Steve Tocco Remembers Sept. 11.
In recognition of the National Day of Service and Remembrance, the FLETC asked a few team members and partner organization representatives to share their accounts of where they were during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on our nation, and how it changed them. We appreciate their candor in relating their recollections to share with you, and their renewed commitment to public service. These are their stories.
Steve Tocco, Senior Inspector/Instructor, U.S. Marshals Training Academy, Glynco
On September 11, 2001, I was a new member of the U.S. Marshals Service Warrant Squad in New York City. We started early that morning, attempting to execute a bunch of warrants before the sun was up. By 8 am, we were done. Everybody we arrested was in a car being transported downtown to our cellblock, while we grabbed breakfast at “Floridita Restaurant” in Harlem (uptown Manhattan.)
About seven of us were sitting at a table eating huevos, plantains and strong Spanish coffee when someone turned up the volume on a TV. We watched with some interest as we listened to what we thought was a report of a small aircraft that had accidentally hit one of the twin towers. Just then, a few who were lucky enough to have either a beeper or a cell phone started to get calls from the office. They all seemed to have concerned looks on their faces as they got up from the table to take the calls, as the rest of us stared at the TV screen just in time to see a jumbo jet slam into the World Trade Center’s (WTC) second tower on live TV.
We didn’t think, we didn’t talk, we just threw money at the table to cover the check and ran to our cars. Some in the group muttered that we might be at war, and then we drove down the West Side Highway as fast as we could, with lights and sirens if we had them, blowing the horns and flashing the headlights if we didn’t.
I always had the radio tuned to Howard Stern’s “unique” comedy and commentary on the events of the day, along with a few million other New Yorkers. When Howard stopped clowning around and turned into a serious commentator…well…that’s when I got scared. Bad “stuff,” END OF THE WORLD kind of stuff, must have been happening if Howard Stern shifted gears like that and started reporting real-time in a serious manner.
There’s a point when you are headed southbound on the West Side Highway approaching Midtown when the road bends to the left and you get your first look at the downtown skyline. That’s when the blood drained out of me. I saw for the first time, a few miles away, but still huge as anything, the north tower with a gaping hole in it, with fireballs shooting out from the top floors.
We pushed traffic out of our way like I had never done in the past, I in one car, and my warrant squad partner Tim in the car in front of me, with no emergency lights and only a busted siren that sounded like a wailing cat, racing down the street at speeds usually impossible and very unsafe in NYC. But we thought this was war, if not worse. I remember thinking, “How many more planes are going to slam into Manhattan, and where?!” Practically everyone I knew and loved worked in Manhattan and would be at work at this time of day.
As we got within a few blocks of the WTC, the cops had the entire highway blocked off and were turning around every car that approached. However, they assumed that everyone with flashing lights and sirens was there to help, so they flagged us to the side and let us park…and help…I guess. What we were supposed to “do” to “help” was unknown to us, and maybe everyone else. I hoped somebody else was running the show somewhere and had a place for us to go and something concrete for us to do to “help.” By the way, within 60 seconds of parking my vehicle, no less than 100 other vehicles had completely boxed it in. Little did I know that this vehicle would be flattened less than an hour later.
I remember hopping out of my minivan, grabbing my body armor, putting my badge around my neck and stepping out onto the roadway, ready to do something. I quickly realized my radio was not reaching anyone at all and my partner’s cellphone (which was kind of new back then) was getting absolutely no signal. I DID, however, have a pair of binoculars in the back seat. I saw up close the flaming hole in the tower, and realized that I was seeing history in the making.
I saw a plainclothes Port Authority cop gesturing to us, who then quickly covered his eyes and made a face like he was in pain. I was confused and thought perhaps he got some flying debris in his eyes. I distinctly remember hearing a “THUMP” and looking up and realizing why this cop was covering his eyes and looking so distraught. People were jumping from the north tower. This was more disturbing than I can describe.
We walked further up and I picked up a large piece of metal that I thought was part of a plane. A random person told me that I was carrying a piece of plane fuselage, since it was spray-painted green on the underside. This sounded reasonable, for what did I know about plane fuselage? I continued to carry this chunk of metal around as if I was going to present this missing piece of evidence to some FBI agent or something. I was really struggling to be useful, to help this awful scene in some small way. My sarcastic and ultra-realistic partner then admonished me, saying something like “Great job, Tocco! Now your fingerprints are all over it, and maybe you screwed up the evidence!” He talked me into dropping it near where I picked it up in the first place. I wish I would’ve hung onto it in retrospect, as I bet this was pulverized in the collapse that was minutes away.
We neared the towers, where a solo firefighter was untangling hoses. Tim, who came from a family of NYC firefighters, explained that he was most likely a “probie” (rookie firefighter), assigned to the most unglamorous job while his brother firefighters were probably all inside the towers. Tim insisted we help him, and we did. We said goodbye to him, and wished him well. I have no idea what his name was, but I am quite certain that he was among the 340+ firefighters who died that day.
We turned the corner onto Church Street. I had a very close friend that had just started a job there at the corner of Church and Vesey. I came very close to going in to make sure the people had gotten the heck out. I didn’t because Tim told me that the building was evacuated. This probably saved my life in retrospect.
Realizing there was nothing concrete for random federal marshals to do, we made our way to one of our offices. The security guards told us the building was evacuated. We were sure that the task force guys were still up there, formulating a grand plan. We were wrong, as the building was empty except for us. As soon as we walked out to the street again, we heard a thunderous noise, heard people shouting that the Twin Towers had just collapsed, and people began running away, anywhere to put distance between them and Ground Zero. Then began the march of the white-powdered zombies. Floods of people who were caught in the debris field were wandering north in a complete daze.
We made it up to the main USMS office in Manhattan. I was given a shotgun and a ballistic helmet, quickly changed into my “blues,” put on a duty belt, and hit the streets surrounding our courthouse to provide security for what, we had no idea. I possibly wound up saving a few lives, but in a very roundabout manner. The white powder-covered victims were so shell-shocked they were wandering into the street and many were nearly hit by speeding emergency vehicles until we started directing the flow of pedestrian traffic.
I can’t tell you what time my shift ended that day, or everything I was doing because this part became a blur. I know we raided the courthouse cafeteria, as we didn’t know how long we’d be stuck there. We also subsisted on food provided by the Salvation Army and Red Cross, which I still donate to today. I slept a few hours on a table in the Jury Assembly Room. I remember desperately wanting to let my father know I was alright. He was a recently retired NYPD lieutenant who now took care of my disabled mother fulltime since a stroke left her paralyzed. I’m sure he sugarcoated everything for my mother, but as a longtime NYPD cop, he knew how close my office was to Ground Zero and that there was a good chance I was down there. Phones were not working regularly until later in the week. The next morning we all donned thin painter’s masks, yellow safety helmets, goggles, and work gloves, and went down to Ground Zero and saw “the pile.”
We stayed there for days, on and off, digging through the rocks, sharp metal, and debris of what used to be the WTC. We formed a huge human chain of people passing full buckets of debris to the back and empty buckets back to the front. The weirdest thing was periodically you would hear the workers shout “BEAM!”, and you would look up and join a thousand hands passing an immense iron girder from the WTC overhead.
We were digging for people, hopefully survivors. Firefighters wore a panic device that emitted a high pitched squeal so they could be located. You could faintly hear this in the distance in some of the other piles, but not on mine. Occasionally you would hear “DNA!” being shouted. This meant stop and don’t make a sound, because they had to bring a cadaver dog up to the front of the line and have him identify remains.
We had no idea about the possible carcinogenic air quality in those early days, and I still regret taking off my mask a few times to get some “fresh” air when I was feeling overheated and claustrophobic on the pile. I did get to witness President George W. Bush say his famous line, “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” This was followed by a thunderous chant of “USA! USA! USA!” that still gives me chills to think about.
I never was more proud to be an American and a New Yorker as I was during this time. Everyone pulled together and helped in this city of 8 million, and nobody took advantage. I can’t find concrete stats, but from what I’m told anecdotally from NYPD sources, crime was virtually nonexistent in NYC for a few days.
Not to sound corny, but my takeaway from 9/11 was that it made me even more committed than ever to doing my job and “serving my country” as a Deputy U.S. Marshal. It is still a lens that I view all aspects of my work and personal life through to this day. I didn’t know it then, but later found out that I lost many friends that day. I know a lot of people on that memorial flag and that stinks. They were mostly guys I went to high school with who became firefighters or worked in financial offices in the WTC. Nothing else in my work life will ever be as bad as that day when over 2,600 people died in an instant a few hundred feet from me.
I don’t talk about 9/11 a lot, and it took some convincing from my wife to put a little bit of this down on paper today. But it’s therapeutic, and 9/11 is the behind-the-scenes fire that drives me to give the students I train the absolute best I can give them. I want them to be ready if they are ever faced with horrifying challenges like so many of us were on 9/11. Speaking of therapeutic, I talk to Tim every year on 9/11, and I’d better block out a few hours of my day right now for the occasion.
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