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Two UCPS school resource officers, formerly NYPD, remember 9/11

Jim Kennedy, the SRO at Parkwood High School, at right, and Neil Sullivan, an SRO at Marvin Ridge High School, were both police officers with the New York City Police Department at the time of 9/11.

Sunday will be especially difficult for two school resource officers. It marks the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on America, a day that changed this country forever.

These two Union County Public Schools resource officers, both deputies with the Union County Sheriff’s Office, were members of the New York Police Department when the two planes flew into the Twin Towers.

“I don’t talk about it a lot, but 9-11 is really important to me,” said Jim Kennedy, the SRO at Parkwood High School.

He may not talk much about that day, but the framed photo of the 23 New York police officers killed that day is displayed in his office, sitting among other memorabilia from his days as a homicide detective with NYPD, a role he retired from in 2007.

As soon as the second plane hit, it was broadcast that this was, in fact, a terrorist attack. “They said that there were more planes in the air and we didn’t know where they were going to hit,” Kennedy said.

Even though Kennedy was a tough New York City homicide investigator, he said he was stunned by what he was seeing on television. “I was in shock. I had seen a lot of things in New York City, but no one could have ever expected that a passenger plane would drive into the World Trade Center intentionally like it did. It was bad enough that one went in there, but then the second plane hit.”

Kennedy immediately called his wife at their home in Long Island to tell her of the terrorist attack and that she needed to get their children out of school and then stay at home.

“Emotions were running high because you really didn’t know what was going to happen next,” he said. “I told my wife that I didn’t know if I would be coming home and that I loved her and to tell the kids I loved them.”

Kennedy said it was 10 p.m. before they were able to begin the “bucket brigades,” sifting through the debris of what was once the World Trade Center, in hopes of finding survivors. “It was thousands of men and women, volunteers, iron workers, American Red Cross, you name it. Who ever could help, was helping. They were calling in all retired personnel. It was all about rescuing as many people as we could rescue. And we did rescue some.”

When any of the rescue workers thought they had found a survivor, a tactical unit would place audio poles into the rubble to listen for signs of life.

“When you would hear someone yell, ‘We got somebody. We found a survivor.’ Everybody would cheer. Everyone would just stop digging and go silent waiting for them to pull the person out,” Kennedy said. “You could hear a pin drop on that pile waiting for that survivor to be pulled from the debris.”

Kennedy continued working in the brigade until about 4 a.m., then went back to his precinct, took a shower and slept for two hours. When he woke up, he returned to join the digging process again.

Neil Sullivan, an SRO at Marvin Ridge High School, remembers the moment he walked onto Ground Zero, the morning following the attack.

“I had never been inside the Twin Towers, and there I was standing on top of them. It was a strange feeling,” Sullivan said. “We were passing steel down to each other to get inside the pile of debris which was still on fire. Every once in a while, the alarms would go off and you would have to run off of the pile.”

Both Kennedy and Sullivan have vivid memories of the days following the attack. “Each day the papers would have a new list of all these guys that you knew, that you grew up with,” said Sullivan, who moved to Union County in 2006 after retiring from NYPD in 2003.

“Throughout the night and all that day, the alarms would go off letting us know another building was coming down,” Kennedy said. “That way, you could run. When the alarms went off, you couldn’t run fast enough because you felt like you were going to be hit by falling debris.”

Both Kennedy and Sullivan were struck by the fact that no office furniture was found by rescuers while digging through the debris. “One of the most bizarre things about it, those were office buildings which has lots of desks, chairs and file cabinets,” Sullivan said. “We saw a lot of paper, but everything else disintegrated. That’s how hot the fires were.”

The week that followed the attack was grueling. Kennedy didn’t see his family for five days. “Cell phones went down for a while, so I didn’t speak to my wife until the very next morning after it happened,” he said. “I told her I wouldn’t be home for a couple of days, which my wife was used to because that’s the way my profession was.”

All too soon, the rescue efforts no longer found survivors. Often the remains that were discovered would only be parts of a person. “Any body part that we found we brought down to the morgue that had been set up in one of the nearby buildings,” Kennedy said. “We would put an American flag over the body or the body part and carry them down to the morgue.”

Because Kennedy was a homicide detective and had experience being around dead bodies, he was assigned to the morgue. “I did all the categorizing of all the human remains as they came into the morgue. I spent the next couple of weeks doing that.”

Kennedy believes he was chosen for this task because of his years of experience investigating murders. “I also could separate myself from it. We had a job to do. Our job was to save as many people as we could save and then clean up the debris in a reasonable amount of time.”

In the weeks that followed, Kennedy’s duties were divided between being a homicide detective and one of the thousands of workers digging through the rubble. “You had to do both,” he said. “You would go to work for eight hours, you’d go dig for 12 hours, get four hours of sleep and do it all over again. It took that whole year before things got back to normal.”

For most Americans, 9/11 will always be the memory of that nightmarish day when our country was attacked by terrorists. It will remain part of this country’s history that changed the face of America.

For Kennedy and Sullivan, and the others who actually lived the nightmare, 9/11 has become part of the fabric of who they are. And it’s a day they hope Americans will always remember.

“History can repeat itself, so pay attention,” Sullivan said. “You have to be aware of your surroundings. As a country, we have to be careful who our friends are. We can never forget.”

A total of 2,977 victims lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001. This includes the 2,606 who died in New York City, the 125 killed at the Pentagon and the 246 passengers of the four planes hijacked by terrorists. Included in the fatalities in New York City are 23 NYPD police officers, 343 New York firefighters and 37 Port Authority Police Officers.

Written by: Deb Coates Bledsoe, UCPS Communications Coordinator
Posted: Sep 09, 2011 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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