American Police Beat

xxPat Lynch is president of the largest police union in the country. The PBA of New York City represents 26,000 officers working for the NYPD, an agency with 40,000 sworn personnel. Pat almost died in the horrific aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11. He took the time to talk to us just nine days later. Here’s his story.


Pat Lynch and members of the PBA talk to reporters after five days of futile rescue efforts. The NYPD lost 23 officers. Not one of their bodies was recovered.

“When the first plane hit I was on my way to work. It was primary day and I had just finished voting with my family. I was heading into the city on the Long Island Expressway towards the midtown tunnel gazing out on the skyline right at the World Trade Center. I saw a plane that looked strange and right after that I noticed a ring of fire on the top of one of the towers. At that point the radio went crazy. Tom Kelly, one of the staff people for First Deputy Commissioner Joe Dunn, was right in front of me. We stopped our cars by the South Tower, got out and began running around trying to help people.

At the corner there were a bunch of cops I know. We were all standing there looking up at the fire. We never thought the building would come down, so our only thought was how could we possibly fight a fire that was so high. Then the people started jumping. Some of them were jumping in groups of four and five from beneath the ring of fire.

I can never describe what a horrible sight that was — all those victims leaping to their deaths. We wanted to find a way to stop them. We thought we could save them if they just stayed put. But in hindsight, with the intensity of the fire and flames, there was no way we could ever get to them.

After that it was chaos. The most obvious danger right then was the people leaping from the buildings. One person did kill a firefighter when he landed on top of him. After about 20 minutes, there were three explosions, the building leaned forward slightly and then it just came down like an accordion.

We were right across the street at the World Financial Center. We rushed into a corner of that building. There were probably 20 or 30 cops there - it was like a football pile-up. At that point the debris began to hit us and I began to think we might not make it. A black cloud came in and just enveloped us — it was like someone was taking black soot and throwing it down our throats. I wondered if I could get out alive.

Someone started yelling to break the windows. We knew there was glass on both sides of us but you couldn’t see anything. Seconds later, someone pulled out his gun and shot out the windows. That let in some light and air and we are able to find our way out to the lobby. Before those windows broke, it was blackness like you can’t imagine and debris was falling everywhere. I think every one of us was sure we were going to die right there. I thought about my kids, that they’d be alone.

But the glass began to come down. Once we got to the lobby, the black dust turned white, why I don’t know, but soon we were buried in white dust.

We noticed people were trying to go up and we knew that was a big mistake. We started yelling at them to follow our voices. We knew we had to get them out of there. We told them not to go in the elevator. We thought bombs were going off all over the place.

All the cops stayed on. We kept going back and back to get the people out. A guy from the NYPD Video Unit was right next to us — he’s still missing. We were never able to find him.

These cops would not leave their posts even after the second tower came down. We had to physically push them towards the harbor. We were trying to get them down to Battery Park so we could regroup and then go back. There were cops, civilians; people were coming out of everywhere. We started helping victims get down to the boats in the harbor. At one point I thought that there must have been a pregnancy convention there were so many pregnant women. We made four or five trips to Jersey City across the harbor, which took several hours.

I was talking to my sister on my portable phone when the second tower went down. The phones went dead so there was probably a period of time where my wife was pretty scared. But on the boats we would use someone’s portable phone and I was able to leave word with her pretty early that I was okay.

We then went back to PBA offices, which are very close to the World Trade Center. We evacuated our employees. We told them to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge and go to the 84th Precinct where they would be taken care of. Within two hours of the building coming down, our PBA truck was out bringing food, water, gloves, whatever the rescue workers needed. Two PBA attorneys were even out there.

I never went home until early the next morning. I slept a few hours and went back to help with the rescue operations. Unfortunately, one of the first casualties we found was a Port Authority police officer.

During the days that followed, we gathered the families of missing officers at One Police Plaza where the department had set up a bereavement center — 23 of our officers are still missing. We never found one of their bodies.

Everyone has been working 12 hour tours since the attack. The lobby of our building was filled with food, medical supplies, water, boots, you name it. People have come from all over the country, even as far away as California. We even had a group of cops from Las Vegas directing traffic on FDR Drive. The support from all these cops has meant a lot.

I think that finally the American public has come to understand what we do. What those cops did down there is what they do every day. We’ve been cheered as we walk down the street. I’ve never seen anything like it. One woman was saying that as she was running out of the building to save her life, she saw police officers running into the darkness of hell. She seemed amazed that they would willingly run towards their death. She said she couldn’t understand how someone could do that.

I told her that that’s what we do — we protect people.

This whole thing has definitely taken a physical and mental toll. But you do what you have to do. I’ve never had any tragedies in my life but I actually broke down and wept when I tried to talk to 400 of our officers who work in the Emergency Service Unit. The concern we have as this goes forward, is how a tragedy of this magnitude gets processed? Right now no one has had time to deal with it, but that day is coming.