The remnants of beams from the World Trade Center left a poignant symbol following the collapse of the two towers. (Contributed photo)
Editor's note: This story first published on Sept. 11, 2011.
When Keith Cunningham began his shift as the administrative lieutenant for the Sixth Precinct of the New York City Police Department the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 nothing hinted that, in less than two hours, tragedy would strike his city.
“Because it was Election Day, I was supposed to be out visiting election posts. But my captain told me to stay in the office and do my administrative work and he’d go handle the elections. As the administrative lieutenant, I handled all of the administrative functions of the precinct. I was in charge of scheduling and payroll.
“You’re like the right-hand man of the commanding officer. I was in my office. I had a terrible office. It was the first office you came to when you walked into the precinct. And it was in Greenwich Village, so I had a lot of different people walking into my building and into my office. It was not set up very safe,” Cunningham said.
“That particular morning, a gentleman walked into my office. He was walking his dog, which is not unusual and he said to me, ‘A plane is going to crash.’ And just with all my years of police experience, I wanted to make sure this guy didn’t have a weapon in his hand.
“I remember getting up and looking over my tremendous printer and I looked at his hand to make sure this guy wasn’t a nut and didn’t have a firearm.
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘A plane just flew over and I’ve never seen a plane that low.’
“And I just said, ‘Oh.’ My radio is right next to me and I don’t think we finished those two sentences when another officer was screaming into the radio that a large aircraft just hit the Twin Towers. There was chaos on the radio almost immediately. The man left, and I never saw him again.”
Initially, Cunningham said he and other officers were hoping the plane that crashed into the North Tower was a small one-propeller plane.
“And then after hearing reports of a large aircraft, we all started hoping it was just a UPS plane with packages and that only a few people would have died,” he said.
What Cunningham did not yet know — but would very quickly find out — was earlier that day at 5:45 a.m., terrorist leader Mohamed Atta and associate Abdulaziz al-Omari passed through security in Portland, Maine, preparing to board a flight to Boston, Mass.
Three hours later, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC 1), cutting through floors 93-99.
America was under attack.
Cunningham has since left the New York City Police Department, retiring as a captain, and just last year, moved to Kingsport with his wife Michele, and their three children, Stephanie, Victoria and Travis. And although he now lives hundreds of miles away, what happened that fateful day 10 years ago in New York City will forever be etched in his memory.
“I called my wife immediately and told her she might want to turn on the news. I said, ‘I’m about a mile from there, but I’m OK.’ It was Travis’ first day of preschool. She called me back about a half hour later and said, ‘Should I send Travis to school?’
“We lived 50 miles east of Manhattan, and she’s nervous about sending Travis to preschool. I got in touch with my brother, Pete, and I said, ‘I’m good.’ But once the towers fell, I had almost no communication with my wife or my brother.
“Three days passed before I went to my home on Long Island. My wife was nervous. She was worried about another terrorist attack. For the next six months my life was a blur. I worked seven days a week — 15 hours a day — for six months. It was like the movie ‘Groundhog Day,’” he said.
Cunningham said immediately following the first plane crash, it became his responsibility to get two sergeants and 16 police officers down to what later became known as Ground Zero.
“This was about as heavy a mobilization as you could get. I had to put my officers’ names on a roster so everyone would be accounted for. By now we realize this was a terrorist attack, and we start thinking truck bombs at every municipal building in Manhattan. There was nothing we could do about the planes at that point, but we had to secure our buildings.
“I was short manpower so I was taking police cars from the front of my building and I was putting them at the corners to block traffic so no traffic could come down around our precinct.
“I was listening to the radio, because, like I said, we were short-handed because I’d already sent 16 people downtown. I had probably only three cars left with two cops each in them, leaving me with just six officers left to work the precinct.
“I remember I’m outside doing the four corners [moving the police cars to block traffic], and that’s when the second plane hits,” he said.
Being a mile from the Twin Towers, Cunningham did not realize the magnitude of the devastation and destruction just yet.
“When the first tower started to fall, I was outside putting those cars in place, and I heard an officer screaming into the radio that the tower was falling. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Calm down. The building’s not going to fall down. It’s just got to be a piece of something falling off the tower.’ That’s what I was thinking to myself. I just remember thinking this guy needs to calm down. The building’s not going to fall.
“But then I went inside my office and the TV’s on. I hadn’t seen it because I’d been busy outside. There’s this other lieutenant there and he’s looking up at the TV and he says, ‘It fell.’
“And I said, ‘No.’ I stood there and kept watching replay after replay, and I just couldn’t believe it. My first thought was the two sergeants and 16 officers I had just sent down there. From the way things looked on TV it didn’t look like anybody within five blocks could have survived. I thought I’d just lost them all,” Cunningham said.
Although he didn’t lose them all, one officer did die when the towers collapsed and then in 2008 one of Cunningham’s sergeants died from a Sept. 11-related illness.
“I spent the next 12 hours with a magnet board with the 16 people that I sent down there. The people I couldn’t account for were on the left, and as I accounted for them, I moved them to the right. I moved everybody over until about 9 p.m. Jim Leahy was the only one left that we didn’t move over.
“There happened to be a French film crew down there doing a documentary on the WTC. They caught Jim on film helping the fireman carrying an oxygen tank up the stairs of the second tower. I think he made it up to about the 70th floor by walking and then on the way down he called his wife and said, ‘Don’t worry about me. I’m on the way down.’
“But he never made it down. We didn’t find his body. We had a funeral for him, and they buried his hairbrush with some hair in it. We went through the whole funeral for him, and then two months later, we found his body. We had to go through the pain of his funeral not once, but twice,” Cunningham said. Leahy left behind three sons.
Ned Thompson was one of the two sergeants Cunningham had sent down to the towers during the initial mobilization the morning of Sept. 11. Thompson was not even scheduled to work that day. But once he heard about the attack, Thompson voluntarily came into work to lend a hand.
“He was our narcotics sergeant. He was probably one of the best police officers I had ever worked with. When all this first happened that day, instead of staying where he was, he came in, put on his uniform and went down there because he was a terrific police officer and sergeant. He was always hands on and ‘If you need me, I’ll go,’” Cunningham said.
“About 10 that night I went down to relieve the people who had been down there all day. When I got there, Ned was covered with soot from head to toe. He died of lung cancer several years later, which we attribute to that day.” Thompson was the father of four young daughters.
Cunningham said so many different thoughts raced through his mind for hours after the attacks.
“We were so very busy. But what kept going through my mind was I felt bad for my children. I felt like the United States was never going to be the same again. Now that I was convinced it was terrorists, I thought there was going to be another five or six planes that would land in Manhattan that day, and there was nothing we could do about it.
“I remember thinking that nobody’s ever going to use the subway again. Everyone’s going to move out of Manhattan. I thought that Wall Street would leave. I figured everyone was going to move to the suburbs of Jersey just to get away from Manhattan. I thought there were probably 40,000 people dead in those towers. We didn’t know for sure for days,” he said.
Eventually authorities determined 2,825 people died in the attacks on the WTC. It’s been said fewer people than normal were in the buildings that day due to the early hour and because it was Election Day and the first week of school.
“Had the planes hit the buildings just a couple of hours later, it would have been much, much worse. More people would have been inside and would have died,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham also recalls being down at Ground Zero that first night and seeing an 18-wheeler tractor trailer truck drive by, leaving the site with just one steel I-beam taken from the rubble.
“I was looking at a pile of tens of thousands of I-beams, and I was thinking it would take years to clean up. But I believe they had it completely cleaned up in about six months,” he said.
Within days of the attacks, Cunningham said West Side Highway, which is the main road into lower Manhattan, was lined with people holding up signs that read “New York’s Finest,” for the police and “New York’s Bravest,” for the firefighters.
“They were actually cheering for us as we drove by. We’re not used to that. The NYPD had tremendous training regarding crowd control usually relating to community unrest. And this was the exact opposite.
“The community was terrific. My precinct within two days had tables with hot food throughout the day. The restaurants and the community organized it. We didn’t even think about where we were going to get our next meal from. We had no money. We didn’t have access to ATM machines. But we didn’t need it. They provided it, and they did it all on their own,” he said.
And then there was the support from other law enforcement agencies.
“About 8 o’clock that first night, I had about 12 Nassau County Police Officers standing in front of me at the Sixth Precinct. Nassau County is a suburb right outside of Manhattan. They said, ‘What can we do?’ I said, ‘You can secure my precinct.’ This was Nassau cops that we never work with. They’re on the other side of the water and they came in to help. I had chills. I was like, ‘This is unbelievable that you’re helping.’ So we detailed them to protect us,” Cunningham said.
But little did he know that more help was on the way from even farther away than just the “other side of the water.”
“Almost 24 hours later, day number two, I came back (to my office) from my midnight (at Ground Zero) and I started my administrative stuff again and this police chief comes to me and says, ‘Sir, Police Chief so-and-so from Miami Police Department present for duty.’
“I say, ‘Miami? Where?’ They’d shut down the airports. And he said, ‘Miami, Florida, sir. We have 22 police officers and supervisors here to assist.’ I was flabbergasted. I said, ‘How did you get here? They’ve shut down the airports.’ He said, ‘We drove, sir. We drove through the night.’ They were at my door 24 hours later.
“They stayed with us for a week. We ended up taking the Nassau County police officers down to the pile, and Miami took care of us. There were no rules at that time. They didn’t have the authority to carry a firearm. They didn’t have arrest ability in New York, but at that point, we were in a war, and nobody cared. When they left, they gave us uniforms and memorabilia, and they bought a shirt that said 9/11 and they all signed it and they gave it to me when they left,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham admits he changed a lot after the events of Sept. 11.
“This was devastating. I tried not to take things serious. It made the day-to-day police work much easier. Everything became easy compared to what we just went through. I looked at my family differently.
“The first year I felt terrible for my children, thinking they weren’t going to grow up in the same atmosphere that I grew up in. But I was wrong. I think things are back to normal,” he said.
Upon learning that Osama bin Laden — the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — was killed by U.S. forces in May, Cunningham said it really didn’t change anything for him personally.
“I was happy for America. But I didn’t feel happy for Jim or Ned, that the guy who did this to them was dead. It didn’t change the fact that they were gone, and it didn’t heal any wounds of Sept.11, that’s for sure. It’s still as painful for me as it was then,” he said.
But instead of dwelling on these wounds, Cunningham is looking ahead and enjoying his new life in Kingsport and even getting ready to embark upon a brand new career — business owner. He will open The Bagel Exchange at 107 W. Center St., next month, specializing in something he says he misses from his home state — New York-style bagels.
And on this 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, Cunningham says he will let it pass quietly without much fanfare.
“I’ll be with my family, and I’ll remember Jim and Ned. I’ll say a prayer for them. But I won’t do anything special,” he said.