The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, inflicted the single greatest loss of life ever suffered by a police department in U.S. history. The department wasn't the New York Police — it was the less well-known Port Authority Police Department. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey polices the bridges and tunnels around New York, and it also was in charge of security at the Twin Towers. It's a small, tight-knit department, and it lost 37 officers that day.
This week, at the World Trade Center site in New York, former Port Authority Police Capt. Kevin Devlin walked past the security barriers and out onto one of the plywood construction walkways overlooking what used to be called the "pit," at Ground Zero.
But today, instead of twisted steel and rubble, new steel girders are rising up for new buildings.
"Sometimes I walk past, and it's real difficult to look at it," he says. "Actually I haven't been inside the fence in a year and a half. [It's] strange being in here."
After the 2001 attacks, Devlin, who was then a sergeant, worked for months at the site, first rescuing survivors — rappelling down into fire- and smoke-filled holes in the rubble to pull people out — and later, searching for victims' remains.
Early one morning in the months after the attacks, a recovery crew uncovered part of a police uniform. Soon, the call went out on the radio; they'd found the body of fallen Port Authority Police Capt. Kathy Mazza.
Devlin, a friend of Mazza's, was driving to Ground Zero to work his shift. This is him speaking to NPR back in 2002:
Well, when I heard, you know, I was on Chambers Street. And I must have blown every red light going down Chambers, because I know psychologically that they're passed away, that they're not there anymore. But it was just like, 'I've got to get down there and help to get her out.' It was heart-wrenching.
Devlin and his fellow officers worked the entire day on their hands and knees uncovering Kathy Mazza, along with five other officers. They were found with the body of a woman, whom it seems they'd strapped into a rescue chair and had almost managed to get to safety, only to have the building crash down on them.
Devlin had helped to train Mazza when she was a rookie; he had watched her rise through the ranks to become a captain and a close friend. Again, this is him speaking to NPR nine years ago:
She was... any male cop on this job, she could make them blush, really blush. She had some really off-color comments that she could throw at you and crack you up. And before she became a cop, she was an ER nurse. She was a tough boss; she could be tough at times. But if you worked, if you were an active cop, she really loved you, and she took care of you. And she was just a really great girl. Sorry. And she was just a really special person, and I really miss her.
A decade later, the recovery work and funerals have ended. But Devlin's experience here stays with him. He looks out at the new cement walls rising out of the pit.
"I became a cop to do good," he says. "I never joined the military... I never thought I'd see what I saw, and do what I did for those months. Physically, it took a toll on me, and mentally. But it was where I wanted to be."
Devlin ended up getting a serious spinal injury working at Ground Zero, when a 15-foot dump-truck tire exploded right next to him. And he says that he knows he has post-traumatic stress disorder. He has nightmares, some flash-backs, and anger.
"The anger's always going to be there for me," he says. "After [Osama] bin Laden was killed, people were on Facebook, and saying, 'I can't cheer for the death of another human being.' Well you know what, I'm sorry. I can."
Former Port Authority Police Lt. Brian Tierney also came back to the World Center, to talk with Devlin and NPR.
"You remember Carl Loshefsky?" Tierney asks.
"How could I forget Carl?" Devlin says.
"Carl Loshefsky was the guy that you wanted to put behind a plate of glass, and say, 'In case of terrorist attack, break glass,'" Tierney says. "When you needed Rambo, you broke the glass — Carl Loshefsky came out. But when Carl had to deal with the average citizen... sometimes, he wasn't the best person for that job. But he was great in a crisis situation."
The contrast between dealing with a crisis and handling everyday life is one many first responders have had some trouble dealing with, Tierney says. It could be hard to deal with regular events — the anger would come out at the wrong times, and directed at the wrong people.
But Devlin and Tierney say those sorts of symptoms are getting better. And both say that the aftermath of Sept. 11 has made them appreciate friends and family — and life itself — more.
"Oh, absolutely," Devlin says. "Every time I drive up my driveway and think about what Sheila and I have. We've been very blessed at the ripe old age of 49 to have a little boy, who's a maniac, and never stops. He just started first grade today. He's just the greatest little gift that we ever got."
In fact, back when Devlin's wife, Sheila, was trying to get pregnant, she went to see an acupuncturist. This was about five years after their good friend Kathy Mazza was killed. Mazza had been very supportive of them trying to have a child, even a bit late in their lives, Devlin says.
"And it turns out, the acupuncturist was Kathy's cousin," he says. "So [Sheila] walks out, and she said you're not gonna believe who this girl's related to."
"She said, Kathy Mazza. So, somebody must have had a little help with us, making sure that Sean was born, and that he's as great as he is. I believe she must have played a role in helping us along."