- Paul Grattan, 42, works for the NYPD and was a 22-year-old recruit in the police academy during 9/11.
- He helped evacuate people out of lower Manhattan after the attacks and tower collapses.
- This is his story, as told to freelance writer Meira Gebel.
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This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Paul Grattan, a 42-year-old NYPD officer, about his experience during 9/11. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The morning of September 11, 2001, was pretty routine for me.
I remember thinking it was a beautiful morning. I was 22 at the time, living in Bay Bridge, Brooklyn, and enrolled in the New York City Police Academy. As a recruit, we had to show up to our assigned training facility by 7 a.m., so I usually woke up by 4 a.m. to make sure I was there on time. My facility was near the 84th Precinct, next to the fire department in downtown Brooklyn.
That day, we were supposed to be learning how to testify as police officers, so we walked to the Kings County Criminal Court to observe a criminal case. During training, our supervisor was alerted that a plane had struck one of the Twin Towers. He told us to make our way back to the training center because there was an emergency.
Walking back to the training center, I could see the top of the north tower was on fire
Some of the other recruits said they hoped firefighters were already there to put it out. But as we got to the training building’s classroom, which had big, west-facing windows, we watched the second plane strike the south tower.
We knew at that point at least one building was compromised, and the other was also burning.
We were told to assemble at the 84th Precinct, along with other departments throughout the area, and get ready to mobilize. I was assigned to help people evacuate downtown, get across the Manhattan Bridge, and receive medical attention. I was stationed at the end of the bridge in Brooklyn, and as a police recruit, we were in a modified police uniform and didn’t have any equipment.
We didn’t have smartphones at the time, and cell service was down, so I was only hearing bits and pieces of information about similar attacks in Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, which at the time I thought were just rumors.
Less than an hour after the second plane struck the south tower, it fell. I thought about how many firefighters must’ve died in that moment.
People crossing the Manhattan Bridge were covered in fine, gray dust
At one point, we were delivered cases of water, and I remember pouring water on people whose eyes and faces were coated with debris.
There were several injured people whom we directed to ambulances, but I don’t recall anyone being severely injured. Some people were still carrying their briefcases, which I thought was odd. To be honest, I was having trouble wrapping my head around what was happening.
I got back home that night at 2 a.m., and when I walked into my apartment, my landline was ringing
It was my father. I hadn’t communicated with my parents all day – as a young guy, it never occurred to me that people would be worried about me. I told my dad I was OK and that I had to report back to work in two hours.
When we returned back to the police academy weeks later, after dealing with the fallout of 9/11, we received a letter from the police recruit class at the Los Angeles Police Department. It said despite the distance between our two cities, we support you and are here for you. The commander of our academy photocopied the letter and gave it to every recruit. I kept that letter after all these years and saved it in a plastic sleeve, and recently reached out to one of the LAPD officers who signed it.
After 9/11, I wasn’t paranoid, but it did take a while for the events of the day to sink in and to understand the magnitude of what happened
I remember working 16-hour days and driving along the expressway to see the two most prominent buildings in New York missing, fires still smoldering, and dust everywhere. I remember the highways being shut down and having dedicated lanes for nurses and doctors to get to work. I don’t think New York has ever been locked down like that before, even under COVID-19.
Anybody that says that they saw something like this coming, or were preparing for something like this to happen, is lying
There’s no way anyone could have predicted the scale and scope of the tragedy.
The events of 9/11 informed my last 20 years of being a police officer and solidified why I decided to dedicate my life to public service. I’m thankful to have been able to help in some way. I’ve reflected on that day over the years, and I think it truly has made me a better cop.
The events of 9/11 have been in the back of my mind throughout my entire career
I’ve made it a point during my time as a police officer to advocate for other first responders who’ve been affected by the toxins of Ground Zero, making sure they sign up for the right health programs, and have access to the victims’ compensation fund.
However, I think being a first responder made me more aware and prepared for how something so bad could happen. My biggest fear, as we start to get further away from 9/11, is that we start to forget exactly what happened that day.