Clearing Debris and Doubts: An Interview with Jacqueline Padilla Curcio, WTC Search and Rescue Officer

by Hammer. An Italian translation of this interview is available here.

After 9/11, police forces, firefighters and volunteers worked hard for months to clear the debris and provide for rescue and recovery. Not much is generally known about this work because the media provided limited coverage of this crucial period.

To fill this gap, Undicisettembre is publishing this interview with a New York police officer: Jacqueline Padilla Curcio (quoted by permission). Incidentally, she is the wife of firefighter Lenny Curcio, whom we interviewed last February.

Her very personal and touching report is also a significant help in debunking some conspiracy theories, such as the claim that the diagonally-cut columns of the WTC seen in some photographs (such as the one on the right) are allegedly evidence of the planting of explosive or other destructive material in the Twin Towers.

We would like to thank Jacqueline Padilla Curcio for her kindness and her time.

Undicisettembre: What do you remember, generally speaking, about your experience after 9/11? Can you give us an account of your experience?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: On 9/11/01, I was at home and was "mobilized" by the New York City Police Dept. to respond to my respective station. I had been assigned to Community Affairs for several years and was utilized to assist with assignments. On 9/12, I was assigned to the WTC site as a liaison to interagency affairs and assignments for accountability and deployment.

I was at Ground Zero for 4 weeks, occasionally helping with search and rescue efforts. At that time and for the next three months, I was assigned to a temporary facility on a Pier off of the West Side Highway, north of Ground Zero, to assist with the thousands of family members of the WTC victims, both civilian and non-civilian.

The makeshift facility had all the amenities to make those grieving families as comfortable as possible. It was an extremely emotional assignment, which went to just before Christmas. Throughout the years, we have been constantly trained and reminded of that day. In all of the video footage and in all of the inside information entrusted to us as sworn officers, it has never been mentioned or debated that there were conspiracies regarding that devastating incident. I hope this bit of information helped.

Undicisettembre: What can you tell us about the following days? What did you guys do and what happened after 9/11 while working on search and rescue?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: We were sent to Ground Zero for 12-hour shifts. Many officers worked on the pile performing search and rescue, but they had previously been trained with certain equipment. I personally had to control one of the many temporary headquarters that were set up around the perimeter. Due to the debris, it was physically impossible to get to another temporary headquarters, without a very long detour. This was the reason for the many temporary headquarters.

Undicisettembre: Do you directly know of anyone who was taken out of the wreckage alive?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: No.

Undicisettembre: You were part of the rescue effort. What can you tell us about the rescuers and the work they were doing?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: The police officers, firefighters and other equipped volunteers worked in a dangerous, toxic and stressful environment. They worked despite the conditions to recover the remains of victims for those grieving families. They are the silent heroes.

Undicisettembre: Did you hear any report of your colleagues about finding debris or anything from the planes? Early press reports suggested that large cockpit parts had been found, but nothing more was heard of this later. It would be useful to set the record straight.

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: I do not know what evidence can be provided other than my husband’s word, but there was a jump seat found with a charred body, believed to be a Flight Attendant, who was apparently bound.

Undicisettembre: Did you see this yourself or was it reported to you? Sorry for the question, but we've seen many reports of this specific finding in the press but no first-hand accounts and we're trying to authenticate this story. Sadly, there were many grisly rumors just after 9/11 that later turned out to be just hearsay.

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: I did not see the jump seat personally. My husband told me about it because he saw it at the morgue. Because of his investigative experience, he was assigned to the morgue for two days to record the identity and items found of any firemen and police officers that were recovered. While he was there, he personally observed the charred body in the jump seat that was being examined by another team. After he set up a system with record books, he was re-assigned to Ground Zero. I believe this temporary assignment was day 3 and 4 or 4 and 5.

Undicisettembre: What can you tell us about the families of the victims? What was their attitude towards the situation and the job you guys were doing?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: The families were devastated. Not only about the horrific events, but having no sense of closure. Waiting months to recover a body part and having a funeral after so long emotionally drained the victim’s families.

Undicisettembre: What do you think about conspiracy theories that claim 9/11 was an inside job? Most of these theories believe the Towers were intentionally demolished with explosives, some of them even claim no aircraft ever crashed into the towers and all the videos that show them are fake. What's your opinion?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: Those who have put this much effort into debating conspiracy theories seem to really need attention. Although talented, these writers have no business questioning the events of that day if they were not present.

Planes did in fact strike those buildings. I have first-hand accounts of providing “Victim Services” for the families left behind of those who perished in those “Imaginary Planes” as well as the Towers. This was far from an inside job and, yes, the planes did crash into the WTC Towers.

Undicisettembre: How do your colleagues feel about these conspiracy theories? Are they irritated, indifferent? Are conspiracy theories popular among police officers in New York?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: I have never heard of these “Conspiracy Theories” amongst the rank and file of the Police Department nor as a civilian. As much privileged information I was subjected to during that time, I do not recall any conversation of such conspiracies.

Undicisettembre: Have you met any conspiracy theorists and tried to debate them? If so, how did it go, and what's your impression of these people? Have you found an explanation as to why these "inside job" theories seem to persist?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: I have never met a WTC conspiracy theorist nor debated the issues.

Undicisettembre: Among believers of some conspiracy theories, there is much talk of WTC columns found cut diagonally. They claim that this was an effect of the alleged explosives. A more plausible explanation is that the columns were cut during the rescue operations to prevent them from falling onto rescuers. Did you observe any such cutting work? If so, could you provide some detail (e.g., when, where, who did the cutting, etc) to dispel this myth?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: I have seen several scenes after an explosion. I never have seen beams cut on angles at those scenes. What I can attest to is that other than the rescue workers, the largest contingency of workers directly on the pile, were Iron Workers. These teams worked feverishly for months, cutting steel with their torches, most on angles so as the cut portion would fall away from the worker. Other horizontal cuts were made to larger pieces of steel when they were connected to a crane. 

Undicisettembre: We're not asking you to violate any confidentiality rules, but are we correct in assuming that there are many photographs of the search and rescue operations that have not been released to the public due to discretion and respect for the victims?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: I do not know, personally, but I would venture to say that may be true after greater scene security was established. In the early stages, there were horrific pictures posted all over the Internet.

Undicisettembre: Do you think that the inevitable sanitization of the images of 9/11 has contributed to some misperceptions of the extent of the tragedy, making it somewhat easier to believe the various claims of fakery? For example, many people look at the WTC images and the Pentagon images and find them unreal due to the lack of bodies or plane parts or personal items. Do you think that releasing some of this imagery, as occurred for the Pentagon victims during the Moussaoui trial, would silence the doubters (not the conspiracy theorists, but those who have doubts) or make the devastation of 9/11 more understandable to the public?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: I do not feel a picture(s) is going to give non-believers resolve. This undisputedly happened to the WTC and Pentagon. The devastation and destruction of collisions of this magnitude leave very little evidence intact and can be missed by the UNTRAINED EYE.

Undicisettembre: If the opportunity arose, would you be willing to debate a conspiracy theorist, for example in a public meeting or for a documentary?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: As much as I would like to, I could not give the Conspiracy Theorist a platform to spread his poor and negative information. In my professional opinion, they will come with a multitude of accounts from unqualified resources with signed papers, maps and possibly pictures. They can all be fake and misleading. The audience will only have my eyewitness account and people thrive on negativity.

Undicisettembre: How did this experience change your way of being a police officer? Has it given you new insight into the task of protecting people and making your city more secure?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: There has been a heightened sense of security since that day. Traditional training has taken a back seat to terrorism awareness training. There is more accountability and a demand to be vigilant, which is fitting for this day and age.

Undicisettembre: How did this experience change your everyday life?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: Everyday life has gone back to a degree of normalcy. But we will never forget that day and will live our lives always being inquisitive to the actions of others. As time goes on, my fear is that the next generation will forget and become vulnerable to those who fear our freedom.

Undicisettembre: Do you think the country and its people have recovered from the tragedy? Do you feel like the nation is still living in fear, or has it regained its standing in the world?

Jacqueline Padilla Curcio: I do not believe this country lives in constant fear. What this country knows for a fact is that it is susceptible to terrorism and that this could happen again. The country as well as all emergency services must remain vigilant in their duties to protect and serve. This means a heightened awareness and constant training to detect the signs of threat, hence a new way of policing compared to pre-911. I believe we live in the greatest nation in the world and our standing will always remain above and beyond.