Local officer was a cop at Ground Zero
by Kara Lopp
It was standing-room only on the city bus that took Officer Michael Scarfone six miles from police headquarters to Battery Park the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
The trip took 30 minutes, and he and the about 80 other New York City police officers aboard were all desperately trying to do one thing: get a family member on the phone. Using his cell phone, Scarfone tried to call his mom and was thinking of his daughter, 4-year-old Samantha. His call never went through.
By this time, airplanes had struck both towers of the World Trade Center, and officials now knew it wasn’t an accident. On the bus ride, Scarfone was feeling “the initial shock and awe.”
“It was the unknown. You’re mad, definitely scared, but you’re the first line of defense,” he said recently from his office at Mint Hill Middle School, where he now works as school resource officer. The 44-year-old moved to the area in July 2009 after retiring from the New York City department after 22 years. His brother, Richard, 42, is still an NYPD officer and suffers from chronic bronchitis from the attacks on 9/11.
It was primary election day in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and Scarfone was in charge of a voting precinct. When he heard the radio traffic, which said a small commuter plane hit one of the towers, he ran to the roof of the building to see for himself. A few minutes later, he got a call: “They said this wasn’t a small commuter plane, and it wasn’t an accident.”
Following orders, Scarfone announced the news to about 80 voters and poll workers and closed the site. Vans picked up him and other officers assigned to polling stations and brought them to headquarters for a briefing. From there, they boarded city buses bound for Ground Zero.
Scarfone’s bus stopped at Battery Park, about seven blocks from the twin towers, which were engulfed in flames. When Scarfone stepped off he saw people everywhere. Some were trying to use their cell phones. Others were standing still, looking to the sky. He heard sirens, air horns and smelled what he describes as a mixture of jet fuel, concrete and burning flesh. If he closes his eyes, he can still recall the smell.
“It was mass chaos. Trust me when I say that,” Scarfone said. “From the police commissioner to the patrolman, no one knew what they were doing.”
The nearby bridges were packed – with people, not cars. Scarfone’s assignment was getting those pedestrians moving away from the towers, even if they had to walk.
But as he and fellow officers directed traffic and pedestrians, he heard it. A loud, thundering noise that shook not just the ground beneath him but seemed to rumble through his entire body.
“No way, shape or form did anyone believe those buildings were going to fall down. Nobody, nobody, nobody,” Scarfone said.
Then, almost immediately, a white cloud of dust and debris started coming toward him. Scarfone watched as people ducked or darted into a nearby McDonald’s for cover and he ran with several other officers to take shelter in the lobby of an office building.
After about 10 minutes, the cloud started to dissipate, and he and other officers peeked outside.
“You know when it snows out and it gets very quiet? That’s almost what it sounded like,” he said. “There were vehicles parked in the street, and it actually looked like a snowstorm.”
Scarfone didn’t go home for three days. He slept when he could in police vans or in the rooms at high-end hotels near Ground Zero that were open as a respite for first responders. When he returned to his home in Brooklyn, his uniform, with the exception of his boots and belt, were tattered beyond repair and smelled of the fire. He threw them away.
From October 2001 to May 2002, Scarfone was assigned to a team with the medical examiner’s office to oversee the process of identifying and processing human remains at Ground Zero. He watched for months as salvage crews brought body parts, most unrecognizable, to the office in biohazard bags. The last human remains were pulled from the site during Memorial Day weekend 2002, he said.
“It wasn’t uncommon that you would say things like ‘What’s that? Oh, that’s a femur bone’ as you’re taking a bite of your sandwich. I don’t want to say I had numb feelings, but you knew you had a job to do and you knew families were counting on you.”