On the seventeenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, Undicisettembre offers its readers the account of former New York detective Michael Greene, who rushed to provide help at the World Trade Center after the two plane crashes and experienced the collapses of the two towers at close range.
We wish to thank Michael Greene for his kindness and willingness to share his experience.
Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on 9/11?
Every channel was showing it. You could see the smoke coming out of the building. I went upstairs and I told all my buddies, my sergeant, my supervisor "Hey, a plane crashed into the World Trade Center!" and they started speeding up. We are detectives, we investigate. We investigate murders, robberies, rapes, terrorism, espionage, whatever; but we are investigators, not rescuers, we work in suit and tie. Basically without anyone telling us anything we decided to go down there because we knew they might need help.
We took two unmarked police cars, it was like six to seven of us. I was driving the front car and as we were leaving our office one thing I noticed is the traffic was already packed up, way worse than normal and it was very difficult to get through traffic. I made a turn to get on the West Side Highway, the World Trade Center is just next to it, and I give credit to the NYPD traffic officers because immediately they had that whole highway shut down just for emergency vehicles, so it was clear. Driving down there I called my mom and she didn't even know, I told her what happened and I told her I was going to help people.
As I was pulling up, the second plane hit. Immediately we knew it was terrorism, that it was intentional. I parked the police car a few blocks away, and walked down there. On the opposite side of the road from the towers there was an American Express building. At that moment none of our cellphones worked; our commander, who was trying to lead the way, had us go there because we were trying to get through to our headquarter to find out what we should do, what the plan of action was. So we went in the American Express building to use their landline phones, and every call we made it was just busy signal. So no calls went through.
There was a girl there, maybe 22 years old, who was scared but didn't know what was going on because the building had no windows and she asked me "What should I do?" I said "If I were you, I would leave." In the back of my head I always wonder if she did leave because a piece of the tower did fall on that building. We walked out and went towards the South Tower. Everyone was running away from every sides of the building and on every side somebody was jumping, you could hear the loud explosions of the bodies. I'm a detective and I'm also a hostage negotiator, I've seen people jump, I've seen the aftermath of people jump and when it happens there's usually a human body there, even if with broken bones but it's there, but the difference here was that people were jumping from such high floors that when they hit the ground they just exploded into literally nothing. The whole human being would hit the ground and "boom", nothing but a little splat of blood, no body left. And it was constant. There were like two people jumping on this side, then one jumping on the other side, and so on.
I shook hands with two NYPD guys, they were the emergency service unit, they do all kind of rescues and SWAT team operations, they were putting on their gear and breathing apparatus and we shook hands with a smile saying “Hey, you got to be safe”, “You too, you too” and they didn’t make it out. I saw hundreds of firefighters going in, many of them didn’t make it out.
Going in and out the building you had to look up because people and things were falling; some people made it out of the building but were killed by other people jumping. Two people, and then nothing. I saw one guy walk out, he made it out and then a big, big piece of glass came down and split him in half: a whole person walking, a giant piece of glass falling, and the two sides of him falling to the ground.
So, I was with my team and we took a headcount, so in case everyone got separated we knew who's with us. We looked up and there was a woman in work clothes falling, she was wearing a suit, I remember her blonde hair, she had a skirt on and her business blouse, on one foot she still had heels on; while falling her arms and legs were still kicking. While falling she hit a light pole, and she split in half, and both her halves hit the ground. This thing will stay with me forever. There was nothing we could do about it.
We took the headcount, we took everybody's name, then we were about to go inside, we looked up and I saw the top of the tower start to move. It was collapsing. I yelled "Run!" we were right there by the lobby, so we couldn't get far. One of my last visuals before the tower came down was a sea of people who made it to the lobby orderly going out. But they didn’t make it out.
One of my sergeants, Jerry Beyrodt, was thrown by the impact 60 or 100 feet into the air and a police van that was leaving unintentionally run over his leg. As the tower came down the debris and smoke came over him. All my other buddies were five or ten feet behind me and to me they were dead. This had never happened before, so we didn’t know what to expect. There was a black car, I think it was an unmarked police car but it was so dark I couldn't see in, I wanted to go inside there for some kind of cover. I pulled on the handle of the car door and it was locked, I pulled out my gun and I was going to shoot the glass to get in but in the back of my head I thought "What if someone is already hiding in there? I don't want to kill anybody." During the collapse you could hear gunshots because there were cops who were shooting at windows to go into buildings, stores for instance.
I went in front of the car and I got in my knees and I covered my head and torso behind the car and the only part exposed were my legs and my feet. I though "This debris cloud comes and it's going to chop off my legs and feet. I have very good legs and feet and I'm going to miss them."
The whole debris cloud engulfed me and covered me and I thought "Wow! My legs are still here!" I got my suit jacket, I got it over my face as an air filter and it was pitch black, you couldn't see. My heart was racing because I had just run as fast as I could. So I stopped to take a breath. It was as if someone had taken a bucket of sand and threw it into your mouth. All of a sudden my mouth and my nose were full of nothing but cake and that's when you learn "Wow, I can't swallow!" and you and I can swallow now, we involuntarily swallow all day. And you realize you can't breathe either, because there was no air: zero. As I was realizing this, silence came over everything. It was quiet as you could hear a pin drop all of a sudden.
I heard a woman's voice, she was walking next to me. It was dead quiet and she was saying "Help! Help!". I am a cop, a detective, I save people but I remember I couldn't help myself, I couldn't help her and I couldn't see her first off. I heard "Boom!" and she hit the ground. Again, can't breathe, can't see, I remember thinking to myself "I have a minute, and then I am a dead man." because there was no air. I said to myself "Should I lie down and die peacefully or flap around and go crazy and leave like that." I sat there on the street, it was still black, debris still stick everywhere and I could feel the air running out of my lungs. Then I started to get angry inside, I was like "Fucking terrorists, fucking bin Laden!" I have studied international terrorism since 1989, that was a field I was really interested on. I was mad that terrorists just killed thousands of us. I started to pray and all of a sudden a little bit of air started coming; seconds by seconds a little more air and a little more air.
I started to see maybe five feet and first thing I wanted to see where that lady was, I walked a few feet to my right and there was the lady, she was on her back and she was dead, she suffocated to death. Her mouth and nose were all caked up, she was dead.
There was silence everywhere, but you could hear chirping, because the firefighters had devices which if they don’t move after sixty seconds they chirp.
I walked a little south and found the city bus, there were two cops on it and the bus driver, and the air conditioning was on. I thought "This is what I need, I can still help people, but I need to help myself first, I need to breathe." I went inside and the air was clean, I could get my breath. I got off the bus and I started directing as many people as I could to the bus. There was a person on the bus who was a female paramedic, she was traumatized and she was crying, crying, crying. A guy who was also on the bus looked at her and told her "You got to stop, you have to pull yourself together." He smacked her in the face and she was like "Yes, you are right. You are right."
By now, we could see maybe ten feet. I started to see my buddies, they all survived, I saw them walking and I saw the sergeant again, he was 58 years old, six foot five, he had been a cop for more than thirty years already, including working in the Terrorism Task Force years before. He got thrown and his leg got run over, but was carrying a female sergeant on his back because her shoes got blown off. We put her also on the bus. We had the bus loaded, I told the driver "Look, you are going to go down on this street. Don’t go through that tunnel down there, don’t go through any tunnels. Stay above ground, turn around, go to the East Side of Manhattan, there's a hospital on 21st street and 2nd Avenue. Make that, you drop off people and from there go to your bus station." He said "Okay" and drove off.
The rest of us went south to the end of Manhattan, facing the Statue of Liberty, there are no docks for boats, just a wall from where you can see the water. Thousands of people had gathered there in that grassy area, injured and not injured, just laying on the grass just resting and not knowing what to do. There was no docks for boats but just a wall and we started waving boats over.
The sergeant’s leg was blue, pink, purple, black, and three times the size, so we told him "Look, you now go to the hospital or you are going to lose your leg." but he was a big and strong guy and he wanted to keep helping, so two detectives forced him onto a police boat that took him to a hospital in New Jersey. He stayed there four months and had ten surgeries and they saved his leg. He died three years ago of 9/11 cancer. Other than NYPD he was also in the Navy and a volunteer firefighter in his town.
There at the south end of Manhattan, with thousands of people, there were doctors around, with nurses, off duty or on duty; I took note that there were two middle eastern looking guys who were walking around, they had serious looks on their faces, and they weren't helping anybody, they were just walking around. Half of me wanted to stop them, but I didn't; to this day I look back and I wish I had, but I didn't. It was out of place that they were looking but not helping.
While we were there, the North Tower fell. I couldn’t handle another cloud; I jumped on the other side of the seawall to jump into the river if the debris field would come as far as we were, but it didn't. We kept waving boats over, we started lifting women, children and injured over the seawall and onto the boats There were thousands of people, we got all of them off the island and onto the boats. I have to give credit to the pilots and the captains, because that wasn't a dock, it was a seawall. We did our part loading people on, but they did their part keeping the boats there, there were no boats crashing, nobody got injured; they did a great job.
We got everybody off, then we walked north through the rubble to see if we could find any survivors. We reached Church Street and it was deserted, there was nobody. Debris was everywhere, an inch thick on the ground. There was a hole in street with flames coming out, like hell. We went to the mound where the Towers were and there was nobody to rescue. We ultimately kept walking till we got to the same hospital I told the bus to go to.
Among people of my precinct five died of 9/11 cancer, ten people have cancer but are still alive. But if you go across the whole police department there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds; I was right there with them, even my day might come sooner or later.
Undicisettembre: Were you also an investigator after 9/11? What was your role in the investigation?
Michael Greene: Yes, I did a portion of it. The part I did was just an account of who lived and who didn’t. There were people committing frauds, who were saying like “Oh, my wife was killed!” and we found later the person wasn’t killed; they were trying to get the money from the insurance policy. There were things like this happening and at least one of them made the news, they were a Canadian couple. She reported her husband was killed in the tower but he wasn’t, he was still alive, so he was just trying to get the insurance money from his death.
So the part that I investigated was who actually died, who were visitors, and so on. We set up a hotline where people could report people missing; basically we had to account for every person. This lasted many months.
Undicisettembre: What happened to you in the following days?
Michael Greene: Well, the NYPD is kind of special. Probably anywhere else you get immediate treating, counseling or whatever; in NYPD no, you are back to work the next day and in the light of what happened we didn’t mind. We were there to help and rescue, do what we had to do. We didn’t care. So I went back to work, and work was a mixture: I did what they call “the pile”, going through debris to rescue people, to see if there was anyone alive. They also brought the debris to Staten Island to a garbage dump, they had us working there on twelve-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, digging through the debris for evidence, body parts, anything.
One day I found a whole bunch of ID’s. At the time if you wanted to visit to the World Trade Center you would go to the front desk and the security would take your name and a picture of you. Digging through the rubble I found some forty ID cards for middle eastern men. Could be something, could be nothing. They were forty, I found all the cards in the same place.
When you found something you would put it in a bucket and at the end of the day it would eventually go to the Terrorism Task Force guys.
I spoke to one of my sergeants, the day after 9/11. He was separate from my group. Right before the South Tower collapsed, he was about to enter. He said he observed an NYPD officer in uniform, with a middle eastern man in handcuffs. He said the officer was walking the man out, but the Tower collapsed, neither made it out.
This was a rescue operation at the time not an arrest operation. A cop with a man in handcuffs, there had to be a very good reason. Again, could be something, could be nothing.
Undicisettembre: Having been a rescuer also in the 1993 attack, were you somehow expecting terrorists to come back?
Michael Greene: I was. The Mayor at the time was Giuliani, he was a great mayor for the time, we needed him but there was good and bad about him. On the bad side, I remember the day he decided to put the New York City office of Emergency Management inside the World Trade Center, after 1993. In my head I was like “The World Trade Center is still a terrorist target, why would you put our command center for emergencies in that building?” He did it and on 9/11 nobody could use it. That was a dumb move. I totally knew they were going to go for it.
Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories that claim that 9/11 was an inside job?
Michael Greene: I don’t believe it was an inside job. I do believe we made a tremendous amount of huge mistakes that allowed it to happen. But an inside job? No, not at all.
Undicisettembre: What do you think of security in the States today? Is the country safer than in 2001?
Michael Greene: In regard to terrorism I would say yes, to maintain that level costs a lot of money and I don’t know if it will be sustainable. But ISIS did something that al-Qaeda didn’t do, which makes it difficult for us: al-Qaeda was all about “Hey, come train with us.” while ISIS is like “You don’t have to train with us, we are just going to get into your head, make you become a sympathizer from ten thousand miles away and we are going to make you want to commit terrorist acts with your car or any normal thing that is normally not a weapon.” That makes it more difficult because if you are a weak minded person watching ISIS videos at home every day, you are not on anybody’s radar for anybody to detect if that you are planning a terrorist attack.
So it’s a little trickier but in terms of any big terrorist attack, like in the style of 9/11, we are definitely safer now than we were then. These lone wolves attacks are more preventable, not by the federal government or the FBI, but by the local police, because the local police can see if a person looks a little depressed or is acting a little weird or is buying a few guns. I think also the local police has also become more geared towards terrorism and has taken a role in counter-terrorism.