At Sunday's 9/11 commemoration ceremony, talking with FDNY and NYPD people
The memory of 9/11 seems to be fading. On the morning of the 21st anniversary of the terror attacks, I scanned headlines and social media posts and saw surprisingly little about that historic day. Instead, Queen Elizabeth's death seemed to dominate the news.
But for the first responders who ran to the Towers, the memory will never fade. For them, it's a sacred obligation to preserve the legacy of their murdered colleagues. On the afternoon of September 11, I joined some of the most highly decorated leaders of the NYPD and FDNY who had gathered to recall the sacrifice of the fallen.
The event, which was sponsored by the Women's National Republican Club, began with the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem. A palpable emotion stirred the crowd at the sound of the familiar words and music, which seemed almost like relics of a bygone country. In conversations with responders and club members, I heard many people express dismay at the chaos engulfing the nation and deep sorrow at how far we've fallen in 21 years.
FDNY commissioner Daniel Nigro told the crowd that he spent the morning at the site, listening to the annual reading of the names of the dead. Nigro became chief of department on 9/11 when his boss, Chief Peter J. Ganci, Jr., died in the collapse of the North Tower. Nigro said it was "an honor to lead this department in the aftermath, as the members once again displayed why they are the best and bravest." He noted that in an hour of reading names, they only got to the letter D, and that one out of nine names was a New York firefighter.
John Kirk, a retired firefighter, showed me the button he was wearing with the image of his best friend, Lt. Tom O'Hagen. On 9/11, Lt. O'Hagen, a firefighter with Engine 6, ran into the North Tower and never came out. He left behind twin boys, aged 20 months. "I hope for Tom's boys that the country settles down and they can have a good life," John Kirk told me.
FDNY chief of department Edward Kilduff, a legend in New York circles, noted with pride that many sons and daughters of the first responders have chosen to serve with the military, the police, and the fire department. That extraordinary generational call to service was evoked in the story of the Vigiano brothers, first responders who both died in the Towers, leaving their firefighting father bereft of all his children. Yet despite these unbearable losses, the Vigiano family tradition lives on. Joe Vigiano, Jr. now serves in the NYPD, honoring the memory of his fallen father.
New York is now overrun with violence, and an ugly sense of madness pervades the streets. Major crimes are up 40% in 2022, and the NYPD suffers from defunding and disrespect from vicious politicians. Over 2,000 New York cops filed to quit this year, with almost half of them leaving before collecting their full pension.
Once the heroes of New York, idolized by everyone, New York cops now bear the brunt of the collapsing civilizational standards we are all experiencing. An insane video from July captures the zeitgeist: a 16-year-old savagely punches a police officer more than 20 times, slamming him into a metal gate, and dragging him to the floor in a chokehold. The teen, who had a history of walking free after committing violent attacks, was released without bail. New York's cops are expected to sacrifice their health and their lives without the compensation of seeing justice done.
Yet the sacred memory of New York's fallen continues to inspire new recruits. I spoke to Tan, a young police officer whose parents came from Hong Kong. "For me, it's a natural instinct to help people. I'm willing to sacrifice myself, if necessary." And Yong, whose parents emigrated from Malaysia, told me she was inspired by watching cop shows on television. "I want to be one of the people who runs to danger, not away," she said. And Dorsey, who just entered the Police Academy, said, "On 9/11, I saw how officers would help people on their worst day and be a beacon of hope."
Photo by author.
Talking to these fresh-faced police officers, I found myself praying that whatever sacrifices they are called to make will be channeled to worthy ends. The first responders who rushed to the Towers on 9/11 spent their last moments in a world in which patriotism and freedom were cherished. Today, in our increasingly divided country, the finest and bravest may be asked to take risks we can't even imagine.