by Captain Robert Cubby (retired)
New Jersey Police Department
September 1, 2013 at 6:00pm I have been holding onto this story for 12 years now. For 12 years I didn’t have the courage to write it down. It’s one thing to tell your story verbally. That I had no problem with. But writing it down somehow made it harder. This is my story, my 9/11 experience the day our country was attacked.
Sometimes it’s not all fun and games. Sometimes it’s downright terrifying. What happens to a person when they just find it hard to suck it up anymore? That the fight is out of him and he’s just too tired to fight on. That he questions what he is doing here and what good does any of this do? What good can come out of this anyway? Where he believes his place is at home with his wife and his kids. Where the enormity of the task just seems to be beyond what any person can be expected to handle. Where wave after wave of misery and tragedy keeps pounding at you until you have nothing more to give.
September 11, 2001 comes to mind now as we approach the anniversary of that horrible day. I can see it yet today as I did that morning. The images are seared into my mind and still play back like some slide show from hell.
I had just finished a midnight shift and as I was driving home, I marveled at how blue and cloudless the sky was today. What a beautiful day it was going to be. One of those late summer days that you hate to sleep through and not enjoy. But I was tired and hoped to get a good amount of rest then wake up refreshed and enjoy what’s left of the day. It was one of those days that you’re grateful to be alive and enjoy such a beautiful day.
I went to bed and set the alarm so I could get up and enjoy the day. I was just hitting that deep restful sleep when the phone rang. My wife knows the standing rules are not to wake me and to take a message, to let me sleep, please. I heard her say he’s sleeping can I take a message? She then woke me after about 2 hours of sleep and said it was work and they said it’s important. Glenn the sergeant is on the phone. “Lieutenant, sorry to bother you, but you need to report in to work. We have a full recall of the department.” What’s going on I ask through my still sleepy consciousness. “Didn’t you hear?” he asked. No, I was sleeping I told him. Hear what? “They hijacked several planes, the World Trade Center was attacked and collapsed as did the Pentagon. They need everybody in.” OK, I tell him, I’m on my way.
I sit up, my wife wondering what’s going on. I told her I don’t know I need to check on something. I didn’t want her alarmed if this was a false alarm. Then, I’m thinking, I just fell for the biggest practical joke in the world and I try to call back to find who the joker was, but the lines are all busy. This is just too far-fetched to be real, it has to be a joke. I make my way to my stereo and turn on WCBS 880 AM which was up and running after the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center. Somehow I always left it tuned there just in case it happened again. The news is numbing, exactly as Glenn had said. I bowed my head and started to cry about the massive loss of life. You might as well hit me with a 2 by 4 piece of wood it hurt so much. I shut off the radio. I can’t wrap my head around this. I’m numb, staring at the floor, trying to make sense of this insanity.
I go upstairs to my bedroom and start dressing. I tell my wife we are at war and what happened. “What about the kids?” she asks. My God they’re in school and I want them home now, I’m thinking. I call the schools, but both schools are on lockdown and no students are allowed to leave. The kids are getting counseling and they’re in good hands. I told them I was going to the bombing sight, that I’m a police officer and need to see my children. Maybe for the last time, just give me that, please. They refused. I’m sick to my stomach. They couldn’t even give me that, a last goodbye to my kids before I pack off to the war zone.
I pack up all my gear, overnight bags and provisions needed. I kiss and hug my wife and tell her I have no idea when I’ll be home again. Unknown to her, I said goodbye as if we’d never see each other again. I do that every time I leave for work, but this time it wasn’t a routine I go through, I meant it this time. And I cried inside that I couldn’t hug my kids one last time. For the first time in my life I honestly thought I was facing imminent death. I’m not coming home. I’m going to die today. But I had a job to do. It was my sworn duty although no part of me wanted to be there. Most of all I didn’t want my wife to see me upset. Suck it up and move on one more time. Leave with a smile on my face to mask the terror inside.
I headed for work driving like a maniac. I noticed no State Police in their usual spots. As a matter of fact, I noticed very little traffic which was eerie. I was monitoring the news. Six planes unaccounted for initially, as every flight worldwide coming to the US was turned around or forced to land. Two crashed into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and one crashed in Pennsylvania. That meant two still out there. More news that the government was shut down and evacuated, President in Air Force One and the Vice President and cabinet in the command bunker. Fighter jets over New York City (NYC) for air cover. Battle group with aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy steaming for NYC. This is war I thought. Are we getting ground troops or is that on our shoulders. I’m not a soldier, I’m a cop and we’re fighting a battle with enemy troops who have attacked our country. They are military themselves and capable of launching attacks of mass destruction. We don’t need cops, we need military. We need tanks and artillery and planes. What the hell can a cop do?
I settle into the drive, my mind racing. I have a habit of doing a lot of thinking on my drive to work. I guess it mentally prepares you for what you will face. I usually think about what problems I’ll face on the shift, what kind of night it will be. Or I will think about my family. Lately, we had been going through a lengthy illness with my wife and resultant personal problems that necessitated that we both seek counseling and group therapy. I wondered about my children and how that all affected them. They seemed OK. I guess they would wish that the family was back to “normal” as it used to be. They had to seek counseling too but they flew through the sessions and seemed OK. Now that we were past all that, for over a year now, it was nice to have the family back to where we could feel that our problems were behind us and we could look forward to our futures all together. Now this had to happen. The very last thing I needed was anything to jeopardize our family. It was never supposed to be that way.
I lived in two different worlds that might as well have been light years apart. I protected my family from my job and my job was never affected by my family. Those worlds were never supposed to touch each other, ever! I left the house each day for work and for all that I didn’t tell them about my work, I might as well have been going to sell shoes in the mall. They never knew. But now this, touching every person and every home. How could it not touch every family in the world? Everyone had to know someone that was directly affected by those tragedies that day.
I was thinking about my family, especially my sons. I never got a chance to say goodbye, that hurt. But then I thought about all those killed today in the four locations. How many, if any, got a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones one last time? How many families never had that closure? I never felt that police work could ever do that, could reach in and touch my family. But this wasn’t police work. This was war. If I was a veteran I guess this wouldn’t have bothered me so much. They saw war. I never did. What was I going to face this day? I wasn’t trained for this nor prepared for this. I did work the 1993 World Trade Center (WTC) bombing and the investigations and raids that followed in Jersey City.
After 9/11, we did find and dispose of explosive material three times the size of the bomb used in 1993. We participated in the arrests of the blind sheik and his terrorist cell. We all thought that was the end of it. We were all wrong. I thought they tried to finish what they started in 1993. Is this the end or just a new chapter in terrorism?
There’s several landmarks I look for as my beacon that I’m close to my job. As I drive over the West Orange mountain by Eagle Rock, I always look for the World Trade Center as I’m coming down the mountain on Route 280. What I saw stopped my heart. No building, a massive scar in the skyline, heavy flames and smoke where the WTC once stood proud and tall. Cars were slowing and stopping along the roadway. People like myself getting the first view of the tragedy. I darted through Newark and as I drove on Route 7 massive amounts of cars were driving westbound away from the attack. The mass exodus we planned for, but never thought would ever happen. Cars in front of me were slowing and stopping. People getting out of their cars, staring, crying, heads down on the hoods and roofs of their cars, cameras snapping pictures and I was still running toward what everyone else was running from.
The Wittpenn Bridge was a nightmare and the approach to Jersey City was bottle-necked and grid locked. Of course, there were no police directing traffic. We’re all trying to get into the city while the others were neck deep in the disaster. People are yelling at me, “you’re crazy, you’re going the wrong way. Go back, go back!!!” I had to hang my badge and ID out the window so they knew that this crazy maniac has to run this way. He has no choice.
I made it into work. Parking was a nightmare, but I managed and reported in at the desk. No portable radios available, we’ll have to partner up. I get to the locker room and as I’m donning my vest and gunbelt, I’m looking at the puny protection I’m going out with against a monster that can crush buildings with a single blow. What can we do to protect and serve? I just pray we get through this in one piece. We are told we are to report to 18th and Washington to the muster area and get our assignments. We pile into a van and start heading toward our muster point.
I turn to another lieutenant and say, “what are we doing here Joe? This is just crazy. What the hell can we do in this monstrous attack?” At that point, I felt like jumping out of the van and quitting on the spot. This is just more than I can handle right now. My wife and kids need me. “Dear God, I don’t want to die here today.”
There’s no traffic. There’s no people. It was like out of a scene from the movie, On the Beach, in which everyone was killed from a nuclear attack. We made it to the downtown area and as we approached the Holland Tunnel we saw barricades, razor wire and barbed wire, with officers in battle fatigues carrying machine guns. We were in an unmarked van and they pointed their weapons at us. We identified ourselves and they directed us to where we could get to our muster point. We were directed to report to the command post and report in on duty. They told us to grab something to eat as this might be our last supper for a while. The supermarket put out a huge buffet. That scared me to think it might be the last one ever.
We saw people exiting the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH) station, the last ones out before all exits from NYC were closed. They were covered in ash, they had a vacant look on their face like someone who had witnessed something horrible. They just left where we’re going into, thankful to be alive.
Then we noticed something. Quiet. No city noises. No traffic. No planes in the air.
Suddenly, two fighter jets streak overhead at a very low level. It hits us. The enormity and gravity of this attack. Someone mentions we are sitting ducks right now. The entire police department in one place at one time. A single terrorist strike and they lose the whole department. I am very nervous and hyper-vigilant. Again, time to suck it up and move on. We lined up for our assignments. I noticed that all the assignments were on the west side of the city away from the waterfront. If I was going to help, I wanted to be where I could do the most good on the east side helping with evacuation and treatment. We were in the last group all headed to Ellis Island. We couldn’t get much more east than that or we would be out in the Hudson River.
I turn to my best friend Tommy. We hug each other holding back tears. I look him in the eyes and I tell him we will get through this, we will survive this because we will look out for each other. Again, the eerie silence, no cars or people. Three vans in a caravan headed toward Liberty State Park then Ellis Island over the construction bridge built for the renovations of the buildings there.
As we approached the entrance of Liberty State Park, we were greeted by a huge mob and camera crews and news people, everyone wildly cheering us on and running up to the vans and thanking us. It was quite a feeling to see the emotions and the relief that the troops have arrived. Troops was an appropriate term. Fresh troops to fight the next battle. All that joy drained from me when we finally saw the enormity of the disaster ahead of us. A huge rubble pile several stories tall, heavy smoke and flames, and we were driving toward it. We made our way to Ellis Island, and after some delay, were admitted past the armed guards at the gate.
Our senior supervisors were escorted to the command post. I spotted another lieutenant that had already been there. He explained that they had set up triage to accept incoming casualties from the WTC. The Central Railroad Terminal was the first makeshift hospital and they were at full capacity. They set up field operating rooms there and were treating the most serious cases who couldn’t be moved . Medivac helicopters were standing by. I counted 12 of them. Amazing they didn’t crash into each other with no control tower directing them and people running around. The others would be transported to area hospital already on standby. Now cases were being sent to the Liberty Science Center as those two buildings were in the most direct route from the WTC.
A change of plans seems to have been decided upon and I notice the triage being disassembled and the ambulances being directed off the island. The whole operation seems to be done hurriedly and I was wondering what the hurry was about. The lieutenant tells me all non-essential personnel were being taken off the island. I see our officers being loaded onto vans and evacuated. Evacuated was the key word. I guess we’re non-essential. I’m told they’ll be back for us, but they never came back. Funny, I thought, that we all came over on these buses but now we all can’t leave on these buses. Abandoned in a war zone too dangerous for even my fellow officers to stay in.
What could have come up that made everyone leave so suddenly? I now am told that intelligence warned that Ellis Island is the new Ground Zero, the next terrorist target. They gave us a plate number and description of the vehicle that will be used. That’s like giving the plane numbers to the people working in the WTC. I’m sitting in the cross hairs of some terrorists who want to blow us to kingdom come and I can’t leave the island. We’re out gunned and under manned. I imagine that if they have the capability to collapse two massive skyscrapers, attack the military nerve center of the country, then what may they be capable of doing to the very place I’m standing?
This is suicide at this point. I’ll do my duty and stay my post as ordered but please give me the manpower and equipment to do my job, that’s all I ask. But the news gets more gruesome. Our mission has changed. With what meager forces I have, we’re not accepting casualties anymore, but the dead. 45,000 at last count with over 900 police and firemen still missing and unaccounted for. They told me they’d give me whatever help I needed to build a makeshift morgue. Funeral directors gave us a crash course of handling dead bodies, body bags by the thousands were being delivered. They gave us a maintenance garage to stack the bodies and two refrigeration tractor trailers to stack the bodies in. They would be transported to the huge refrigeration units of a nearby company. The day couldn’t hold any more surprises. But it did.
As we were looking toward the WTC, I notice that one of the buildings close to Ground Zero was burning furiously with all floors involved. Given the size of the building it seemed impossible to put a fire of such magnitude out. Suddenly, the flames disappeared as did the smoke. The building literally looked liked it was drawing in its last breath. In seconds it was gone. It had collapsed. I learned later it was Tower 7, the third building to collapse from the attack. Given that I didn’t see Towers 1 and 2 collapse, this gave me a glimpse into the horror of the day. I just prayed that no more first responders were killed when this building came down.
What more could be added to the day than had already happened? I felt like I was on some roller coaster from hell, not knowing what horror I would witness around the next dip or turn. Here comes another and another. Now the police director stops by and orders me and two officers to stay on the island and report any news to him directly bypassing the chain of command. I was not to leave my post under any circumstances. I guess I’m now the forward observation post and in all the movies on war I’ve ever seen, they were the ones that were run over by the enemy, the first to die, sacrificed for the good of the rest of the department. The Director needed eyes and ears, we had the communications, so once again I had to step up to the task. I will do what I am told and carry out my orders although every fiber of my being was screaming to get out.
Thankfully, the mass casualty and recovery unit from the NYPD was with us on the island and asked for some assistance as they heard about the morgue set up. They said they needed property and evidence bags as they didn’t bring any with them. As a simple question, I asked how many and what for? They needed them for the identifications and guns on all the officers that died that day – 25,000.
My Captain and I looked at each other. The look on the captain’s face told the whole story, he was white, pale and ashen. His eyes stared blankly and I saw tears well up in his eyes. It was the same look that I saw in the eyes of the people escaping Ground Zero.
It startled me to see him that way as he is usually rock solid and emotionless. What startled me more was that I felt he was weak and losing it. He needed to suck it up and move on. It startled me that I could be so callous and mechanical when a friend and classmate was falling apart. To see him like that shook me to the core and it hit me like a lightning bolt. To see me like that was even worse. Was I missing something here? Why the emotion? Come on, not at this point, I need all hands and can’t have anybody fall by the wayside.
All I could do at that point was pray it wasn’t true. I’m not equipped to start losing people to their emotions. We have a job to do and it has to be carried out, no excuses. But I also thought I should make sure John was alright. Maybe a good talking to him will straighten him out. My guess is it couldn’t hurt to talk about it. We’re not yet in a combat situation and all we’re doing is support, so we had time to talk. He said he was awoken by neighbors who told him what had happened. As he wasn’t too far from the Railroad Terminal he ran down in uniform to help out. He said he helped with the initial boatlift evacuees.
We helped evacuate 650,000 people who fled by boat from the burning towers in lower Manhattan. He applied tourniquets around amputated legs and arms, tried to stop the bleeding on too many people to count or remember. He was so blood soaked he had to change into another uniform and go back out to help.
My guess is the look on his face mirrored the horror he had already witnessed in civilians. Now it was police and fire casualties. Now it’s our brothers and sisters in blue.
A bus load of evacuees came to the island by mistake. Again, we saw that same ash covered vacant stare of people torn away from the life they knew to another state, having no idea how they would get home after being treated. We redirected them to the field hospitals and awaited supplies for the morgue.
That same scene would play out elsewhere and for the entire day, just as we had evacuated 650,000 people from boats from lower Manhattan. They were cut off. All trains, subways, buses and transportation was shut off as were all the bridges and tunnels. Their only escape was by water. It was the largest boatlift in history, much like Dunkirk. It was called the Second Dunkirk. And like Dunkirk, they were being attacked by the enemy with their backs to the water. They could choose to stay and be killed or flee into the water. Every watercraft available evacuated those poor souls to a state they didn’t know and no way to get home. Many abandoned their offices and cars, fleeing the attacks, going to a place and time not of their choosing.
I notice that a State Police helicopter had landed near Ellis Island and a boat was waiting for them. I saluted the major and spoke to the pilot. It seems that the area over Manhattan was now a no fly zone. The pilot was bringing the major to a joint press conference in New York City when the pilot of a fighter jet ordered them to land or be fired upon. They, at first, hesitated and the fighter pilot stated he had a fix on their position and would fire on them. Needless to say, they landed. I knew that the dozens of medivac helicopters that landed in Jersey City would be unable to take off either. Patients would have to be transported by ambulance. It dawned on me how serious this all was. But I guess I forgot that meant for me too.
While we waited, I realized how hungry I was and how I could use a coffee. It had been at least 5 hours since I last ate and coffee was a distant memory. We made our way to the other side of the island and were directed to the main building where the cafeteria was. I was sweating, hot and bone dead tired. I was starting my third shift with 2 hours sleep. I was wearing my uniform hat the entire time and took it off upon entering the building mopping my brow. As we entered the main doors, we were quickly taken down at gunpoint by what appeared to be special ops personnel with machine guns pointed at our heads. I guess I forgot that this was ground zero and they had to safeguard access points. This was a war zone and anybody coming and going would be stopped and questioned. At gunpoint. That we were at war.
After adequately identifying ourselves we were escorted to the cafeteria. The knot in my stomach wouldn’t allow me to eat much and all I wanted was a coffee. But the food smelled good and when would I get a chance to eat again. So I forced it down. I knew the heartburn would visit me later. I didn’t ask who the special ops guys were and they had no identifying patches. I was just glad we had some kind of fire power on the island to hold off the imminent attack.
We finished our meals and made our way back to the command center announcing the cafeteria was open for anyone wanting any food or drink. While we were at the Command Center we were given permission to call home and let our loved ones know we were alright. My wife spoke about the kids and that they got home alright from school. They seemed to know what happened in the country and didn’t seem upset about it. It was just so calming to hear from home. I wish I could have stayed on the phone longer. But that was soon shattered by radio transmissions of shots fired. I had to get off the phone. I had to cut off the conversation without alarming my wife.
What agency is involved? They tell me it’s my officers defending Liberty Island from a terrorist attack. Here comes the attack. I don’t have any officers on Liberty Island. Now I hear State Police call signs and that there is a gun battle going on on the Turnpike northbound with the van that was going to attack Ellis Island. I gave a sigh of relief that we weren’t under attack, the State Police were. They chased them and apprehended them in the Giants Stadium parking lot. No injuries reported.
The Director called and needed an update from the NYPD or FDNY as to deployment needs of the Jersey City PD. All I received from my NYC counterparts were blank stares and vacant looks. At first I didn’t understand why they couldn’t give me an answer to a simple question. It dawned on me why. The entire command staff of the FDNY was dead, killed when they were caught in the collapse of WTC. The police command staff was running for their lives after almost suffering the same fate but getting out of their command bunker as the first building came down. Port Authority Police lost their command staff and many members. In essence, there was no command staff to make any decisions, we were on our own.
No orders but to stand our posts. There was no time to wrap our minds around the enormity of the loss of leadership. Good men all with more than 30 years experience having fought through their careers to have them end on the field of battle. As in war, the next highest in rank takes command. We move on and forward. All communications were knocked out when WTC came down. There were no cell phones working. The only communication up and working in the NYC area, at that particular time, was Ellis Island and the terrorists wanted to change that quickly. Knock out our communications and we can’t deploy personnel or get information updates. They knew it and we had to protect that. Hence the special ops deployment. I was glad to have the backup I so desperately needed.
With the van apprehended, the special ops in place and the morgue finished, there was that uneasy calm. Hopefully not the calm before the storm. A chance to sit down, take a cold drink. Or just think and pray. Although there was much to mourn or cry about, that was long gone, pushed back down into those inner recesses where we store these nightmares and horrible visions. We just wait for the next onslaught, the next attack, change of plans and deployment, next building to collapse, the next bad news. Because none of it will be good news or encouraging. Not on this fateful day.
As the day was winding down to nightfall and I was now approaching 24 hours on duty, we finished our makeshift morgue. We had a chance to check all the electrical connections and the refrigeration. Three switches and they’re in business. Not too bad for a bunch of cops who knew nothing about building anything.
I was filthy, dirty, sweaty, exhausted. We had a chance to just sit and contemplate what this day meant. I was exhausted and numb. I couldn’t muster an emotion on a bet, I thought. I was spent and pushed beyond any physical or emotional tolerance. I didn’t know how much more I could push myself or my officers. I was praying for some relief, but I knew there weren’t any fresh troops. We had all deployed together at the same time. Who could they call in to relieve us? I never worked 24 hours straight with no relief or sleep and I was looking at possibly another shift. How, I didn’t know, but I would do what needed to be done.
I walked through the area with the walls with every immigrant’s name imprinted on it. I thought about our country and how all these people bravely made it to this country to make it their home. And now we have others that wanted to shatter that dream and crush this country. The emotions I thought were too numb turned to rage and disgust.
I made my way to the northeast point of the island closest to the WTC with a clear, unobstructed view. Several officers had made their way over to be with us. The two officers, Dave and Tom, who were with me, John the Captain, and Charlie, a detective from the Prosecutor’s Office. The skyline of lower Manhattan was in total darkness, all power was cut off from the attacks. I’d seen NYC blacked out in two blackouts, so this shouldn’t have been something new. But it was. It was a scene from the end of the world. The blacked out silhouettes of the skyline of lower Manhattan were outlined in flames. Entire high rise buildings were burning. We knew the massive loss of life that was there. We knew the FDNY and NYPD were still fighting a raging battle. How many more would we lose fighting the aftermath of the attacks? How many can still stand and fight on? How long before another building collapses? We poured all our manpower into day one and we were spent already. How much can be asked of any human being to continuously battle for days and weeks until this mission is accomplished?
I was proud of my fellow uniformed brothers and sisters. I mourned for their losses and as John, my Captain said, I hope I never live to see a day like this again. As I looked at the photos taken of that fateful day, only one photo existed of what I saw that night. Maybe that was for the better. It was a scene straight out of a nightmare, one that I will have the rest of my life.
Then the word came. They’re sending buses to pick us up. I was permitted to go. I was happy and relieved to be going home. I stopped in at the commander’s office to say goodnight. As I approached the front desk, I saw an officer there I hadn’t seen all day and asked where he had been assigned. He tells me he didn’t respond in to duty, that he had something better to do. There were only four that never responded that day. One was in Poland and grounded, one was too drunk to report in, I don’t know about the third, but then there was this coward in front of me. Something better to do? Are you kidding me? All the emotions welled up inside of me and all that rage spilled out to where I yelled at him at the top of my lungs. He was lucky I was too tired or I probably would have grabbed him and physically threw him out of the district. He would have to live with the reputation of cowardice.
I don’t remember the trip home. It is all a blur. I remember the woman at the toll plaza not charging me and thanking me for my service today. I missed my exit on the highway and had to take the long way home.
The next day I was glad I was off and home. They didn’t recall us and told us we were on standby. My sister-in-law called and was crying. She lost two neighbors in the attack and knew I was working there. I reassured her I was OK. Several other phone calls and I was starting to wonder why everyone was so concerned, upset and crying. I guess my police armor, my hard charging “suck it up” attitude still blocked the reality of what everyone was going through. I had shrugged it off and buried it so much I couldn’t understand the concern. I seemed to be alright while everyone around me was falling apart.
When I came back to work, and for the next several months, it was nonstop terrorist investigations, officers working double shifts, one on regular duty and one on the pile at Ground Zero or loading boats to bring supplies to NYC. No trucks or cars allowed into or out of NYC for any reason so the boat lift had to continue. Those still trapped on Manhattan Island needed supplies. They came via trucks that needed off loading onto barges that then made it to NYC to be off loaded there. Everyone called us heroes and they brought food and cakes into the districts as well wishes. Funny, I didn’t feel like a hero. I didn’t feel much of anything. I had to do a guest appearance at my son’s school for career day. As I walked down the hallway, in full dress uniform, I got an ovation from the parents and staff all thanking me for serving on 9/11. I appreciated it, but I didn’t feel I deserved it.
The commander asked for everyone to put in their overtime requests but we all, every one of us throughout the entire department, refused the overtime. This was our duty to respond. The commander ordered us to submit the requests as money was already allotted. Most of us took the check and donated it to the orphans and widows fund for all the first responders lost on 9/11.
I guess being on edge about falling asleep and almost missing another phone call was robbing me of sleep. Every time the phone rang I jumped and answered it. I slept by the phone, usually sitting upright. I continuously watched the attack over and over again every chance I got. I started a scrap book so as not to miss any remembrance of this tragic day. I could think of nothing else and my attention persisted to 9/11. I watched every funeral on TV. Every waking and sleeping thought and image and flashback was of 9/11. I wanted to be ready for when they attacked. It wasn’t “if” with me, it was “when”.
Then the tell tale sign that I was in real trouble came about a month after the 9/11 attacks when a plane went down in Queen. I saw it on the news and flew into action. I grabbed my gear while getting dressed sure that we were under attack again. I was screaming at my wife and running around like a lunatic. Flashbacks in high gear. The trigger of the event sent me reeling back to the morning of 9/11. But it wasn’t that at all. It was an accident.
I never got my problems worked out with a therapist. After all, none of the officers who served that day with me were affected, so why should I be the only one. Oh, we talked about it endlessly at work and I guess that helped somewhat. The scrapbook was therapeutic and I made key rings that I wear still today each depicting something from 9/11.
I sat on that PTSD for nine years never getting it treated, holding that horror inside every anniversary, yet staring at the TV each anniversary like I did after 9/11. Dreading the day and the ceremonies and the remembrances on TV. The names read. The church bells and the fire bell tolled for those lost. The tears of the loved ones. One anniversary I visited and sat down for breakfast with a fire company in my city. I sat with the firefighters and we all talked about that day.
It took me three months to go back to the water front, to peer over the Hudson to the scar left in the skyline. It was Christmas morning when I first made it back there. I haven’t missed a night since. And each time I stop, shut off the engine of my patrol car, bow my head and pray for those lost that tragic day. And on the 9/11 anniversary I make it down for the lighting of the twin beams of light. A fitting remembrance that seems to go straight to heaven.
And the rage and disgust I felt? They punched a hole in the heart of this country. They murdered hundreds of my brothers and sisters in blue. For that, there will be no rest. For that, I will hunt you down. For the next nine years, I waged an endless unceasing battle against terrorism. I was unforgiving and relentless vowing never to get hit again. Ever vigilant, I was involved in at least six “thwarted attacks” on the US and Jersey City. Some called them dry runs or intelligence gathering. The terrorists videotaping our moves and our deployment. I became very good at varying our attack and shaking up the attitudes of the same old deployment and approach. I became schooled to know their approach and their way of thinking.
I was seeing phantoms where they didn’t exist. Do you see how preoccupied and consumed I was with this? Do you see that they still took up my every waking moment? That’s how PTSD grips you and doesn’t let you go. I was consumed by it and vowed to prevent something that was unpreventable, trying to control something out of my control, that somehow I missed something in the past and I won’t miss it again. Somehow blaming myself for not being ready.
That’s just pure wishful thinking. Oh it made me well versed in things useful for the department I guess. But how much energy was burned up and wasted on chasing phantoms and unproven theories? The only interference I still experience are jets flying overhead. I still wince and cower when I hear a jet flying low over my house. I stop what I’m doing and just stare at it. I still wonder if this was simply a plane full of passengers on vacation or business, or is it full of terrorists hell bent on mass destruction. Is this a plane being used as a missile to demolish another building full of people?
I still try to imagine what those initial impacts and explosions must have sounded like and looked like to the pedestrians on the street and the responding rescue workers. I never visited Ground Zero or the memorial. It’s still much too painful for me. I think I would lose it if I saw someone drop litter on that scared ground or laugh and joke in that solemn area. That is the final resting place of thousands of lost souls whose remains were never recovered. Every cubic inch of that soil has to be mowed and tended with reverence. If I saw any less than that, it would be very upsetting so I just don’t go there. For me, there was too much lost there that day. And although all this didn’t interfere in my personal life and probably didn’t hurt my career, it did set the stage for further damage later on, in the one call I couldn’t get beyond, the one that finally broke me. This loss called PTSD is cumulative taking chunks out of our lives with each traumatic event. 9/11 took a huge chunk out of me that day. It took it out of all of us to some degree.
About the Author: Robert Cubby was born January 4, 1950. He attended Montclair State College (University) earning a BA degree in psychology. Shortly after graduation, Robert was sworn in as a police officer for the Jersey City Police Department. After attending the Police Academy, he was assigned to the patrol division. After seven years of working in two patrol districts, he was transferred to the Emergency Services Bureau where he was an instructor for the Police Academy. After 8 1/2 years, Robert was promoted to sergeant and assigned to the Property Unit. This was followed by assignments back in patrol as a sergeant, lieutenant, and captain. As a lieutenant, Robert was deployed to assist in the efforts during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. As a captain, he was assigned out of title 50% of the time as an acting inspector/city commander. Captain Cubby retired from the Jersey City police Department in 2011 after 38 years, 4 months of service. As the result of his service to the department, he was diagnosed with PTSD and continues to struggle with it on a recurring basis. Robert also appeared in the film Code 9- Officer Needs Assistance.