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Bringing them home: How a team of retired police officers scoured Ground Zero to help heal grieving families

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9/11 cop pens account of digging in "the pit" to recover victims of World Trade Center terrorist attack.

Tony Zeoli and his wife were on vacation in Hawaii on September 11, 2001. Zeoli had recently retired from the Port Authority Police Department, which is responsible for bridges, tunnels, and airports in New York and New Jersey, and for the World Trade Center.

“Another perfect day in paradise,” Zeoli’s wife, Jean, remarked as the waitress brought them breakfast.

“It would be, if it wasn’t for what happened in New York,” the waitress replied.

When she explained to the couple that the World Trade Center had been attacked by terrorists flying airliners into the Twin Towers, Zeoli rushed to find a television set.

“It was 2 p.m. in New York, and the towers were gone,” Zeoli recalled in a recent interview. “But it was 8 o’clock in the morning in Hawaii. And I’m saying to myself, ‘Why aren’t they showing the towers? I want to see how bad the damage is.'”

Much had already transpired, including a similar attack on the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., and the crash of a jet in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Zeoli was anxious to get home, but President George W. Bush ordered all flights throughout the country grounded, in case there were other terrorist plots aloft. So the retired Port Authority lieutenant and his wife had to wait it out. In the meantime, he was on the phone almost constantly with former colleagues, who told him that over 100 PAPD officers were missing.

“I got back on the 16th, and I went right down” to Ground Zero, he said. “I was thinking, ‘Gee there must be something I could do, something I could help with, and that’s when I found out there were retired guys sneaking into the command site, trying to help.”

“Sneaking in,” because only active-duty officers were allowed to participate in search and rescue efforts. They took part in bucket brigades that removed rubble from the site, and if a retired cop spotted a supervisor, he would discretely leave and go to a different area.

Rising From the Ashes: the True Story of 9/11 and Recovery Team Romeo is Zeoli’s account of how he and 11 other retired officers banded together to find missing colleagues, police from other departments, firefighters and civilians who were trapped in the rubble. Dubbed Team Romeo, which was code for the R that indicated their retired status, the dozen men formed the only search and rescue and recovery team made up of retired officers. 

Responding to the tragedy was a personal thing for Zeoli, who, after 20-plus years on the job knew most members of the department. The Port Authority Police had about 1,400 members at the time, less than 1/25th of the size of the regular New York Police Department.

“We had a command center right in the [World Trade Center] plaza, right inside the complex, so we were the first ones on the scene, so a lot of those guys never came out,” Zeoli pointed out.

Though over 100 officers were missing at first, the PAPD ended up losing 37 of them on 9/11. The NYPD lost 23. “That was the most number of police killed in any one incident in the history of the world,” Zeoli said. “And so many of them were close friends of mine over the years.”

The Fire Department of New York lost 343 firefighters. The total death toll at the World Trade Center was 2,763, including the 157 people on board the two Boeing 767s.

Zeoli’s gripping account, published this year, is graphic at times and heart-wrenching throughout. He explains how his team’s task was to sort through mountains of twisted steel and pulverized concrete to find the missing.

But first they had to convince authorities to allow retired officers to work in what they termed “the pit.” They came up with several creative ways to avoid detection, but eventually the new chief of department for the Port Authority Police gave the team permission.

He gave us our marching orders, which was basically, ‘You’re an independent  group, you’re all senior men, you know what you’re doing, you have a lot of emergency services experience. You’re out there and you can bring everybody home,'” Zeoli related. “And that’s what we did. We made that commitment: we were not going to leave until we found everybody that was lost that day.”

Only 20 people were pulled out of the rubble alive. Two of the last were PAPD officers John McLoughlin and William Jimeno, whose rescue was portrayed in the Oliver Stone film World Trade Center

The search and rescue effort also involved structural engineers; tradespeople such as plumbers, carpenters and electricians; construction people such as ironworkers, asbestos workers, and heavy machinery operators; truckers, American Red Cross volunteers, and many others. There were also about 400 search and rescue dogs brought in. In early October, however, the City of New York declared that the rescue mission was over and that it would now be a recovery operation.

“Once we realized there was nobody left alive, we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to bring them home to their families,'” Zeoli explained. “Their families longed for something—anything.”

Working for the next nine months, Team Romeo found hundreds of human remains, in all sorts of conditions and sizes. “It could be something the size of a fork,” Zeoli said. “We’d bring it to a temporary morgue, and they’d put it into a freezer and ask relatives to bring in anything they could: a hairbrush, a toothbrush, anything at all where they could pull DNA off.”

It was a long, painstaking task, and even today the morgue is filled with thousands of remains that have not been identified. 

For Team Romeo, the desire to reunite the missing with their families far outweighed the fact that they were not getting paid. But working under harsh conditions and making some pretty gruesome discoveries took its toll. Rescue workers at Ground Zero have developed a bevy of health problems, and they now spend much of their time going to doctors and undergoing all kinds of treatments. “I’ve been certified for cancer, asthma, GERD, severe obstructive sleep apnea, sinusitis. I’ve had four surgeries already,” said Zeoli, 66.

PTSD has also been a major issue for many of them, and sadly, one member of Team Romeo eventually committed suicide. Team members, as with veterans of other rescue teams from 9/11, have met and continue to meet with mental health professionals.

Zeoli organizes weekly meetings at a diner in a central location, where members of his 9/11 Cops Association can hash things out with fellow rescue workers, guys they trust. “We gather there and the guys can talk about anything they want to talk about, and they feel comfortable. Whatever they say stays there, and nobody criticizes them. The afternoon is really a good support system for everybody.”

Asked about what helps the guys deal with their emotions in the years since 9/11, he said, “You need to be able to talk about it, and it’s good to talk with someone who can understand. You didn’t have to be there, but you had to understand what you’ve been through. You had to have a connection. Maybe they knew a guy, a cousin or a next-door neighbor who had a similar situation.”

Zeoli said he appreciated visits from a Catholic priest while the team was still doing its work in “the pit,” but he confessed that he and his coworkers were a bit more biased toward Jewish chaplains from Brooklyn.

The rabbis often came with pastrami sandwiches and other deli food, he said.

Most of all, Zeoli would like his team to be remembered for their selfless dedication to “bringing people home.”

“You always wonder ‘Why am I here? What is my purpose?'” he mused. “I believe I was put here to go down into Ground Zero and add to the recovery of people who never would have been found. And each one of my men had that same commitment.”

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