site. New York is my home town, it is everyone’s hometown. For God’s sake—it is New York City! Everyone had friends and family in the buildings: firefighters, officers, brokers, accountants . . . many I knew and know.

Initially, on that beautiful day I had no contact with my family; I just kept driving from Chicago to New York, accompanied by eleven heroes. We had one mission: to do whatever we could to help the people of New York City. An hour outside of the city, the cell towers graced me with a signal and I was able to reach my parents in Staten Island. My father, a retired veteran of the NYPD, told me to turn my car around and go home. “The air is too dangerous,” he said, “and the government is lying about the air quality.”
We had words. I told him, “I am here, and so is my team. Please help us. We’ll need showers, and where and how can we get into Manhattan? The radio said the bridges are closed down.”

He fought me, and I could hear my mother growl in the background. Nevertheless, they alerted the entire block where they lived that I was coming in with a team of rescue workers. Neighbors, some whom I’ve never met, welcomed us into their homes for showers, packed us lunches and dinners that fed us for days, hugged and kissed us, and extended to us their best wishes and thanks. My mother and father, true to their nature, kept their game faces on, but I could read my father’s face. It was the face of a war-tested veteran who was worried about me and my team. I simply smiled, not wanting to feed into his fear. I waved. “Mom, Dad, I’ll see you in a few days.” Months later I still hadn’t seen them.

Our arrival at the scene of the attack was surreal. My father had instructed me to go to Jersey City. The boats were loading there for those of us “stupid enough to go in.” My last name carried weight within the departments running the crews. Dad had called ahead, making sure our crew was on the list. We drove in with pickups and SUVs right under the noses of the media, just us, silent and prepared.

But were we? Parking the vehicles and unpacking our gear while wearing our Chicago Police uniforms caused silence to spread among the huge crowd gathered at the waterfront. Groups of people had been staring across the river at the still smoldering towers, that is, until our vehicles rumbled up. Then their attention turned to us. We could feel their eyes upon us, and strangely, we somehow felt their pain. Their votive candles were laid out in circles on the ground, the names they represented written in chalk by loved ones. We were driven, empowered to do our job by the audacity of those who would dare to attack our nation, and strengthened by our countrymen who could only sit and stare in bewilderment at the utter destruction. We immersed ourselves in our work.
A man stood up on top of his pickup truck and started applauding, a solemn, heart wrenching clap I will never forget. He started yelling, “Thank you Chicago Police!” Other people began to clap in unison, a low, structured rhythm of applause. Tears flowed freely from my eyes, cascading down my cheeks onto my sacrosanct police star. I knew family and friends were across the river of darkness, most likely dead. One of my partners approached me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Ar, it’s all good. Let’s get that boat your dad promised.”

We were swamped by a sea of desperate family members, handing us fliers that contained identifying data of their missing loved ones, beautiful pictures, clothing descriptions, jewelry worn, names of the companies they worked for, what floor, and what building they worked in. It took everything we had to accept those fliers; we put them in our pockets as we navigated the path on our way to the boats. We promised them we would do what we could to find their loved ones and call when we knew anything. Unfortunately, those fliers are still with me; I never had the pleasure of calling with good news.

We waited and waited for those boats to come and go. Our number on the list was agonizing. I felt like an excited race horse in the gate, waiting to run the Kentucky Derby. I just wanted to get to the other side of the river. A group of iron workers spoke to some of my team and begged to get on the boat with us, asking if we would say they were cops too. My team members pointed at me, and said, “Ask her.” I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was they were better equipped than we were with their torches and equipment. I knew from reports of the rescue workers coming out that they were under staffed and under equipped.

Instantly, our team went from twelve to twenty-two. My last name was called for the Army Corps of Engineers boat, and they yelled out, “Do you have twelve?” My response was, “No we have twenty-two.” We all loaded. In the middle of that deep black river, the iron workers knelt, grabbed our arms, pulled us down, and we all recited the Lord’s Prayer. Once again, tears rolled down my cheeks. God’s hand hovered over us. Even in that inky sea and with the devil’s inferno burning in front of us, we all felt His presence. Silence.
The engine hummed as we crossed the river, while the waves splashed against the side of the boat. No other sounds were heard. No one spoke. Silence.

Our arrival was chaotic. Our boat docked, and we set off into a scene that could only be described in one word: mayhem. We were greeted with bright lights and a smell that anyone who was there will never forget. Uniforms were everywhere. No one knew whom to report to, who was in charge. Everyone simply converged in spots throughout the many acres and began to dig. At first, we were on The Pile like a bunch of idiots when huge horns began to sound. People yelled at us to get off the pile, the ground was shifting, and fires were burning our shoes and pants. We weren’t told about the danger, nor were hundreds of others.

Chaos was the theme as the days and dark nights seemed to merge together. I lost all sense of time. Nonetheless, we quickly got into a routine, as did all the other rescue workers. Days were not important, helicopters flying overhead were barely heard, and news people sticking cameras in our faces were ignored. Nothing mattered. Everyone walked away, climbed into a tent for a few hours of shut eye, retreating into a shell, cocooned from the daily horror. We got used to finding body parts and never entire bodies. Soon everyone began to whisper in their respective circles in camp at Ground Zero that no one would be found alive. Our tears were not shed at The Pile; instead, they were reserved for when there was a free moment to use the bathroom. Odd as it may sound, I found God and copious tears in a toilet whenever I could find one.

I guess I am biased, being a native New Yorker, but the people of the city came out in droves as I secretly hoped they would. They brought with them food, water, socks, gloves, anything they thought might make our jobs easier. Nothing went unnoticed or without a hug and a thank you. The myth of arrogant, rude New Yorkers was dispelled at Ground Zero, but I already knew that. I was proud of my fellow New Yorkers. I knew all along in my heart they would all pull together. New York will forever be my home.

One evening on The Pile, I heard my name called. I thought perhaps I was on fire again. You get used to that. The shout out actually came from the first partner I ever worked with when I was a rookie on NYPD, my first job as a police officer before hiring on with Chicago. He hopped over the rubble, and we hugged until we almost fell over, crying, laughing, and shaking our heads. He just looked at me, kissed me on the forehead, and said, “I knew you were here.” Nothing else needed to be said. I worked with his crew for a long while, and also alongside the English bobbies who were simply amazing. Months later, I worked with my former partner and his team in the war room. As usual, he tried protecting me, but nothing could protect us from the toxic fumes or the absolute horror that was Ground Zero.

Years later as I look back at my team, two are dead from tragic accidents, and a few of us are sick from the toxic fumes. We sat on The Pile, opened up a few beers, and said, “If this kills us, it’s worth it.” I still believe that to this day. Osama Bin Laden took more than three thousand lives on that “beautiful day.” He killed many souls whose hearts are still beating. We call ourselves the Walking Dead. The ones who can’t forget the white dust covering our uniforms or the deadly air we breathed. We remember the families begging us every time we came outside of the roped area of Ground Zero for help or for any tidbit of news. If it didn’t kill our bodies, it killed our minds and souls, but I would never turn back on that beautiful day. I would do it again ten thousand times. Who else but a Warrior would?
As I sit and watch a video of the band U2 play “A Beautiful Day,” I find irony in that it’s about an airline flight on a beautiful day, a day just like September 11, 2001, a day that brought so much horror and pain. However, as I travel home every year, that same memory brings many of us who were there, who survived the attacks, the widows, widowers, the children, and the mothers and fathers of those killed in the day care, all much closer. I host an annual Christmas party where it is safe to talk about 9/11 without the hush that some have begun to use. There is nothing to be quiet about.