World Trade Center: an interview with police officer Daniel Rodriguez

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

For the anniversary of 9/11, Undicisettembre offers its readers the personal account of policeman Daniel Rodriguez, who in 2001 was already well-known as the "singing policeman" because he was not only a policeman but a successful singer as well.

Rodriguez's account is very touching because he dedicated his professionalism both as a policeman and as a singer to serving the nation and to helping with the reaction to the attacks.

We thank Daniel Rodriguez for his kindness and willingness to help.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on that day?

Daniel Rodriguez: It was a very clear day with no clouds in the sky. I lived in Staten Island and I worked for Patrol Borough Manhattan South which covers the south side of Manhattan. My shift started a little later than my colleagues' and when I was crossing the Verrazzano Bridge on my way to work I noticed that the traffic was a little heavy which is not common at that time in the morning. As I got to the middle of the bridge everything stopped, I was thinking about the day and what I was going to do at work and I remember seeing ashes floating in the air and I thought to my self: “Where does that ash come from in the middle of the Hudson river?”

I looked to the left to see were the ashes were coming from and I could see the first Tower burning and it was very close to were I used to work and I knew my colleagues were already there. I was trying to move through the traffic but it was very very heavy and in that precise moment a caravan of emergency vehicles, several police cars, a police van and a couple of unmarked cars were coming over the bridge. I hailed one of the cars and showed them my badge and he gave me a little space so I was able to get into that caravan. I was cutting to the traffic and the highway patrol had closed off the HOV lane, the High Occupancy Vehicle lane for emergency vehicles that would take you to Manhattan through the Battery Tunnel. My plan was to go out of the Battery Tunnel and turn right to go to the World Trade Center to find my crew. I remember seeing the light of the Battery Tunnel as I was exiting, I had my turn signals to the right and just before making the turn something told me to make someone know where I was going; it was a piece of police academy training, the first thing you say on the radio is your location. So at the very last moment instead of turning right, I went left to One Police Plaza. And that left turn saved my life because if would have made the right turn I would have been inside one of the Towers when they came down instead of outside.

So I went to One Police Plaza and ask one inspector where I had to go and they sent me to the City Hall because there was a mobile command unit there. My inspector, the man I usually worked for, showed up there; I told him: “Did you know I was going to come here?” and he said: “No, I just came here.”

Both Towers were on fire and we knew at this point that there were two planes that hit, I hadn't had this information while crossing the Verrazzano Bridge. At One Police Plaza one of the security guard told me: “Dan, it was a plane. It went right over my head.”. He was talking about the second plane.

So we were at the City Hall, we decided to make our way to the Towers. When we were about a block away the first tower came down around us. You can't describe what living this is, it was horrific. I felt like being in a dream, I thought those were my last moments. I thought “This is the end”, so I made my peace with God and thought about my family.

I witnessed all the horror of that day with the big cloud of gray ash covering the city. We got back into the mobile command unit, we closed all the vents and we brought in as many people as were around us and waited for the end. In those moments everybody just prayed. When it was obvious that it wasn't the end we got out and went to work and started getting people off Manhattan island directing them over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Everything was ash, I have never seen anything like that before. People were very badly hurt and hiding under cars trying to get away from the ash. In the moment after that, we started hearing the radio calls which was the eeriest thing to hear: police officers who were trapped, police officers who were under the rubble and who were calling for help. It was very difficult to listen to.

At that point I told my inspector: “The second tower is going to come down” and I remember seeing the antenna starting to sway and and the second tower came down, we lived the same horror again, this time we were a little bit more prepared, we got to safety faster and we made sure we got as many people to safety as we could.

I've been a singer all my life. I've been a professional singer since I was 12 years old, I made my debut when I was 17 years old, I was in theater when I was 20 years old, I've been an actor and a director. I've always considered myself as a musician first, so when I became a police officer it was because it was a good opportunity, with a good pay and a good pension. So when the second tower came down I thought again it was going to come on top of us, I turned for a moment to run and my inspector was on the other side of the fence at the City Hall. My thought was “If this is my last moment I want my wife and my family to know that I was at my post, were I was supposed to be.” I wanted them to find me alongside to my inspector. In that moment I was a singer all my life but I was also a New York City police officer and that oath I took to protect and serve took a whole new meaning.

We spent the rest of day trying to send people off the island and trying to find out what to do next. It was great to know Mayor Giuliani was still in control and giving orders, that was the most important thing in the chaos.

We were on Greenwich when WTC7 shattered and fell in the afternoon. I witnessed three buildings falling down. It's one of those things that make you understand when soldiers have post traumatic stress.

Undicisettembre: How long have you been there after 9/11?

Daniel Rodriguez: I've been there for a couple of months. We went to one of the first meetings to set up a command center and they started talking about what to do next.

On the next day the world was quiet. Everyone was in shock and the city was in quiet calm, you didn't hear anybody beeping a horn or raising their voice, everyone was just walking around in a daze. The rest of the world was watching the first responders start what they thought was a rescue effort.

The next day I went to the Jacob Javits Center because authorities told people who had experience in cutting or welding to meet there so that they could be sent to Ground Zero to try and start the rescue efforts and I remember being there and having all these people coming and lining up to the buses and we were sending busloads of people.

At one of the piers they had set up a triage center with nurses and doctors waiting for survivors to come and no one came. It was one of the eeriest thing, there were no survivors.

Undicisettembre: On 9/11 did you get a chance to talk to someone who was coming out of the towers?

Daniel Rodriguez: No. Actually on that day I was on Vesey and West where the mobile command unit was and they set a temporary morgue there where they were bringing whatever remains were found from the Towers. It was also where President Bush made his speech.

I was a singer and I knew that call was going to come for me to do more, it came very quickly when the Mayor called me to sing and pray for America. It was the first time I sang after 9/11 and that was when I really felt like I was healing and giving a true part of who I am.

Undicisettembre: That's very interesting. Would you like to elaborate? Did 9/11 give you a new insight into being a singer?

Daniel Rodriguez: Absolutely! All my life I wanted to be a singer. When I was a young man I dreamed about being on Broadway and being an artist. All the things that all artists dream about and that have nothing to do with spirituality: just being big, being famous and being rich. My dream was stopped when I started a family and my mentor, who was with my since I was 12 years old, left because he didn't think I would have been able to accomplish what I set out to accomplish now that I was going to be a father. This was a 19 year old view at the time but have since found out that he was also going through some major life changing hurdles and just couldn't continue.

So I gave up the dream for a little while but still music was a big part of me. Afterward I started singing again and it was more meaningful to me then because I was going through hard times and I connected a little bit more to the spiritual side of who I am and I asked God to help me get back to the person that once was.

From that day on I used my music as spiritual healing, but I still hadn't realized what my true calling would be. I was going to nightclubs and doing weekends with my band. When 9/11 happened I was already well known as the “singing policeman” in the city. So when I asked me to do “Prayer for America” and sing on that day, my life changed. I realized all my life I was preparing with this gift that God gave me for the moment it was needed most. I started a different life, a life that was dedicated to serving with music and representing through music and through being the “singing policemen” my friends that were lost on 9/11.

I did that for ten years, it was on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 when I understood I could do both. I can also go on Broadway, record an album and not have to apologize. This is the full merger of the man I used to be and the man I became after 9/11. Now I feel very complete.

Undicisettembre: Has 9/11 also given you a new insight into being a policeman?

Daniel Rodriguez: Those days are over. I retired in 2004, but once a police officer always a police officer. The personality and training needed to be a police officer never really left me. A few days ago a motorcycle took a spill in front of me and almost go run over by a bus. I called it in to cover the scene, called the EMS and starting directing traffic. I had the scene already handled by the time the police got there.

Once you enter that world it becomes a part of you.

Undicisettembre: What do you think about conspiracy theories that claim that 9/11 was an inside job?

Daniel Rodriguez: There was no explosions during the collapses and I know of the stepdaughter of a friend of mine who was on the second plane with her family and I know that plane went into the Tower and that they are dead. That's the truth. I know people who say there were not airliners that hit the towers, there were people on those planes and they are lost, they were not fake planes.

Moreover I met President Bush several times and I don't see how he can do such a thing.

Undicisettembre: Did you see WTC7 collapse? What do you think of it? Did you notice anything suspicious?

Daniel Rodriguez: I was standing in front of it. It was severely burning, it was on fire and I remember that when it fell I was looking at it. The glass was shattered from the ground up, it buckled on the left side and it went down from the left to the right. From what I saw I can tell you that it fell because the heat compromised its stability and it fell.

There were no explosions like in controlled demolitions.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your everyday life?

Daniel Rodriguez: I live 9/11 everyday because of who I am and because I do concerts, events and memorials. I do these interviews all the time as well. My life is more about where I'll go after I die, I am not preoccupied of when I die. But I was very fortunate because I was one of the first to have the mask. I lost a lot of friends, I've lost more friends after 9/11 due to illnesses that we did on that day, but I am still very healthy.

I was spared for a reason.

Undicisettembre: Do you think the country is still living in fear or has it regained its standing in the world?

Daniel Rodriguez: I think the world is living in fear. I think as a country we are concerned about all the things we hear like ISIS all what is still going on. We lived through 9/11 and through the Boston bombing, I think we came to the idea that things are going to happen. We are a target and we are prepared to the idea that something may happen.

But if you go to the bowl parks they are full, concerts are full, we are not cowered at home. The Yankees Stadium was full to capacity the first game after 9/11, basically saying “In your face, we are not going to hide”. We are a very resilient nation and city, actually is a very resilient World. We are more aware that everyone is connected with anyone else, we are starting to be more tolerant and open.

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