New York Daily News

October 4, 2001

He Died a Hero on His Last Day As a Cop

GonzalezSept. 11 was supposed to have been Lt. John Perry's last day in the NYPD.

Perry took the day off from the 40th Precinct in the Bronx to turn in his retirement papers that morning at 1 Police Plaza.

After that, he planned to go uptown to help turn out votes for his good friend Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, in a tough Democratic primary election for public advocate.

Only 38, Perry planned eventually to start his own law practice. Siegel hoped he would work for him if he won the election.

Perry never made it uptown.

Instead, he became another of the countless heroes of the World Trade Center attack.

A key volunteer in Siegel's campaign for more than a year, Perry had always been a most unusual cop.

A tall, good-looking lawyer who once worked in the NYPD advocate's office prosecuting bad cops, he also was on the board of the NYCLU.

Raised in middle-class comfort in Nassau County, Perry chose to live in a housing project in Manhattan, thanks to a city program that provides low-cost housing to cops.

The struggling actor spoke five languages and even served in the National Guard.

"John was always fighting for the underdog," said Lt. Eric Adams, head of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement.

"He was a Renaissance man who always had a sparkle in his eye and a winning smile," Siegel said.

Perry was completing his paperwork when word spread through Police Headquarters that a plane had slammed into the World Trade Center.

Like so many other cops, he bolted out of the building and raced to the scene.

At Broadway and Vesey St., he met Capt. Timothy Pearson, an old friend from the Housing Division in Brooklyn. Pearson had just arrived with a few of his officers.

"John hooks up with me, and I tell him to stay with my team," Pearson told me yesterday.

By then, the plaza at the Trade Center was in chaos.

"A lot of people were jumping out of windows," Pearson said. "The bodies were everywhere. Anybody who tried to come out of the doors onto the plaza was being hit by bodies or debris."

Pearson and his group ran into the Borders bookstore in a building adjacent to the twin towers, then down the escalator and into the concourse below the plaza. Eventually, they made their way to the north tower, 1 World Trade Center, and into its lobby.

There, Pearson said, an "assembly line of cops" prevented people fleeing out the stairwells from running into the plaza.

After Pearson and Perry had shepherded hundreds of people to safety, a middle-age Hispanic woman collapsed as she emerged from a stairwell.

"She must have had a heart or asthma attack," Pearson said.

Two firefighters tried to give her oxygen. Suddenly, huge pieces of debris began to crash down on the plaza outside.

The firefighters asked Pearson and Perry to carry the woman to safety. Pearson grabbed her under one arm, Perry under the other.

"Then, all of a sudden, we heard this rumbling," Pearson said. "The lights flickered, then went completely black."

The other building - the south tower - had started to come down.

Pearson could not see anything. He could barely breathe. After a few seconds, he saw the beam of a flashlight in the distance and heard someone yell: "Over here, this way."

He went toward the light.

The man holding the light led them down the escalator steps to the concourse. Fires had broken out everywhere."Jet fuel had poured down the elevator shafts and set the whole concourse on fire," Pearson said.

Somehow, after about 10 minutes, he made it out to West St. with a handful of others. He was unhurt.

"I would never have have gotten out if I hadn't seen that light and followed it," Pearson said. "John was only an arm's length away from me when everything came down on us. I guess he never saw the light."

Shortly after they escaped, the north tower collapsed.

The election Perry had worked so hard on was postponed for two weeks. When it was finally held and the votes counted, his friend Siegel was in second place, still with a chance to win the runoff that will be held next week.