World Trade Center: an interview with former NYPD detective Vic Ferrari

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

Undicisettembre is offering its readers today the personal account of former NYPD detective Vic Ferrari, who was on duty on 9/11 and arrived on the scene after the collapse of both towers.

We would like to thank Vic Ferrari for his kindness and time.

Undicisettembre: What happened to you on 9/11? Can you give us an account of what you saw and experienced on that day?

Vic Ferrari:
I had worked twenty years for the NYPD, when 9/11 happened I had fourteen years in. That day was Tuesday and it was election day, my office was in the Bronx which is a forty-five minutes to an hour drive from the Twin Towers. Previous to that I had arrested a guy who was selling stolen vehicles, he was in jail in Manhattan, and on that day I was going to the court in Manhattan with my sergeant and we were going to meet with his defense attorney. I was going to take him out of jail because he was going to become an informant, he was going to provide people who were selling stolen cars and he knew a guy who was working in the Department of Motor Vehicles who was selling phoney driver licenses.

We were going to meet at nine in Manhattan. So I came into the Bronx at seven. At eight o'clock my sergeant, who was supposed to come with me, was nowhere to be found. He arrived some minutes later and I was looking at my watch and said "Come one, we have got to go! It's going to take us an hour to go into Manhattan and find parking". He was taking his time, dragging his feet. Our office was at the second floor of the police station, one of the police officers ran upstairs, entered the detective squad and said "Turn the TV on, a plane has just hit the World Trade Center". We put the TV on and were watching it like everybody else. New York city has three major airports within 40 miles from each other, so we thought either the pilot had a heart attack or a small plane had hit the building; nobody knew anything. As we were watching this the second plane came and hit the second tower, then we knew it was terrorism.

We were told to get into our uniforms and stand by. Around noon we received the order to go, so we jumped into our unmarked police cars, drove through the west side highway of Manhattan, parked our cars and by 13 or 13:15 I was down there. It was chaos, they had us in uniforms but they didn't really know what to do with us; my lieutenant volunteered and said "I'll take my people from my team and we'll march in", which we did. They gave us these masks that we put on our mouths, but it was just a paper mask, not a very good one. We walked in and it was wild, there were a couple of buildings on fire, one of which was World Trade Center 7. We were a couple of blocks away and we could feel the heath and see flames coming out of the windows of these buildings.

The closer you got to the World Trade Center the darker it got, because when the buildings collapsed you had this volcanic ash and dust that was thrown into the air: concrete, asbestos, anything else that got pulverized went up into the air. So the closer you got the more difficult it was for sunlight to get through the particles, it was like a twilight in broad daylight. Everything was covered with this ash. And one thing I'll never forget is there were thousands and thousands of pairs of women high heel shoes, because a lot of women who worked in the financial district were wearing them but when you have to run you can't run in high heel shoes, so they took them off and just threw them in the street and took off. It looked like a movie: you had hot dog trucks abandoned, everything else you can think of was abandoned and covered with that ash. It was very hot and itchy in those polyester uniforms because of the toxic dust blowing all around us. It was a ghost town down there. For a while, it felt like my co-workers and I were the only people in the area.

As we got up to the World Trade Center, a piece of the facade had come down thousands of feet and embedded itself in the concrete in front of this tremendous pile. It looked like the last scene of "The Planet of the Apes" when Charlton Heston sees the head of the Statue of Liberty on the beach. I had seen many terrible things: car accidents, people stabbed or people shot, but I could not wrap my head around what I was looking at.

Nothing was open, so you couldn't get water or use the bathroom. So we started looking for a place to take a break, and that's where we found an office building on Broadway with some of the maintenance workers hadn't leaved. They let us into the building to take a break, to take our masks off and get some water. One of the guys who worked in that building was from Afghanistan but had worked in the United States more than twenty years and he explained us, chapter and verse, what was going on, he explained us about the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. I knew who the Taliban were and I knew about Osama bin Laden, that he was behind the two attacks to the embassies in Africa and that he was on the FBI most wanted terrorists list, I knew he was making noise about hitting the United States, but this man explained us the details about how the Taliban came in, took over his country and gave refuge to all these jihadists. Everything started to make sense, as much sense as it could make.

It was so chaotic. I remember when we walked up to the pile on day one a guy walked passed us in something that looker a space suit and he had some kind of device that looked like a Geiger counter. We looked at him and said "Does this guy work for the government or is he just a random nut with a Geiger counter who thought 'Today is the day I'm going to use my Geiger counter'?"

The first day we didn't have a perimeter set around the area like we had in following days when you couldn't get down there unless you could produce ID and explain what you had to do in the area.

I remained there till 5 or 6 the morning after, they told us to go home, run our clothes through a washing machine because the dust was toxic and we were required to show up at the Bronx at 5:30 pm. By 7:30 at night I was at Ground Zero again and stayed there till 6 o'clock in the morning, I did that for the first couple of days. But we didn't really do rescue and recovery because there was no real organization, it was still cahos. By the second day there were a lot of different police agencies from other states and some squads with cadaver dogs. A day or two later there was a Winnebago camper with a bunch of cops from Chicago, I remember thinking "Wow! How fast do these guys drive to be here in a day and a half?"

All the cars in the area that were not crashed had ash all over. Cops have like a gallows humor and I remember walking past a car and someone had written in the ash "Fuck you bin Laden. We are coming for you".

The days after they put a perimeter so that people couldn't get in and start stealing things, but that happened anyway and the police were catching imposters pretending to be off duty police officers, people showing up in firemen costumes, bogus charities that didn't exist trying to raise money. People would also go down there to try to steal motorized scooters or power generators and were getting caught.

There was nobody alive in the rubble, it was clear to us after a few days but we couldn't say that because there were thousands of people hoping that their loved ones could somehow get out of that. But being down there we knew no one was going to come out of that. It was like pulverization of humanity.

My team and I were going building to building in the outskirts of Ground Zero and we would go to the roof to look for remains of the aircrafts. We went on the roof of a building in Murray Street and we found a piece of landing gear, it went several blocks away from the Towers.

After a week they pulled us out, I was not there for a couple of weeks and then they sent us back to do the bucket brigade. We were like ants on a pile of sugar, we were a single line of a hundred cops and firemen, we were bringing debris down in a five gallon bucket and everybody was passing it down the line. At the certain point they said "We have to speed this up" and they brought in heavy equipment that started pulling large sections out. After that in Staten Island in an abandoned dump that the city had closed decades before they brought large sections of debris from the World Trade Center so that we could sift through them to look for evidence or remains. I got sent there and since my team worked in auto crime we were give special equipment like the Jaws of Life to cut and open cars, trucks and firetrucks that got pulled out to make sure no one had perished inside.

The NYPD treated us well during that period. There was a church a couple of blocks away from Ground Zero where you can go to take a break; there was a woman playing the piano and they had professional masseuses giving massages. We weren't used to that treatment in NYPD. Also famous people volunteered their time to came to visit us. I saw Robert De Niro who came while we were taking a break and he shook everybody's hands.

Undicisettembre: Have you seen World Trade Center 7 collapse?

Vic Ferrari: No, but we heard it. We went passed it while making our way to a bus a block or two away, we heard it and we jumped out of the bus, even out of the windows, and run for our lives because we didn't know if it was going to come over us. It was a tremendous sound.

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

Vic Ferrari: Today it doesn't. It was a terrible and horrific thing, but I don't have nightmares from it. It was one of the worst things I've even seen, but to be successful in the line of work that I was in you have to be able to compartmentalize things. Especially when going through something like that you have to tell yourself "Yes, this is bad but I can't go to pieces; I have to fight through this, things will get better, I have to push through this".

There were people who had problems as a result of this and I can call myself very lucky. Probably it's my personality type. It's one of the worst days in American history and in my lifetime but I moved passed it.

Undicisettembre: You now live far away from New York so I understand you cannot easily attend celebrations like for the anniversaries, but what do you think of those?

Vic Ferrari: It's a good thing to remember so people don't forget it because in the United States we tend to forget about things and that day should not be forgotten. There are a lot of people who lost their lives as a result of that, I knew people who died on the first day and I know a lot of cops and firemen who died of cancer in the following years as a result of being down there. They told us in the first couple of days that the air was safe, but it wasn't. I also have to go every year to cancer screening, so it's always on the back of my mind.

Undicisettembre: What is your personal opinion about what happened in Afghanistan? Was going away like that the only possible thing to do or was there another option?

Vic Ferrari: There's always another option, we never learn from our mistakes. We pushed the Soviets out and provided Afghans with stinger missiles that ended up in the hands of the Taliban and of the other jihadists. We tend to leave something alone and create a vacuum, then some scumbag takes over and this is what happened this time too.

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