By September 11, 2001, I had become accustomed to my phone ringing at all hours of the day and night. But on that Tuesday morning, it was my wife’s phone that rang at 5:50 a.m., not mine. It wasn’t the office calling. It wasn’t my partner, nor my lieutenant, nor an informant, witness, or a victim’s loved one checking in. It was one of our dearest friends spreading the news. Her usually jovial voice was subdued, dark, quivering as she reported that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. It was the day America changed.
The Hour of Serenity
Many Angelinos had not yet risen; some were just starting their days. Years earlier, when I had worked patrol on the graveyard shift, that was the time of morning that was the calm after the storm. It was the hour of serenity, that last hour of the night when the glow on the eastern horizon would promise a new day in America. It was the time when coffee was consumed on the hoods of radio cars and tired cops either looked forward to going to bed or dreaded a day of court ahead of them. Reports would be finalized and dropped into the sergeant’s tray. Radio cars would be gassed up for the oncoming shift. And red-eyed deputies would lug their war bags, weapons, and equipment into the station and stow it away until their next shift.
But on rare occasions, the peacefulness of that sacred hour could be shattered by the sudden crackling of the police radio: someone had been shot; someone had been beaten; someone had been raped and murdered and left in the park. Six hours earlier, those calls were routine. But now—an hour before sunrise—a call like that could be a jolt to the most seasoned cop.
September 11, 2001
I had been a homicide detective for four years and had grown accustomed to telephonic announcements of death. In the dark of night, I would jot the details into a notebook with little reverence for the newly departed. At that point, it was just another entry in my case journal, a new name that would become the focus of my undivided attention for at least 48 hours. The reverence would come later, at the scene or in the living room of the victim’s loved one.
Occasionally, even those otherwise routine notifications arrived with an an unexpected snag: a cop had been killed; a woman was murdered at Phil Spector’s castle; a kid had been thrown off a goddam cliff…
But no call in my lifetime has ever rivaled the one my wife and I received that morning.
America was Under Attack.
We turned on the TV and watched replays of a commercial airliner plowing into the World Trade Center in New York City. Fellow Americans—fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, Americans accustomed to living in relative peace on our sacred land—leapt from broken windows and sailed through the skies to their certain deaths. These images were seared into our minds, as they were into yours.
Within moments of the first strike, it became clear what was happening when a second airliner tore into the other tower. Until that moment, there was still hope. Hope that it had been a tragic accident, not a declaration of war. Once that hope was removed, sadness turned to anger and rage.
Like many of my fellow Americans, I wanted revenge. I wanted war. I wanted to scorch the earth beneath the dirty feet of our enemies abroad, those zealots who hate us for the freedom and prosperity we represent.
Explaining it to the Kids
Soon, we were joined by our young daughters. “What’s wrong, Daddy? What’s happened? Why are you crying?”
Seven and four. How do you explain it?
I explained it the same way I had cautioned them about strangers: there are evil people in this world. Then we held them tightly and assured them we would all be okay, as I silently questioned their future.
An hour quickly passed. Calls were made. We openly grieved with family and friends throughout the morning.
Department Goes on Full Alert
I called my partner, Bob Kenney. He and I had been working long hours on our recent assignment, the case of sixty-seven-year-old Nada Lazarevic who had disappeared and had almost certainly met her demise. That morning, a surveillance team was scheduled to follow our suspects: the bad daughter and her idiot husband, both of whom would later be convicted of first-degree murder.
The department had gone on alert, which meant we were to be ready to respond as needed. Many units were staged and prepared for anything that might come our way, including the surveillance team that had been scheduled to begin tailing our suspects. At Homicide, we were told to go about our business, but to stay available.
Nada Lazarevic had lived in Palmdale, California, a community located in the high desert region of Los Angeles County, seventy miles north of downtown Los Angeles. By 2001, Palmdale had been populated by a mass migration of families who moved there seeking affordable housing or reprieve from the gangs and violence of Los Angeles. It had become one of the most diverse communities in the southland, where any given tract of homes could feature families of every ethnicity, and immigrants from around the world, even Yugoslavia.
Working Our Case
On that day, Bob and I shuffled from one home to another in what is known as a neighborhood canvas. How well did you know your neighbor? When did you last see her? Do you know her daughter and son-in-law? Have you seen them at the house in the last few days? The setting didn’t vary from home to home. No matter the ethnicities, social statuses, or political affiliations of those we contacted, every single home was the same: families were huddled near their televisions, fretful, sorrowful. No true American smiled that day.
We asked our questions and received answers while those shocking images played on a continuous loop. Every house, each family, the same images over and over—planes crashing into towers, smoke billowing into the sky, frantic civilians running from the burning buildings while New York’s finest ran into them.
It often seemed our intrusions were welcomed distractions, brief diversions from their grim fixations. For those of us who were wired to solve problems, who instinctively placed ourselves in harm’s way to help our fellow man, carrying on—as awkward as it seemed—was exactly what we needed to do, and it’s what we did.
The Day America Changed
Later that evening I returned home. The kids were playing. My wife had started dinner. It was peaceful. Normal. My wife had turned the TV off after our daughter had come home from school, saw the images still playing, and asked if it had happened again.
America changed that day, but her foundation remained solid. Life would go on, albeit very differently for every one of us. Many sacrifices were made. That day, and during the weeks, months, and years that followed. To this very day, they are still being realized, at home and abroad.
America changed, and she will never be the same. But we will prosper as One Nation under God.
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