Living with 9/11: The police officer
The strangest thing, looking back, says Frank Lione, was the stillness; as he drove his car down the West Side Highway, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, there were no other cars on the road and no ambient sound, until fighter jets flew over central Manhattan.
Frank Lione comes from a family of police officers and firefighters. His father, Frank Sr, is a retired NYPD detective who now works with the US Marshalls.
His brother is a firefighter.
He joined the NYPD as a 24-year-old from Staten Island and was decorated after being involved in a shoot-out with a gang member while off duty.
On September 10 2001, Lione rang his Midtown South precinct and cancelled his shift the following day; he still can’t say why, beyond a sense of unspecified anxiety. The following morning, he heard Pam, his wife, exclaim from the living room: “What’s the matter? Didn’t you see the building?” A plane had flown into the World Trade Centre.
“Large or small?” said Frank.
“Why?” asked his wife.
“If it’s little,” said Frank, “it’s just someone learning to fly.”
When the second plane hit, Lione said, “Pam, we’re under attack.” The kids started crying. Lione rang the precinct. “I gotta go,” he said, and in the face of his wife’s protestations jumped in the car and drove north from the house in Pennsylvania. “At least I knew if something happened, I’d told my family I loved them.”
Pam rang his sister in Virginia Beach.
“He’s OK,” she said.
“Are you watching TV?”
“Yeah, we’re watching SpongeBob.”
The journey was eerie; every electronic signpost Lione passed read: ALL ROADS TO NEW YORK CITY CLOSED. At the New Jersey turnpike, as he whipped past the traffic cones and screeched to a halt, a state trooper pulled his gun; Lione hastily showed him his badge. The trooper told him to go via the George Washington bridge, where federal agents with machine guns waved him through.
Midtown South is the largest command centre in the city. It covers the Empire State Building and Madison Square Garden, all of which were classified as immediate targets. At the precinct Lione was told a Code Black [distress call] was in effect. He and his colleagues wanted to race straight down to the World Trade Centre site; every cop in the city with a radio had heard the screams and shouts of his peers. But senior officers held them back. “I think they were already thinking of the lawsuits,” says Lione. The NYPD are not rescue services. Most of the officers, when they went into the towers, didn’t even have helmets, and there was some discussion among them as to whether they should go in. They went in. When the first wave of NYPD officers started to filter back into the precinct from Ground Zero, “they looked like they’d been at war. They didn’t want to talk.”
‘Fine red mist’
When they did start to talk, the things they were saying made no sense—“that there had been people falling from the towers. That people came down holding hands. That they came down in their office chairs. That the sound of those bodies dropping was like a water balloon burst, and then a fine red mist.” After the towers fell, the sound that stayed with them was the beeping from the firemen’s Scott packs, their abandoned air tanks and masks, “like a field of chirping birds”. The next day, while Lione was out in the city, something unprecedented happened: people came up to him, shook his hand and said thank you.
It was 4am and misty when he got down to Ground Zero. There had been instances of looting in the streets around the site. “People don’t talk about that, but it was a problem.” Everyone talks about first responders and rightly so, says Lione, but “there was still a city to police”. When he walked into a cafe, it was like something after Pompeii: dust everywhere, a newspaper, a cup of tea with a wedge of lemon still in it.
On site, he says, “the thing you heard was the generators powering the lights. You saw people on cots. They were eating things sent from people around the country—sweet potato pie from someone in Atlanta.” He knew that part of town well, but standing there in the rubble, he had no idea where he was. The cranes were “like T.rexes” moving things around. Until Lione was asked to move, he had no idea he was standing on a flattened, dust-covered fire truck. “It was offices, right? But there was nothing recognisable—not a fax machine, not an office chair. Just metal, steel girders and dust. Everything pummeled to nothing.” Except, weirdly, paper; photos from people’s desks. And then “the relatives started to come. We had to hold them back at the outer perimeter. They saw the site and just dropped to their knees.”
In the course of duty, Lione had seen gunshot wounds to the head, but the body parts were something else. The “bucket brigades” were lines of NYPD and firefighters sending cartons of debris, hand to hand, down a chain and when a body part came through everyone stopped, took their hats off, and then started again.
After a 16-hour shift in the driving rain, what kept him going was the sight of a man directing cranes, stoic, impassive, doing his job. And the reaction from the public. “On the buses back to the precinct we were silent, staring. On Christopher Street, there were people on the sidewalk who started cheering as the buses passed and calling, ‘We love you.’”
Lione’s wife wouldn’t let him wear his uniform into the house. “I thought it had the souls of the people who died on it,” says Pam.
People took souvenirs from the site, and photos, but Lione didn’t. He had his own, unwanted souvenirs. For months he had nightmares. His wife says she would wake to find him braced in his sleep, arms outstretched, clutching the mattress as if the ground wouldn’t hold him. He told her afterwards he was dreaming of the building coming down. In the months after the attacks, Lione needed a biopsy for an adenoma. His father, who had been protecting the Federal Building downtown, got a lung infection. Both got the all-clear, but Lione has since seen colleagues die from lung conditions. His brother, the firefighter, went to 84 funerals that year.
At Pam’s behest, the family, with their two small children, moved out of New York. Lione left the NYPD and went into private security. He and his wife write novels together now. Ten years after the attacks, they are renovating an apartment in Manhattan. Their son is about to start college in the city. It’s time to move back, says Lione. “The nightmare these days is sitting in traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel. New Yorkers are tough.” - guardian.co.uk