Oak Lawn police officers recall lasting impact of post-attack trip to New York 16 years ago.
By Dan Campana
Plumes of smoke filled the air in the lower Manhattan skyline where the World Trade Center’s twin towers once stood.
The streets, typically bustling with people, were empty. A smell of burning plastic and rubber lingered around ground zero – the massive pile of rubble created when the towers crumbled to the ground.
“I remember driving along the highway to Manhattan – which was closed to all but police, fire and military personnel – it was like a scene out of a science fiction movie, like The Walking Dead,” Oak Lawn Police Sgt. Patrick Curran recalled of his early October 2001 volunteer mission with fellow officers from the department.
Sixteen years have passed since the horrors of that sunny Tuesday morning in New York City forever altered aspects of life in the United States in many ways. What the attacks didn’t change is the commitment to one another felt within the law enforcement family. It’s an inherent sentiment, an instinct that inspired a rush of police officers from around the country to find their way to New York to do whatever they could for their brothers and sisters in blue.
Curran and his Oak Lawn colleagues – Paul Cihocki, Michael Hudziak, Dennis Keenan and Scott Sucharzewski (and three others who joined them later) – made that journey out of loyalty and dedication to police officers and other emergency workers who did their jobs amid unimaginable grief and stress after their worlds were turned upside down.
“I believe the most important part of our presence was that the men and women first responders would approach us to talk,” Keenan, a 28-year veteran officer explained. “They couldn’t vent to each other because they were all in it. The most important support we provided was the stress release.”
Sucharzewski, with 23 years of the job, added, “I just did whatever I could to help out the officers (in New York). I really did not understand why people thought it was a big deal that we went out there. As cops, we just ‘do’ for each other because we are family.”
Doing it all presented a multitude of challenges. The men needed time off from their shifts. They had to find a way to get to New York. Most importantly, they required a connection to actually get on the ground to help once they arrived. It all came together thanks to Southwest Airlines employees who donated passes for free flights, a hotel which provided complimentary housing and Curran’s police officer brother who made it possible for the men to pick up assignments.
“My older brother, Tom Curran, who is currently a (Chicago police) homicide detective had received information through friends at CPD with contacts at NYPD that they were in desperate need of police to assist them, which wasn’t being reported,” Curran, a 19-year police veteran, explained.
The men flew into Islip, an hour away from Manhattan, and eventually made it to a command center near ground zero, Curran recalled. They were told to find a precinct in the morning to be given directions on how they could help.
“Everyone and anyone tried to help,” Keenan said.
Over the course of about a week, members of the group from Oak Lawn primarily worked a checkpoint at the Lincoln Tunnel, searching vehicles and doing general traffic control. The added manpower helped Port Authority and NYPD personnel in several ways.
“This allowed the officers to get some time away for personal time with family and friends. The officers were grateful that they could just get away and decompress,” Sucharzewski remembered. “Being there I truly had an understanding about what it meant to ‘be there for my brother’ and what that could cost.
“What we were doing was small in comparison to those in New York that fateful day, but I do believe the NYPD and Port Authority appreciated it. And, I firmly believe they would be there for us if ever needed,” Sucharzewski added.
The situation’s magnitude showed itself in many forms, including the challenge of having uniformed officers at the multitude of funerals for police officers and firefighters who died while responding to the World Trade Center. Curran and the others did their part by attending at least one service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
But, the memories inevitably circle back to the perseverance and commitment shown by New York’s finest during its darkest hour.
“NYPD officers were working around the clock with many sleeping in squads, on tables in precinct houses and local hotels for the few hours they were off – if at all,” Curran said. “Every officer we came across was exhausted, but I don’t remember a complainer among them.”
In the long view of their 9/11 experience, the men carry with them indelible images and perspective that will last a lifetime. Curran won’t forget the construction and demolition workers who worked tirelessly, despite the dangers, to remove debris in hopes of finding victims. Sucharzewski visited the site – now home to the Freedom Tower – with thoughts of the past prominent in his mind.
“At one point, I was conflicted about how I felt about the area. I thought the actual memorials were very nice, but I wasn’t sure about the mall in the Oculus,” he explained. “After some time in reflection … I believe that those who perished would have wanted life to go on. The memorials are there to remember the past, and the Freedom Tower and the mall are there for the present and future, to build memories and lives together. I don’t believe that it took away from the sacrifice made that day.”
That sacrifice – and those who stepped up to help in the attack’s aftermath – also exemplified the depth of the bond that exists throughout the law enforcement community.
“As a policeman, it showed me what standing together really meant as officers from all over the country donated their time and effort as the drop of a hat without even being asked, but that’s what policemen do. That’s what people truly don’t understand,” Curran offered. “We were lucky to not suffer such a catastrophic blow here in Chicago. I was glad to be able to go to New York with these officers to help out for a short time, and I know we all wished we could stay and do more.
“It didn’t feel right leaving with NYPD and NYFD shouldering so much of the burden and us, being fully rested, only being there for day,” he added.
Sucharzewski reflected on it all with a simple thought that applies to police officers every day.
“I may not know how things will turn out, but I will always follow my brothers and sisters into harm’s way. Regardless of the outcome, we will always be there for each other,” he said.