by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.
Undicisettembre is offering today its readers the personal account of first responder Craig Mazzara who was deployed to Ground Zero a few days after the attack and had worked there for months in the debris field.
We would like to thank Craig Mazzara for his kindess and his time.
Undicisettembre: Can you give us an account of what happened to you on 9/11 and the following days?
I was sleeping when the first tower was struck and I got a phone call from my wife that woke me up. She said “Do you know what’s happening?”, I said “I was sleeping, I have no idea”, she said “Turn on the TV, you have to see”. I got up, I turned on the TV immediately and I saw the panic, the fear, the complete chaos that was happening at and around the World Trade Center. The first tower had been struck, the second tower hadn’t been struck yet. As the second tower was struck, I watched that on TV. My son was four at the time and he told me “Dad, what movie are you watching?” because he couldn’t believe that was a real thing. I started crying and said “Sam, this is real, this is happening”. At that moment my wife called me again and said “Do you have to go to work?” because she knew I was in the rapid response unit, I said “I haven’t got the call yet, but you have to go to Logan’s school”, Logan is my older daughter who was six, “and get her out” because at that point we had no idea what was going to be considered a hard or a soft target. The general idea was that wherever there was a group of civilians, that was a soft target; anywhere there was a big commercial hub, governmental facilities or military facilities would be a hard target. I was in panic, I was screaming.
I hung up with my wife, she was going to get our daughter out of school, I turned my attention back to the TV and I watched the first tower come down. I continued to fall into deeper stages of disbelief, continuing not to believe that this was happening. I called my unit and got the training sergeant on the phone and asked “Steve, what are we doing?”. With my unit there are different levels of mobilization that go from one to four which is the most critical that means that all personnel assigned to the unit and all off duty personnel have to respond. Steve said "There’s no word yet, we are in contact with headquarters, we’ll let you know as soon as we receive an order.” When my wife got home I was ready to suit up and go downtown myself if my unit wasn’t going to call me in. As frightening as it was, I wanted to be there, I was hit by a feeling of regret that I was not there to respond and help civilians.
Not long after my phone rang. Steve said “Craig, level four. You have to get down here.” I was ready to go and both my wife and I were very tearful because we didn’t know if I was going to come back. I kissed my wife and my children as if I was never going to see them again. I jumped in my car and I was listening to the radio, as anyone else was doing, and I realized the highways were shut down because Manhattan had been sealed off. People leaving were either being ferried out or walking out of the Manhattan through bridges or tunnels, but no car could leave. So as I got to the parkway I realized I was not going to get through and I started to see a stream of cars driving fifty or sixty miles an hour on a grassy shoulder on the right side definitely not meant for traffic.
I thought “They all must be first responders, they must be military, cops, firefighters” so I worked my way through traffic to get in that lane. When I got to my precinct it was more chaotic than I’ve ever seen: people flying into the parking lot, running out of their cars, scrambling into the station to immediately grab their gear, everything. Whoever had a second gun took their second gun, whoever had a third gun would grab their third gun. We were sure we were going to be suited up and go to Ground Zero. There were sixty of us there but we were told by our commanding officer that because we had two airports that were hard targets, JFK and LaGuardia, in our borough Queens South, we had to stay there to guard those hard targets. That news was like getting hit in the head with a bat, it was devastating, we felt useless.
Before we deployed to the airport there was this guy we worked with, his name is Mitch, who was a few blocks away from the World Trade Center off duty but in uniform, but instead of reporting to a commander on scene he walked out of Manhattan with the civilians, it took him six or seven hours. He was white covered with dust. He opened the door and we looked at him as if he was a spirit from the grave, we couldn’t believe what we were looking at because we wanted to go there so desperately and here was a guy who was there and chose to leave instead of helping. I was disgusted.
For the next few days we were guarding our hard targets. Then on Friday they said “Look, we are looking for volunteers to go boots on the ground at Ground Zero to assist in search and recovery efforts”. I immediately jumped on the opportunity because I wanted to go and feel like I was doing something. I went with another cop, Matt, and our sergeant Dan; the three of us reported Sunday early morning not knowing how long we would have been there.
For the first few months after 9/11 we worked sixteen hours shifts. When you saw the debris field and the scope of the destruction, it knocks the wind out of you, as if you are trying to breath in a vacuum. It was days later and they had found no survivors, but I was convinced that people buried alive could have been found even then, as it happens days later in earthquakes or mudslides. We reported to a gathering point, we received filtration respirators and we were given instructions to go to a site commander at Ground Zero and they would instruct us from there. We did that and we ended up in what we called the “bucket brigade”, a line of a couple of hundred cops at least snaking from the tip of the pile of debris till the far end of the site. At that point they hadn’t brought in any heavy equipment because I think there still was the thought “Maybe we’ll find somebody alive or a dead body intact that we can recover. Or even just a memento such as a wallet, a watch, a wedding ring.”
At night it was very cold. I was the second person from the top of the pile, the point, and I remember someone tapped the officer on the point on his shoulder and said “You’re done”. He stood up with a shell shock look in his eyes, his body was there but mentally he was 100% not with us there. That look in his eyes, that hollowness, so frightened the officer in front of me that he said “I can’t do this, I’m not doing this” and he left too. At that moment, they called me forward and I took my place on the point of the debris pile. Even though it was very cold, you started pouring sweat because, as I found out later, there were still fires raging under us. So we were sweating from head to feet but at the same time we were freezing cold.
I can’t tell you how long I had been there, because I also disassociated like the officer in front of me. I had left my body behind and didn’t even realize where I was. Someone tapped on my shoulder as well and told me “It’s okay son, you’re done.” This guy was younger than me and he called me “son”. That was comforting somehow. I blankly gave him the shovel and bucket I was using and I wandered off the pile totally aimlessly, no direction, I felt like I couldn’t see and here is where it starts getting spotty for me because I remember walking down the pile but I don’t truly remember anything other than my friend Matt coming up to me, grabbing me and saying “Craig, are you okay?”. I was unresponsive and I don’t remember answering to him.
For some time after there was a rescue boat docked at the pier. It was a place for first responders to go to get hot coffee, a hot meal or clean clothes. Matt took me there, in that condition I would have never found it on my own, and there was a young brunette girl whom I never forget because of her kindness; she said “Officer, you look terrible and you have to be cold, we are going to help you” and she gave me a red Champion sweatshirt which I immediately put on. Twenty-one years later I still have that sweatshirt.
The hope that we might find a survivor or something useful was shattered once we got to the pile and understood the scope of what had happened. It was crushing, it was a debilitating hopelessness. From that day, that first disassociation, was the onset of my post traumatic stress disorder but I would go untreated for eighteen years.
Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your life even today?
Craig Mazzara: I was recently, three years ago, diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder but even before that I knew something was wrong, I knew I was no longer the same person. I wasn’t sure how and what had changed, but I was a lot angrier and constantly in a rage. I could fly into a rage for the smallest thing, I was always hyper-vigilant.
We worked sixteen hours shifts for several months after 9/11 and then we went to twelve hours shifts for about a year, and when you live with that constant pressure it becomes such an internal part of you that you carry it with you for the rest of your life. For the rest of your life you have to be aggressive and hyper-vigilant, you can’t show sign of letting up because you don’t want to be the weak link in the chain.
I was having nightmares, that rage that I couldn’t control and as a police officer as you can imagine it’s not a great thing. I had bouts of depression and I think that ties in with the hopelessness and helplessness that I felt. I definitely had what they call the survivor’s guilt, because two of my friends died in the rescue efforts in Ground Zero and I wondered “Why am I here when these other 2.600 other people lost their lives on that day?”. I felt guilty for being alive and that’s something I only recently started dealing with in a positive way with my therapist and my psychiatrist.
In 2019 I was having a conversation with a neighbor of mine and out of the blue she asked me “You were a cop in New York, right? Were you at Ground Zero?” I had disassociation again, I was off someplace else, very much like my physical body was able to continue that conversation with her, even a pretty coherent one, but it triggered something that caused for months a greater frequency of disassociation. I was having many more flashbacks and nightmares which were particularly graphic, violent and disturbing. So a few months later I thought it was PTSD and I took online quizzes and in everyone my score was off the charts, I had severe PTSD.
I had to do something, I couldn’t live like this; while driving I could suffer disassociation and I would be gone for like one mile, like space out and then jump back into my body. I could have killed somebody, I had to get help. I asked my physician what he knew about PTSD and I burst into tears, he put his hand on my shoulder and said “I don’t know much about it, but I know I’m going to get you some help”. He set me up a couple of appointments with a psychiatrist and a therapist, but as is pretty common the first mental health professional is not the right one for your specific case. I later found a psychiatrist who was a twenty-five year combat veteran who is exceptionally well versed in PTSD with military and first responders, and I also found a therapist who has six years experience with US military as a contractor and working mostly with first responders now. Both has been tremendously helpful to me in trying to live as a normal life as I can now.
9/11 unfortunately still is very haunting to me. I still have what is known in PTSD as “intrusive thoughts”, randomly through the day I would think of things such as the girl with the red sweatshirt, or if a cold breeze would hit me I remember how cold it was at Ground Zero, or the smell of an outdoor wood fire can remind me of the fires at Ground Zero. There are a lot of things that can trigger me and a lot of triggers that I’m not aware of that I’m trying to recognize. It hasn’t been easy for my family either, they have been very brave and loving as they try to help me work through this; I appreciate what they do, I’m sure I was not an easy guy to live with before 9/11 but PTSD takes your worst possible attributes and turns them all the way up.
Undicisettembre: Have you been to the 20th anniversary celebrations last year?
Craig Mazzara: I have not. But one of the things that we do here is we have commemorative ceremonies at our base of operations. We would get dressed in our uniforms, go out, salute the flag and have moment of silence for the people who lost their lives. This is what we do, but I have never attended one of the big celebrations.
After the clean up process at Ground Zero was finished, I couldn’t get myself in the vicinity of the World Trade Center until 2015 when I went to the memorial with my daughter. No surprise, I just cried thinking about everyone that was lost. But also, just being at that sacred ground brought back the memories of how it was; I was there looking at the pools but I could still see the pile and the debris field. It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
Would I go back? No, I would not.