As the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks nears, scattered memories of that fateful day re-emerge slowly. It seems like everyone has a story, and for former NYPD lieutenant commander Michael Sweeney, the memories are distinct. Sweeney was working undercover on a narcotics case in New York on that warm September day, but when the first plane hit the towers, he was quickly told to make his way to the Financial District. “We were driving down there when the second tower collapsed,” Sweeney recalls. “By the time we got to south of Canal Street, everything was covered in dust. You couldn’t see where the street began and where the buildings used to be; it was just pitch black.” Radio communication within the police force had gone out, and the officers had no idea how many of their own were dead or trapped in the debris.
Sweeney’s team’s first concern was to get the people away from the scene as fast as possible. Power had gone out, and many were now stuck in elevators in the neighborhood with no way of calling for help. “At first we were looking for survivors stuck in various traps,” Sweeney says. “Fairly quickly it turned into a search for bodies and parts of them. We knew that everyone who had been in the WTC towers were gone.” After staying at the scene until four in the morning, Sweeney was told to go home and rest. “I hadn’t actually looked at myself until I got home, and realized that my uniform wasn’t blue anymore. My face was covered in dust, it was as if someone had poured baby powder on me,” he recalls.
Sweeney lived in what he describes as a blue-collar neighborhood – “plenty of cops and firemen with their families.” His neighbor, a firefighter, had been working at the scene of the attacks and his wife hadn’t heard from him all day. Sweeney told her that communication was difficult in Manhattan - at this point, he had no way of knowing that his neighbor had died when the buildings collapsed. Early the next morning, Sweeney was back in the midst of the mess. Standing on top of the bits and pieces that had been two skyscrapers less than 24 hours before, the vastness of the destruction started to sink in. “It wasn’t until I was on a bucket brigade that I realized how much had been destroyed, and I thought – what a fool I had been to give that poor woman hope that her husband might some day return.”
Cleaning the debris was a long and tiring process, and especially difficult since you had to be very thorough. “Even the smallest bit of bone could help with the DNA investigations and give closure to someone,” Sweeney says. “We had men working down there for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for months.” As for the future safety of New York, Sweeney has a grim vision. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” he says of another attack. Sweeney is aware of the impact that 9/11 had on the country. “It changed how we view security and it changed the police, the military, everything,” he says. “The whole world changed that day.”