World Trade Center: an interview with former NYPD sergeant Gerard Kane

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

Undicisettembre continues its effort to preserve the memories of the tragic events of 9/11. Today we offer our readers the account of former NYPD sergeant Gerard Kane who arrived on the scene after the second crash.

We would like to thank Gerard Kane for his kindness and willingness to help.

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

Gerard Kane: I was home when the first plane struck, I was immediately contacted by one of my colleagues, I put on the TV and saw the big hole in the North Tower of the World Trade Center with a large volume of fire from inside the building. I was still going to go in at my 10:00AM shift, as normal, trying not to overreact to things, I had been around for fifteen years or so at the time as a police officer and I hadn’t yet shaved or showered or gone into my business attire, I was still in t-shirt and shorts drinking coffee in my kitchen. Then I got a call from a pretty well informed person, a gentleman by the name of John Miller, who is currently the NYPD deputy commissioner for intel and back then he was a news reporter and he had famously interviewed Osama bin Laden back in 1998. He asked me what was going on, I was a little surprised by his call and I remember thinking to myself “If John doesn’t know maybe I should just skip the shower, throw some clothes on and get in.”

So I threw some clothes on, I knew it was a bad fire and that my boss, Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, wanted me to be in the building so I put on my suit I didn’t like, the shoes I didn’t like, the shirt I didn’t like figuring if they get ruined I’d just throw them out. My wife handed me a cup of coffee, I had an unmarked police car that I was able to take home in the assignment that I had at the time and I live only six miles away from the World Trade Center so I started heading in lights and sirens.

I took the Interstate 278, sometimes called BQE, from where you could see the Towers on the left, I glanced over and saw all the black smoke coming from the North Tower and it did remind me of that iconic photo of Pearl Harbor of the Arizona with the black smoke pouring out of it. But I really wasn’t looking at the tower because I was driving, I was really paying attention to the ten or twenty feet right in front of my car so I wouldn’t crash into anybody. About halfway there, three miles to go, there was a lot of screaming and commotion on the radio, nobody was making any sense and then a cop got on very calmly telling “Central, a second plane just hit the other Tower”. I looked up but I missed the ball of flame but what I saw was a big ball of smoke roiling upwards towards the sky and literally thousands of pieces of papers floating in the sky and actually almost twinkling in the sky because it was such a sunny and beautiful day.

In that moment the chief of NYPD, Joe Esposito, or Chief Espo as we used to call him, got on the radio. The NYPD has a command and control unit called operations and the chief got on the radio and says “Central, have operations notify the Pentagon, the city is under attack.” I had been around for fifteen years, I had gone to radio calls where cops are screaming they are in a shootout, foot chases, car chases, all kinds or emergency calls come over the radio, but to hear the chief on our police radio saying that we were at war and we are the first people handling that, not the army, not the navy, but the police department and fire department really was amazing. I started running through my head “What do I have with me? I have a gun, I have extra ammunition, I have my bulletproof vest, I have my heavy bulletproof vest, my helmet.” Because I had no idea what we were facing.

I ended up driving through the Battery Tunnel, I came out on the Manhattan side of the tunnel, I parked my car maybe three blocks south from the site, I walked up to right opposite the South Tower, while I was standing there out of nowhere two United States Air Force F-15 came screaming in with full afterburners at about two thousand feet. That certainly got our attention, never ever as a cop I’ve had United States Air Force back me up and I did feel good with their presence even if they did scare the crap out of me when they first came overhead, it’s a pretty dramatic entrance when they come in like that but once the two jets were there I knew no more planes where going to crash into the city, so it was kind of like “All right, at least that’s under control.”

I was trying to figure out what to do next. I was about to go into the Marriott Hotel, which was in between the two Towers. The security director there was a retired police sergeant, I was a police sergeant at the time and I was going to see if he was okay and if he needed anything but I got distracted by somebody and I didn’t do it. It turned out he was in his hotel when the South Tower collapsed around it and onto it and he barely survived it, he just got out of the hotel before the South Tower collapsed. If I had gone inside it and had even a twenty second conversation with him I might have changed his day significantly enough that he might not have lived and also my day would have been changed by twenty or thirty seconds. But he did live, he barely made it out by the skin of his teeth.

So I was there looking at the buildings and trying to figure out what the commissioner needed from me, because I was on his staff, and what people need: there were like two thousands rescuers on the scene, probably one thousands cops between Port Authority Police and New York City police, probably five hundred to a thousand firefighters, a hundred or two hundred paramedics and ambulances that brought people there. I was hearing these “boom, boom, boom” and I thought “Man, there must be gas lines going off in the towers, the firemen must have much to worry about” and then I saw with the corner of my eye a person going down from the top to the bottom, and it was the most horrible thing to watch in your life, you really really feel for them because they are in the last seconds of their life and you are a witness to it. They are fully alive and you know that in five seconds they are going to be completely dead.

But I had to do my job, with the jets overhead and both buildings impacted, people jumping. I was trying to concentrate to whatever I could put my hands on: if a person or a thing was close enough for me to touch it, I would think about it, other than that I was trying not to commit any brain power to things that were going on beyond that because I was starting to recognize it was going to be an overwhelming day. I was looking for the police commissioner, and I found him and Mayor Giuliani maybe five or ten minutes before the South Tower collapsed. The commissioner gave me a mission to go find the New York director of the FBI, the FBI’s biggest office in the USA, even bigger than the one in Washington DC, was the New York office, they had probably two thousands agents assigned to New York City. Obviously the New York City commissioner wanted to know from the Federal Government what was going on and since he doesn’t normally deal with admirals and generals he wanted me to try to get the FBI director to come in and brief him.

I went to find the FBI. The FBI had established a temporary headquarter in a building about three or four blocks north of the World Trade Center, they just took over the lobby of a building and were using it as a command post and someone there told me the head of the New York office, who’s name was Berry Mawn, was in the South Tower. He’s alive today, he did not get killed.

I went down to Church Street, right by Century 21, a very famous discount department store, an I was thinking to myself “The footprint of the Tower is a square, the debris, the glass and everything are coming from the four sides, so if I run towards the corner of the building at a 45 degree angle and things are falling at a 90 degree angle from the side I should be okay.” I was about to run there, and someone said “It’s coming down” I thought I had one second, I ran about a hundred and fifty feet which was definitely not enough and I got behind an NYPD vehicle and I tucked myself behind it, I hoped for the best and it was as you can imagine the loudest sound you could hear in your life. A tremendous roar, tremendous. The best way I can describe is gravel being dumped out of a truck, then it was lights out, couldn’t see anything, and for a few seconds there was no air, only dust. And then there was no sound, none. It was the quietest quiet I’ve ever experienced in my life. If you have ever been in a snowfall, it was like that, but ten times quieter. So it went from the loudest noise I’ve ever heard in my life, to the quietest quiet I’ve ever heard in my life. It didn’t last too long, though. You would start to hear people in shock or calling out to their friends, some people saying they needed help.

I held my breath for a few seconds and then I started breathing and took a hard breath, the dust went right down my throat, as I reflex I did a second breath and I was kind of screwed and I was almost asphyxiated to death. I was lucky because there were people who were asphyxiated to death. I really thought I was going to die, I was banging into people right and left of me, they were all panicky. Then I got calm and when I got calm I thought better, I got my suit jacket and wrapped it around my head and I used it as a filter. I knew the truck I was behind was pointing to south, I knew north was Harlem, the Bronx, Canada. I knew I needed to collect my thoughts. I crawled about a block, then I walked about two and a half blocks and found five people in Saint Peter’s catholic church which is on Barclay and Church Streets. There were four adults and a teenager. The dust was starting to settle, but I didn’t realize that because I had the jacket wrapped around my head. They said “Hey, there’s someone out there.” None of the adults made a move, so the kid came out and said “Man, you can’t be out here.” He took me by the wrist and took me up the steps. I said “Where are we going?” he said “We are going to a church.” I said “Is it a Catholic church?” I wasn’t being picky, I am a Catholic but I would have gone anywhere but I needed water badly. As soon as we got at the door I put my hand up and I couldn’t see anything I had dust all over my eyes. And there was holy water. I got a big handful of holy water, put it in my mouth, gargled, spit, did it again, then took a handful for one eye and took a handful for the other eye and I blessed myself.

I had been through this near death experience, at the time I thought ten thousand people had died, I looked around and thought “Is this the way-station to heaven?” then I did the math and said “Ok, ten thousand people died, only six people are going to heaven and there’s no way I’m one of the six. If there were six thousands maybe I could get in at the back of the line, but not out of six.” So I knew I was alive. Took me about a minute to get back to what I do for a living, I’m a police sergeant, I tell people what to do, whether they like it or not, and I make sure they do it.

So I started directing people, able-bodied men, not further than fifty feet from the door of the church and bring people in who were less ambulatory. The population started to increase at a pretty rapid pace, luckily I have a big loud voice. I had a paramedic and I had a nurse, I put them in charge of medical care, they were free to make any medical decision that they wanted, because I have no medical training, they had all the medical training. Me and the kid went to the sacristy because I knew people needed water, we kicked in the door and I knew there would be sinks, flower vases, chalices and other things to provide people with water. We got the sinks running, filling things up with water. We had people drinking water out of chalices because they needed it.

I had a knife on me, I told the kid to take the covering of the altar “Cut it into strips, soak the strips into water and let people tie them around their face.” He said “Are you sure?” I said “Yes, I’m a former altar boy, you can do it.” He cut it up, he went through it and said “I’m out of that, what should I cut next?” I said “Cut the priest’s vestments.” He said again “Are you sure?” I gave myself a promotion and called myself “a retired altar boy”. I decided “Until anyone supersedes me I was going to be the ranking Catholic authority in this church”, I was making all decisions about the church property and how it was going to be used. A few months later I met father McManus, who was the pastor of the parish, and he said “Gerry, God put that stuff there to be used. It was totally okay, no worries.”

So, we were there, we were giving basic first aid to a lot of people, most people just needed a safe place to be because everybody was in shock, people needed water, air inside the church was a little cleaner than outside because all the windows were closed and they weren’t broken. Even though there was a piece of jet engine on the roof of the church, none of the windows broke.

We were there maybe 45 minutes to an hour when the North Tower came down and I have no memory of that whatsoever. A psychologist told me about the brain and this whole “fight-or-flight” thing and that you stop thinking of memories and you start only worrying about survival. I could talk about the South Tower for five hours, but I can’t remember anything about the North Tower.

There came a point in time when I left there, because there was a lot of personnel, bosses from the police department, bosses from the fire department. There was a priest who was killed, the fire department chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, they brought him into Saint Peter, laid him on the altar. It was starting to get pretty congested and they didn’t need me running things anymore. I decided I was to try to reconnect to the police commissioner, but couldn’t find him and I didn’t know if he was alive or not. There was a police station in a subway station, for the transit police, a few blocks away and I went there to take a shower with my clothes on, because I had so much dust on me it was bouncing off me all the time. I wanted to suppress the dust, so in my suit I walked through a shower stall to hose myself down.

I then went back to Ground Zero, I was there when 7 World Trade Center fell although I was two good blocks away from it because I started to learn my lesson, which was “Don’t stay too close to these things when they fall”. I ended up in the afternoon going back to my office at the Police Headquarters to change into a uniform, I spent large time of the afternoon trying to find a place to do a large temporary morgue. At first we were going to take over every ice hockey rink in the city, that was the first plan, then the Federal Government showed up with these big air conditioning trucks, which I didn’t know we had, we were going to take over a passenger ship pier on the west side of Manhattan and air condition the whole thing to a very very cold temperature and bring the bodies there. Then I ended up at the actual morgue which is on the East Side of Manhattan; doctor Hirsch, the medical examiner for the city at the time, knew there would be no bodies because the force of the collapse made the number of recoverable bodies minimal and he was 100% right.

I was at the morgue from ten at night till two or three in the morning. Then I went home at about 3:30 or 4 o’clock, took a shower and I was going to take a nap because I was exhausted and I ended up watching TV, which was a big mistake because even though I lived it, it was compelling television to watch. So I watched TV for forty-five minutes and then it was time for me to go back to work and at 5:30 in the morning I was back on the pile in the bucket brigade. We had 200 people on the pile and that was the start of the rescue and recovery effort.

Undicisettembre: What did you do in the following days?

Gerard Kane: Digging almost through September twelfth, then they decided the digging would be done by trained people and we were getting help from all over the country pretty quickly from people who have buildings collapse as a living and they fly over when there’s an earthquake or something like that, because they practice this stuff all the time. So actual crawling around underneath the rubble was done by the professionals. The rest of us was the bucket brigade.

We couldn’t bring heavy equipment because we thought there would be still people to save so they were literally taking pieces out by hand, they would put it in a little five gallon bucket and pass the bucket down to the bottom of the line where someone would dump it out, then three or four guys would throw the bucket back up to the top of the pile where someone would fill it with debris and pass it back down again. I did that for a couple of days.

Undicisettembre: How long did it take you to get your life back to normalcy?

Gerard Kane: It’s hard to say it’s back to normal. It was a big hit. Certainly you got to move on, you got kids, you got a wife, you got a job. You can’t just cry all day or drink all day or do both all day, you’ve got to function.

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

Gerard Kane: I think about it everyday, of how lucky I am that I made through it, I’m glad I didn’t die. I’m glad I didn’t leave my wife and my boys. I think about all the people who went to work to do their jobs, didn’t have political feelings, and some maniacs flew jet planes into their buildings killing them by the hundreds. It’s terrible.

First responders, including me, while driving there knew this was going to be a life or death situation but we kept going. I signed up for that though, I became a cop; firemen, they became firemen. The poor people sitting at their desks, what did they do to deserve this? People on airplanes, what did they do to deserve this? It’s terrible for them and for their families.

I’m sure a lot of people are still broken, and I mean really broken. Everyone is broken a little bit, but some people are more broken than others.

Undicisettembre: How did 9/11 effect your professional life from 2001 till the day you retired from NYPD?

Gerard Kane: Well, I retired in 2005. I could have stayed on, but 9/11 was definitely on my mind when I retired, I thought “I don’t want to go through another one of those things again.” I work for a company now who is rolling out a huge, multimillion dollars, initiative for public safety across the United States and I did a taping for all the employees of the company so they could have a sense of why 9/11 was important and why the company is doing what they are doing.

It was seventeen years ago, there are people who were little kids when it happened and they are now in college or graduating from college. They know it from history books or from watching documentaries on TV, but if you watched it live it was completely different than if you watched it in class years after it happened with your classmates.

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

Gerard Kane: First of all, obviously these conspiracy theorists need to sail their boats off the edge of the flat Earth.

To be serious, I think when something like 9/11 happens it’s gigantic, it’s absolutely g-i-g-a-n-t-i-c. Look at this, you are in Italy, I’m in New York City, we are talking over Skype seventeen years after it happened because it’s such a gigantic event that we are compelled to speak to each other. It’s so gigantic that some people can’t process it normally, so to protect themselves they say “No, it can’t be that a couple of guys organized this, some guys went to flight school, they got some box cutters, took over the cockpits. How could that be? With a guy in a cave organizing all this. Come on!” So they say “It’s got to be bigger than that, it has to be some kind of grand conspiracy. It has to be CIA, the government trying to grab oil, trying to start wars, or the Illuminati.” They just can’t process the facts because the event was so big.

I feel sorry for them actually, I really do. I get mad at them sometimes, but my real emotion when I think about those people is that I feel sorry for them, that their intellect and personality is so weak that this is how they defend themselves.

But it’s dying now. As for me till twelve or thirteen years ago it was hard to talk about 9/11 because I would start to get emotional, but now time has passed and for them time passes also and their brains start to heal and to think normally.

Undicisettembre: In your opinion, is the country safer now than in 2001?

Gerard Kane: Yes. There’s no question the country is safer. Let’s start in the source, in the places where these evil ideas are germinated there are aggressive efforts being made all the time to interdict, arrest, kill people who come up with these ideas.

Here in the United States local police and the federal government are doing a very good job, all they got to do is go on Facebook, go to different chatrooms, find people who are talking about jihad, go meet them in an undercover capacity and if the person says “I want to do jihad” they tell them “Great, why don’t you cool your heels in jail for a couple of years?” and they eliminate them from the streets, and of course on airplanes if a guy stands up and stabs the stewardess every able-bodied person on the plane regardless of their personal safety will rush that guy and beat the living daylight out of him and drive him unconscious or even dead.

They know this, so there is no taking over airplanes anymore as they used to be able to. Now there’s vehicle terrorism, where they drive though a crowd, but cities are starting to be redesigned with that in mind. I’ve seen it in New York, there are barriers everywhere. And when I see them I say “Oh, that’s great! Now they can’t run me over.”

So the terrorists adapt, but the police adapt. No one is going to be caught napping.

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