“It was really important that we do that; that we hang that flag," Napolitano said. "Not only for us to remember, but for all Americans to see.”
While watching the events of that day unfold on TV, Napolitano called his people, who were located on the 71st floor of Tower 1. They told him that they were okay, but he insisted that they evacuate.
“I just stared at the gaping hole in the tower thinking, ‘How are we ever going to fix that?’” he said.
When the Pentagon was hit and another plane went down in Pennsylvania, it became clear that the bridge could be a real target.
“I wanted everyone off the George Washington Bridge," Napolitano said. "Every one off. No cars, no trucks, no contractors, no pedestrians. Everyone. Off. More law enforcement agencies than I have ever seen were now in and around my office assisting with securing the bridge and all land-side buildings.”
One of the people working in the towers was Napolitano's friend, Mike DeGidio, an engineer for the Port Authority and a volunteer firefighter who had served with Napolitano in Fort Lee Hook & Ladder Co. 3.
Degidio worked on the 64th floor of Tower 1 as a Supervisor of Technology Projects in the Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals Department for the Port Authority.
“On cloudy days, as I drove from the turnpike to the Path station, I’d joke that if I couldn’t see the Twin Towers through the clouds, then I didn’t have to go to work," DeGidio said.
Every morning, DeGidio and three of his colleagues would have breakfast together in the cafeteria on the 43rd floor. On 9/11, two were running late, so DeGidio and his co-worker got their coffee and sat at a table near a window.
"We were sitting there talking when the building started to lean--actually bend--and I had to grab my coffee cup before it slid off the table," he said. "I looked out the window and saw flaming papers and burning debris flying by."
Some people didn’t know whether to return to their desks or leave. DeGidio grabbed his friend and headed to the stairwell. Everyone in the stairwell was calm and allowing people from the lower floors to cut in front of them so they could all get out safely.
As they neared the 11th floor a police officer was running up. In response to everyone’s question, he told them, “A plane just hit the building.”
Reaching the bottom, they were escorted onto the Plaza and ushered by police to West Street.
“We were completely unaware that a second plane had hit Tower 2," he said. "I learned about it from my pager’s newsfeed."
“You know they call the FDNY the bravest, but I was standing right in front of those guys where they were staging on West Street, he said. "I was looking at their faces as they stared up at the fire that was raging on the upper floors of the Tower 1. They had a look of absolute fear. I’ve gone into burning buildings, but nothing like this. These guys knew that they had to go into that building. That was their job and they accepted it. But you could see on every single one of their faces that they knew they might not come back out."
“Suddenly a massive tidal wave of dust and smoke came rushing towards all of us," he said. "I turned and ran as fast as I could expecting to be knocked to my knees. Then there was nothing but darkness, but I kept running thinking that I’d just run right into the Hudson River so I wouldn’t be killed by whatever this was. But it got me. I couldn’t breath. Debris was pelting me and filling my eyes, my nose, my mouth, my lungs. I was choking, grasping for any bit of air I could get, but all I got was more debris.”
DeGidio kept telling himself to keep moving because as long as he could move he knew he was alive.
And while DeGidio was running to save his life, New Milford Chief of Police Frank Papapietro was commanding the officers who comprise Bergen County's Rapid Deployment Unit. According to Papapietro, an executive officer of that unit, on 9/11, “There was the commitment of all law enforcement and agencies of government that at all costs the bridge would be protected.”
“I had just come in to start my shift," he said. "Everyone was having coffee, reading the paper or watching TV. That's how we learned about the first plane hitting the tower. We were all gathered around the TV when the second plane flew into the second tower. That's when we knew something was wrong.”
From the roof of his firehouse, Sarapochillo said, "You could see the towers burning from where we were watching. The radios were going crazy relocating Bronx companies to cover houses in Manhattan that were at the Trade Center. We stayed behind to cover those houses along with some Westchester County companies that were called to the Bronx."
Sarapochillo described watching the towers fall as "surreal."
“As soon as our shift ended the next morning we hopped in someone's truck and went down there," Sarapochillo said. "Anytime we were off duty we put on our gear and went down to Ground Zero. We used our IDs to get through all the checkpoints.”
Sarapochillo remembers the first time he walked onto Ground Zero.
“I couldn't believe what I was looking at," he said. "Everything was smoking and smoldering. It was like walking through Hell. It was pure chaos. There was nothing but piles and piles of debris and nothing was even close to being organized. Everyone was walking around still in a state of shock. Especially firemen who had lost so many brothers. We lost all of our high-ranking chiefs and commissioners. Anyone who had any knowledge of working construction sites led the way. We had eight to 10 guys on a crew until the new chiefs started settling in and a sense of organization started coming about.”
He continued, “Each firehouse had their own guys working and a person from each group would take charge. About three guys I was very close with were missing down there—guys I went to Probie school with; guys who worked at my house and then got promoted--so we tried to zone in on where we thought they might be by using the street grid and trying our best to determine the placement of the buildings. Then we just started digging.”
“The mission quickly went from a rescue to a recovery mission. We were very careful and slower in our recovery efforts. We wanted to find our men. Our determination never wavered and our energy never waned," he said.
Do you have a 9/11 story you would like to share? Tell us in the comments.