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Ground Hero

NYPD Officer Kevin Tassey's Chilling Yet Uplifting 9/11 Experience

As told to Kirstie Kovats

Shredding through the forearm of retired NYPD officer Kevin Tassey are metal biomechanical gears (done by Daniel Marshall), but beneath that armor is a hero made up of nerve, heart and guts—plenty of guts. When 9/11 is talked about, now and forever, the first thing mentioned is the taking down of the Twin Towers but those buildings weren’t just made of steel, glass and concrete, they contained fathers, sons, mothers, sisters…American blood, souls. Those towers and brothers and sisters didn’t fall onto the grounds of the Financial District in New York City, they fell into our conscious and onto the laps of heroes like Tassey. Here, 13 years later, the man who also has “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” tattooed above his heart shares his story of the day and long days after that we will never forget.

My partner, Michael Jacobsen, woke me up screaming into the phone, “Put on channel 247!” I was sleeping because we did 6 PMs-to-2 AMs, so the night before I worked until two o’clock in the morning. It was what, nine o’clock when it happened? 8:30ish, I was sound asleep. I put on channel 247 which was TBS at the time and Little House On The Prairie was on and I remember yelling into the phone, Are you freakin’ kidding me dude? I’m sleeping! And he said, “Noooo, channels 2, 4, OR 7.” I put it on and I saw that the first plane had already hit, so then naturally, I didn’t know what was going on. Minutes later the second one hit. I called my partner and asked Are you going to go in? And he said, “Yeah.” So we all went into work even though we didn’t have to be in until six o’clock that night. We kind of knew that we all had to go in.

Everybody in the precinct was standing around, waiting to hear what was going to happen. We just stayed local that day. We didn’t leave Coney Island. It was a long day—well over 12 hours and I remember they said, “Who wants to go down?”

Everybody wanted to go, everybody wanted to be down at the Trade Center.

We all went down the next morning and I’ll never forget, it had a specific smell. We got out of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and it looked like it snowed. Everything was covered in white; it had a very, very, strange smell. It was quiet and it was eerie. It looked like something out of a movie, like you were waiting for Arnold Schwarzenegger to pop out and start shooting people. It didn’t look real; you didn’t know what you were looking at.

Kevin Tassey

Kevin Tassey

At that time, it was still a rescue mission; we were still looking for people, so everybody wanted to be on the “Pile” trying to get the debris off. We had a hard time knowing what to do–it was very chaotic. No one really knew what to do other than look for survivors. No one knew— and the police department will tell you they knew—but no one knew what to do or how to even do it. It was literally chaos. You would get on a pile and someone hands you something, you hand it to the next and try to clear it. Then, the weirdest thing would be when they found somebody, but they were never alive. Then it really got quiet, it really got emotional. Everything stopped. When they found a body, everything stopped. The big trucks would stop, the crane stopped, everything stopped and they would very carefully—I don’t remember if they draped an American flag—but they did something. You were waiting to find people.

You were down there for 18 hours, and you couldn’t wait to go back the next day—it was so weird. Everyone just wanted to help. And God forbid someone was still alive. You wanted to find them because God forbid someone was still alive on Day 5 but you stopped at Day 4.

It didn’t even seem real! It wasn’t even like well what is the skyline going to look like now? You didn’t even know what to think. When we were trying to find people, the bigger picture didn’t hit ya. And the crazy part was, as big as the Twin Towers were, slowly another couple buildings fell around them, and I think one was like 40 stories tall or something like that. Can you imagine a 40-story building falling right now? It would be the biggest news going. And it was like, oh another building fell. It was just so amazing, nothing felt real, it was very quiet and then all of a sudden we would hear people screaming that we’d found somebody! But unfortunately they were never alive.

I think we went down for the next week, I don’t remember when they called off the actual rescue. We’d get only three or four hours of sleep and then the next day you came to work and they’d say “Who wants to go to work?” and everyone wanted to go. We were almost like fighting each other to go down because everybody wanted to make a difference.

My family was appreciative that I was going down. No one was afraid that I might get hurt. No one knew about cancer and everything that happens today because of 9/11. I don’t think anyone even realized that all the chemicals in the air might kill people years later. They were just more afraid that another attack might occur.

Kevin Tassey

Kevin Tassey

My cousin married her husband in September of 2000. Once they got married, he decided to be a fireman. He went through the academy, and he was brand new—brand new—in September of 2001. He wound up going into one of the towers and dying in the attack. It meant a little more to me because I knew he was there. I remember my mom saying, “Dennis hasn’t called! Dennis, we can’t get in touch with him.” I remember saying maybe he was still there, maybe he was lost or something. I remember everyday going down thinking maybe today’s the day I can give good news to my cousin. Unfortunately, his body was never even recovered. A year later they had a funeral and they had his helmet, but he was never recovered.

As silly as it sounds, I don’t believe the attacks have a significant impact on me today. I’m retired now, so everyone’s [my family] at ease now, but I think about how many innocent people: cops, fireman and first responders died that day. It’s sad. I try not to sit down and have a pity party; I wasn’t hurt personally. I think about the people who helped out like the person who was thoughtful enough to bring down this tremendous boat down there to let responders sleep and have a hot meal. I truly think about that more than anything, because no one had to do that.

There was a lot of love. I was only a cop for four years at the time, but for the first time, I felt appreciated. For the very first time in my career, and even as the years went on, that was the only time I really felt appreciated by the public. My partner and I walked into a pizzeria two weeks later, ordered a pie and two sodas. The owner came up to us and said that a few people in the restaurant chipped in and bought our lunch. As a police officer, you never experience that. People came up to us saying thank you. I felt like I was in another city because that just doesn’t happen here.

I’ve retired after 16 years. I’m too young to retire but I had disability. Now I am a stay-at- home dad. My wife is eight months pregnant, I do laundry and take care of the kids. I watch Oprah. I’m blessed.