American Police Beat August 22, 2002

by Cynthia Brown

Our Banner Still Waves    
NYPD cops Richie Hartigan and Rich Miller raised the first flag at Ground Zero just 24 hours after the planes hit the towers. (Photo credit: Det. Bill McNulty, NYPD)  

Everyone of the 350 police officers assigned to the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit has stories to tell. These are the guys who crawl along the top of the Brooklyn Bridge to save a jumper. They’re the ones who execute warrants on some of the most dangerous and violent criminals in the country. And they were the guys who dove deep into Long Island Sound for days on end to recover hundreds of bodies after the Crash of TWA Flight 800. Nobody gets out of their tour with Emergency Services without pulling their gun and many are forced to use it. If these officers kept a diaries, they would read like scripts for a big budget action flicks. But with all of these officers’ first hand experiences with violence and death, nothing prepared then for what took place in New York City on September 11.

ESU Officers Richie Hartigan and Rich Miller aren't much for displays of emotion, but the memories of that horrible day, even one year later, are enough to push both men to the edge of tears. Along with the heartache, however, they also are proud because they were the ones who raised the first American flag at Ground Zero - the place where terrorism became an American reality. Like the rest of their colleagues, Miller and Hartigan had no idea they were responding to a terrorist strike when they first got the call - something about a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers.

On his way from the Bronx down to the scene, the second plane hit the North Tower and Richie Hartigan knew it would be as bad as it gets - that some would not make it out alive. "On a job like this, you get your equipment and report to the command post," Hartigan told APB in an emotional interview. "We had eight teams down there. I was on team five. Our assignment was to get in and rescue as many people as possible. By the time I got there, the Pentagon had been hit and we knew we were at war.”

Despite the catastrophe unfolding before them, the ESU personnel quickly went about doing the job they are trained to do. They grabbed their entry tools, medical bags and safety harnesses just in case the rescue operation forced them to repel down the outside of the towers. “It was chaotic but we worked the way we were trained," Hartigan explained. "ESU is a very disciplined and well trained unit. Without the discipline, we would have lost a lot more officers that day.”But no amount of training or discipline could ever prepare the cops for the devastation that would ensue when two of the world's largest skyscrapers collapsed.

Hartigan and of the other six ESU cops from Team Five were on the Plaza entering Tower Two when the first building came down. The debris had buried the six member team, but they managed to dig themselves out. The team regrouped and went right back into a rescue mode. While every person in the area was running away, the cops were going back in. As the team went back into the North Tower, steel girders were falling and then came the bodies – people who opted to leap to their deaths rather than be consumed by fire. But still the cops braved the unfolding catastrophe and made their way in to the still standing North Tower.

The scene was surreal with blinding dust and horrendous noise. But still the cops kept going. At this point they had lost all their equipment and could barely see, but they formed a human chain to pass panicked and seriously injured people down the line, one to the next, until they were safely out on the street. It was only 29 minutes after the first tower collapsed that the North Tower started to go. “Debris was literally raining,” Hartigan said. “The ground was heaving like an earthquake. There were steel girders crashing down everywhere. I can't describe how loud it was. It sounded like two freight trains coming right at us. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face." At this point, it was a deadly game of chance –who lived and who died all came down to luck. “All the cops who were down there will tell you whether you survived or perished was a matter of one step to the left or one step to the right,” Hartigan said. “The deaths were random. Some of us made it out, some didn't.”

The NYPD would lose 23 officers, 14 from Emergency Services, in the World Trade Center attack. “That morning 29 ESU cops ran into those buildings, 14 never came out,” Richie Hartigan said, the emotion clear in his voice. “I could never explain to you what a great group of guys these were - great cops and great human beings.” When the second tower fell, the scene was total chaos. The radios were jammed and it was hard to tell who was where. Three members of team five had been taken to the hospital with serious injuries including a lieutenant who almost had his hand severed by falling steel. Everyone was choking because of the massive amounts of swirling dust and shards of glass that had filled the air.

Rich Miller said the scene was impossible to describe. “There were fires everywhere. The smell was awful,” he said. But as the hours went by and they worked through the night, Rich and Richie had only one thought – and that was their buddies who still hadn’t come out. As the sun come up on the horrendous scene, Rich Miller looked around at the incredible destruction. He saw there was no flag anywhere at Ground Zero and he realized they had to find one fast. “We still had hope our buddies were going to come out and we wanted them to see the flag when they did,” he said.

After searching in vain, both cops remembered they saw an American flag on the stage of the Styvestant School where the department had set up a second command center. Rich and Richie forced their way through the piles of steel, broken glass and dust and finally got to the school. A chief gave them a heads up when they asked if they could take the flag to the place where the towers had stood. “Being a Marine, I know how important the flag is as a symbol of our way of life,” Miller said. “I think about the flag those Marines raised on Iwo Jima as being one of the most significant images of our time. A lot of the guys still trapped in the towers were in the military and we knew what it would mean to them to see the American flag waving when they came out.

"We got the flag down to Ground Zero and saw this pole, Rich Miller continued. “It was a weather vane that had been at the top of Tower One. Richie and I asked a battalion chief to get us a ladder. Everyone there helped get that flag up - firefighters, iron-workers and cops. Richie and I may have been the ones up the pole, but they were all right behind us.”

Rich Miller lost one of his best friends that day – Sgt. Mike Curtain, an ESU cop assigned to Truck 2 in Manhattan. “Mike Curtin was a good friend of mine,” Miller said, “ and the flag meant a lot to him. He was in Oklahoma City after that bombing to help out and when he learned they were carrying out the body for a former U.S. Marine, he found an American flag to cover him up. We were all hurting and we knew the flag was going to help”. “If our flag inspired others to do the same, I’m proud of that. The day after our flag went up, four more flags were hung. The day after that there were hundreds of flags. We didn’t do it to say, ‘Look at me.’ We did it to honor our friends who died that day.”

But there was another reason to raise the flag that day. Rich Miller and Richie Hartigan sent a clear message to the terrorists as well. That school flag waving from Tower One’s weather vane showed our enemies and the world as well that we stand together and we stand strong and that we will never be defeated.