What follows is an edited account of the truly remarkable escape of an Irish-born police officer on whom both towers of the World Trade Center fell on Sept. 11. Jim Hegarty is a deputy chief of the NYPD (Traffic Division). He was born in Ashford, Co. Wicklow, in 1945 and immigrated to the United States in 1962. After serving in the U.S. army, he joined the NYPD in 1968. The story of what happened to him on that tragic day is told by his wife of 33 years, Julie.
Jim is going to work every day at 4 a.m. and staying until 9 to 10 p.m. now. He was doing 20-hour tours. The first few days he was in a lot of pain because of all the grit in his eyes from the crushed concrete dust that fell around him. He was very lucky that no hard objects struck him. He was at the bottom of the first building when it began to topple and managed to divert some officers who were responding in radio cars. He then took cover behind another building and was immediately enveloped by the cloud of black dust and crushed cement. It was like a typhoon whirlwind of very heavy clay. He thought that he was being buried alive and was totally blinded. He was unable to breathe for a few minutes and firmly believed that it was all over, but he managed to reenergize himself and make it along the building wall, where he finally came to an area which had somewhat clearer air.
He got into a Traffic SUV van which was near City Hall and was able to catch his breath. Then, like a fool, he went back to where he had last seen some of his officers. He met two of his lieutenants, one of whom is on the center spread of Newsweek (Bill Cosgrove) carrying the Fire Department chaplain who was struck in the head by an object and also may have died of a heart attack. Jim tried to discourage responding units not to go any farther because he believed that the other building was coming down also. However, the responding Emergency Service cops and firemen would not hear of it. Then the next building started to rumble like a subway on loose overhead train tracks. They all started running up the block and poor Jim was enveloped by the dust cloud again. He was blinded again and ran into a parked car, somehow spraining his knee and ankle. He eventually made it back to the Traffic SUV van, which became smothered in the cement dust — about six inches of the stuff. He said that he was waiting to die as he expected the building to topple over and crush them. He also thought to himself how could he have got into this position after escaping the first building collapse.
Well, the building fell across the West Side Highway rather than falling toward the East. Eventually, he was able to get relief from responding officers who were coming in from the outer boroughs. He went to the local hospital, where he was able to get oxygen. He and the other officers then left because there were officers and civilians coming in with cuts down to the bone.
Eventually, he went to a hospital up town and spent four hours trying to get the dust out of his eyes with saline solution. He suffered bad respiratory problems and had difficulty standing the pain in his eyes until they gave him some special drops. His eyes looked like they were going to burst with blood. He received a full brace on his leg and then went back to work until 1:30 a.m. while planning out details for diverting all the traffic to facilitate the response of all the emergency vehicles that were coming into Lower Manhattan.
He went to work at 4 a.m. and later in the morning had to go back to the hospital because the pain was so bad in his eyes. The ophthalmologist froze his eyes while he plucked out some of the grit with a miniature tweezers. He is much better now and only has to use the eye drops four times a day. He no longer needs the leg brace, but still has some pain in the leg as he must have pulled a muscle.
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Jim says that there are many heartbreaking stories to tell of officers having to shoot out plate glass windows in some of the adjoining buildings to get themselves and 50-60 other people out of darkened buildings. Other officers cut themselves while jumping through plate glass windows in stores. Two of Jim’s lieutenants were caught in the ground floor while the first building came down and helped carry out the Fire Department chaplain. It took them 20 minutes to make it one block while under the building. Other officers jumped under fire trucks for cover and lived to tell about it. They were very lucky as many of the police cars and fire trucks were pulverized. Given that fact, you wonder what chance a frail body would have.
How many bodies will never be recovered? They are finding body parts all over ledges and on lower level rooftops. The police department was very lucky in losing only 23 officers, who are still missing. One of Jim’s sergeants is among the missing and it is hard for many of the officers to handle it right now. But the Port Authority Police have 37 police officers missing as the building was under their jurisdiction. They might have had their academy in that building and could have lost many in their recruit class. Of course, you know that the Fire Department has in excess of 300 missing and killed. There is going to be a tremendous sense of loss when many of the bodies are recovered and the funerals begin. Already the funerals are having an effect.
Jim says that nothing will ever disturb him again as he feels that he is lucky to be here and that is all that matters. He sometimes asks me to check his heart to make sure that he is not a ghost. Needless to say, I will never nag him again.
While Jim was responding on the Long Island Expressway after the first plane hit WTC 2, he remarked on the phone to the inspector in charge of the Traffic Management Center that he thought that the building would come down as there seemed to be too many floors damaged, but he did not think the entire building would come down, only the part above the plane. That thought was affecting him the whole time when he responded to the scene. He was surprised to see all the command staff were virtually standing under the building. They then went into No. 2 World Trade Center, which houses the mayor’s Office of Emergency Management, informally known as the bunker, and they had to escape with the mayor and the police commissioner out through the back when the second building came down and damaged No. 7. Sometime later, No. 7 collapsed also. This building housed the Secret Service, FBI, and many other investigative agencies. Indictments will be on hold for some time now as nothing was recovered. By that time, all the command staff returned back to Police Headquarters’ Command & Control Center which is a few blocks away behind City Hall.
Jim feels extremely lucky. He is very busy with all the meetings and operational preparations that are necessary for a process like this. Apparently being busy is the best therapy for him right now as there is not much time to dwell on it.
It remains to be seen how much this will affect us for the remainder of our lives. It will certainly be hard to imagine anyone else being mayor other than Mayor Giuliani during these troubled times. But we are going to have a primary election in a few days where more than half the city government, including the mayor, will be forced to leave office at the end of the year. This could not have come at a worse time.