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Remembering 9/11: The cops

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

On the morning terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, killing thousands and turning Sept. 11 into a national day of grieving, Mike Fanning was supposed to be in court, just around the corner from where the twin towers stood.

“I couldn’t get a baby sitter,” said Fanning, 45, who was a worker for the New York City Police Department’s hate crimes unit.

His wife, Donna, had just gone back to work and Fanning was at their home on Long Beach taking care of their 2-year-old daughter, Brenna. He had to call one of the city attorneys and ask if he could push his appointment back to noon. Because she agreed, he was sitting at home with the police radio on, feeding his little girl breakfast when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower at 8:46 a.m. He watched on TV as the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, hit the south tower 17 minutes later.

“She probably saved my life,” said Fanning, now a corporal with the Pawleys Island Police Department.

On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, people are being reminded of the horrors of that day — the shock and fear, the staggering losses, the mourning.

But for Fanning and others who saw the devastation first-hand, who dug through the rubble for the remains of friends and co-workers, the memories are always with them, as clear and devastating as if no time had passed.

“For me, every day is the same,” said Mike Milne, 55, of Ricefields. “One year, two years, nine years, today, tomorrow; it doesn’t change.”

He spent 20 years with the NYPD and worked midtown Manhattan. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was at his home on Long Island getting ready for work. He saw the reports on TV, got in his car and reported for duty as quickly as he could.

“I got there shortly after the buildings fell and I was there for the next three weeks straight, without going home,” Milne said.

He and a longtime friend, Brendan O’Connor, 43, were assigned to the transit division and commuted to work together most days. They’re both retired now and O’Connor lives in Myrtle Beach.

On the morning of the attacks, O’Connor was already at work. He remembers it as a sunny morning with clear, blue skies. It was just a normal day on the job until one of the female officers started yelling that something had hit the tower. Then it turned to chaos.

“I remember somebody wheeling a TV set out by the front desk and we just started watching it unfold,” O’Connor said. “Then the phones started ringing off the hook, with people wanting to know if certain officers were safe or not.”

After the attacks, and with the nation on high alert, officers continued their regular patrols and duties, working 12-hour shifts, then on their own time they would help those digging through the stories-high wreckage left after the towers collapsed.

“You’d dig for four and five hours, whatever you had the energy to do, and that went on as long as the rescue phase,” Milne said.

He paused at the memory and his expression turned grimmer.

“It was more recovery than rescue,” he added. “It was quite evident if you were there for more than five seconds that the rescue part was going to be short-lived.”

All the while, they knew they were looking for the remains of friends and people they had sat beside, talked to and shared parts of their lives with.

“A few of us came upon body parts — fingers, scalps — but mostly everything was pulverized except steel,” Milne said. “That was really the frustrating part, the not finding anybody and the remains we were looking for were dust on our clothes. There was literally nothing to be found. You’d see nothing but steel and then you’d see a telephone and two hours later a door.”

O’Connor remembers seeing a seat cushion from the American Airlines flight.

“It looked like it was planted there,” he said. The seat number was visible and a woman’s driver’s license, slightly melted, was found nearby. He said it was eventually discovered that the woman the license had belonged to was the one assigned to that seat.

They dug with their hands, filling buckets with dirt and concrete, forming long assembly lines.

“There were cadaver dogs all over the place and they would bring them through this gigantic site and when they smelled something we would start digging like little kids in the sand looking for crabs,” Milne recalled with careful stoicism. “If we did find anything, the FBI was quickly on it. It was probably the world’s biggest crime scene.”

If someone found human remains or personal items, such as a firefighter’s helmet or part of a uniform, everything stopped.

“It would shut down,” O’Connor said. “Everybody would stop what they were doing and pretty much stand at attention.”

Even with thousands on the scene, silence and stillness reigned until the remains were carried from the site. Then work immediately resumed.

When they were too exhausted to dig anymore, they went to one of the hotels in the area that put up the emergency workers and volunteers. When they woke up, they did it all over again.

“It was ‘Groundhog Day’ every day for a month,” Milne said. “It was strange and surreal. It was sort of like a movie that you don’t care to watch again.”

As hard as that time was to get through, Milne didn’t cry until a month after the attacks, when he finally went home and saw his wife, he said. Until then, he felt numb, had pushed his emotions below the surface to be dealt with later. It was the only way he could do what needed to be done every day during the weeks of recovery efforts.

Sitting around a table with Milne last week, O’Connor and Fanning nodded their agreement.

“You don’t have time to sit and let it all soak in,” O’Connor said. “That’s part of the training. You’re just like a robot. It was at least two weeks later before I sat down and started bawling my eyes out.”

He still has nightmares about those events, especially when the anniversary nears and the images show up in the media again.

“Some people live it every day in different ways,” Fanning said. “Sometimes you just find yourself sitting in your car crying.”

At the time of the attacks, O’Connor’s children were 4 and 1, too young to truly understand what had happened.

For years after, “all they knew was ‘Daddy was in the war of New York,’ ” according to O’Connor. That was what it looked like to them on TV, he explained.

“I can’t even imagine how hard it was on the wives and families, with us not being there and then us coming home and not wanting to talk about it,” Fanning said.

And when many of the responders did come home and life started to approach normal again, “we weren’t the same,” O’Connor said. They had been through too much to go back to being the people they were before the attacks.

In addition to the emotional and mental scars, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, there are plenty of physical reminders of what happened on Sept. 11. Many of those who helped dig through the rubble now suffer from breathing and lung problems, heart problems or even cancers that have been linked to their exposure.

Milne remembers how loud his breathing sounded inside the gas mask he wore while digging, but workers had been digging for at least a week before they got those masks, O’Connor said. First they wore bandanas tied around their faces, then upgraded to dust masks sold at home improvement stores.

“Then we got these cheap respirators and we were supposed to change the filters, but we didn’t have them,” he said.

O’Connor has three different inhalers, pills and nasal spray to help with breathing problems he developed after the attacks.

The bottom half of Milne’s lungs don’t work.

Fanning said he has some indigestion problems that could be related to the attacks, but he never followed through to find out.

Milne speculates Fanning might be in better shape than others because he didn’t stop working.

“For those of us who sort of retired and went from a million miles an hour to zero, the medical and psychological problems caught up with us,” he said. The good news is that they’re well taken care of through the World Trade Center Victims Fund.

“Whatever we need is at our disposal,” he said.

As indescribably awful as the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Milne, Fanning and O’Connor will never forget the outpouring of support people showed in the days following.

“There were so many people who wanted to help and there was only so much you could do,” Fanning said. He tried to recall the name of one restaurant that the owners shut down so they could take in donations and turn it into a cafeteria for rescue workers.

Around ground zero, there were pallets stacked high with water, clothing and food for those working in the rubble. “It was like an open air flea market for miles around,” according to Milne.

Emergency responders came from all over the nation to offer any assistance they could.

“You would be driving down the street and police officers from Florida or Ohio would be directing traffic to help us out,” Milne recalled.

There were so many some had to be turned away, Fanning added. “You can’t underestimate the pride and thankfulness we feel for all the other agencies that came to assist,” he said.

From civilians, the men said they still get thanks, hugs and handshakes when people find out they were part of the recovery effort, but not with the frequency they did 10 years ago.

“You couldn’t walk 5 feet without running into somebody who wanted to say thank you,” Milne said. He was and is appreciative, but shrugs it off. “The heroes are all dead,” he said.

Five of Milne’s friends and colleagues died in the attacks, including Sgt. Timothy Roy, who he worked with for years and often played golf with. Roy helped a woman having a heart attack out of the World Trade Center and left her with another officer. He went back in to help someone else and never came out again.

Fanning lost an uncle in the attacks: Walter Hynes, a captain with Ladder 13. He was on the 20th floor of the North Tower. Hynes’ wife, Ronnie, recently called to tell Fanning a message her husband left on her answering machine that day will be part of an upcoming program on the Smithsonian Channel.

“I haven’t heard it,” Fanning said of the message. “I didn’t want to hear it.” But he’ll probably watch the program.

So many funerals took place after the attacks, Fanning said he was going to four and five a day and there weren’t enough bagpipe bands around to play at them all.

He’ll think about all those who were lost on the 10th anniversary of the attacks this weekend as he attends a memorial at the Hall of Heroes at the Sand Dunes Resort in Myrtle Beach and is a guest speaker at a ceremony at Midway Fire and Rescue.

Milne and O’Connor will be at the 10th annual 9/11 benefit at Dead Dog Saloon in Murrells Inlet. Their band, Band on the Rum, has played at the event for the last three years.

However it’s done, “I think it’s important we commemorate the anniversaries,” Fanning said. “I think there’s a certain apathy now and we could get attacked again tomorrow. I know life goes on, but it’s important that we never forget.”

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