Luis Alicea recalled the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as a beautiful scene, full of clear skies, sunshine and a cool breeze that turned eerily surreal in a matter of hours.
“You don’t have many days like that,” he said of the unexpectedly pleasant weather before recalling a day that will live in infamy.
The retired New York Police Department detective, who now lives in Surprise with wife, Elizabeth, and three children, was overseeing crowd control at a local senior center for the scheduled mayoral primary election.
Alicea can remember a number of elderly residents approaching him to let him know an airplane — not knowing at this point whether it was a commercial airliner or single-engine passenger plane — had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. Like many New Yorkers, Alicea believed the pilot erred in his landing approach and had accidentally struck the massive skyscraper.
Those feelings changed, suddenly turning to shock after finding out another airplane had struck the second World Trade Center tower. This was no accident; it was something far more serious for a nation that had never experienced an act of terrorism on such a large scale, affecting the lives of thousands and gripping a captivated nation for months and years to come.
“It was total chaos on the radios, and cellphones weren’t working,” Alicea said of the scene unfolding in New York City. “When I saw the second tower had collapsed, I knew something major was going on.”
Elizabeth, meantime, was at home and had just taken their son to preschool when Alicea called and told her to pick him up in order for the family to be together, while he helped control the aftermath.
Seemingly, Alicea said, all of New York’s police officers and firefighters responded to the World Trade Center complex, located in the heart of the city’s downtown financial district. Alicea said about 42,000 uniformed police officers are on duty at any given time each day; that number spiked to around 54,000 on Sept. 11, 2001.
Speak to Alicea, a former Queens resident with a thick New York accent, and you can tell just how much the 9/11 attacks affected his family’s everyday lives.
Planes make him uncomfortable and even natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, trigger unpleasant memories from 10 years ago.
While the sights at Ground Zero will forever be etched in his memory, Alicea said it’s the sense of loss and sorrow for New York City and the nation that hurts most.
“It wasn’t New York City that got hit; it was America,” he said.
Ask Alicea, 47, to describe the scene at the World Trade Center and his emotional state and he could talk for hours, maybe days. The word “surreal” continually comes out of his mouth. The devastation and emotions, he said, are just too hard to describe.
“The area looked like a war zone,” he said. “You tried to identify buildings and cars to get a sense of perspective.”
Alicea kept a piece of shattered glass from one of the fallen towers, but says he rarely talks about his eight-month stint at Ground Zero, where he handled security, search, recovery and rescue operations.
He said his toughest assignment was giving tours to families who had lost a loved one.
“You bring parents, and husbands, and wives to the site and the realization comes to them that they’re never going to see their loved ones again,” he said. “It’s hard to look at a mother and father knowing you have kids yourself. Seeing times of tragedy and pain, you don’t care who’s standing there. It sucks. You just open your arms to them.”
Alicea, too, lost two good friends, including John Perry, a New York police officer who was scheduled to retire on Sept. 11.
“It really didn’t matter where you were on Sept. 11. Everyone was a victim,” he said. “People everywhere were devastated, and they understood each other without having to say a word. You could just look at someone, exchange a nod and understand what they were going through.”
Perry died when the first tower collapsed, unable to get out after herding people together to escape the devastation.
“It’s amazing to know somebody who was willing to give so much for others when he could’ve easily gone home that day,” Alicea said. “That’s true heroism. Police officers are brothers, and everybody is one.”
Each day for the next several months was a challenge from a mental and physical standpoint. Alicea remembers breathing in smells — what he describes as a combination of burnt charcoal, flesh and chemicals — he had never smelled before, as well as uncovering body parts, driver’s licenses, shoes, hats, office equipment and even airplane seats and seat belts.
“You know somebody was sitting there and you’re just in awe,” Alicea said of uncovering airplane seats. “The first month goes by and you hope to find someone who’s alive or a body to provide closure for the families.”
Now, Alicea, who still keeps his NYPD uniform and hard hat worn at Ground Zero at his Surprise home, likes to get away to Northern Arizona to clear his head and recharge his batteries.
“They say never forget, and I can’t forget,” he said. “There’s a difference between watching what unfolded on TV and living it and seeing it up close. It’s sad, and I wish it never happened.”
Zach Colick can be reached at 623-876-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.