New York Police Lt. Cmdr. Vertel Martin, commanding about 100 Internal Affairs Bureau officers from Queens, arrived at the World Trade Center 25 minutes after the South Tower collapsed.
Three minutes after their arrival, the North Tower came down. Not long after, something else terrifying: An airplane heading toward Ground Zero.
“Is it the enemy?” Martin asked. “’Arm yourselves! Take cover!’ We scatter. We hold on to the injured and with our bodies cover them.
“Our adrenaline is pumping. Our hearts are about to jump out of our chests. And just when we thought we couldn’t take the suspense anymore – guns drawn and pointed – we see it: The Stars and Stripes. ‘Hooray! It’s us! It’s ours!’ ”
Martin, now retired from the NYPD and a criminal justice professor at , recounted her experience today in a riveting speech delivered for a September 11th Commemoration in the College Center.
Though it is admittedly not easy for her, Martin discussed her experience, not just on that awful day, but in the months that followed as she commanded the police department’s World Trade Center Missing Persons Task Force.
“The recollections … about this time in my life are still very painful,” Martin told the more than 100 students and faculty members who gathered.
“Even though 10 years have passed, time does not heal all. There are emotional and psychological scars that remain. It is difficult for me to revisit this period, which I recall as my final call to duty.
“The true heroes in my eyes are the men and women first responders and volunteers who provided auxiliary support to them as they did their work in the wretched trenches.”
The “wretched trenches” Martin described was Ground Zero itself, as well as a closed landfill in Staten Island where World Trade Center debris was transported in the months that followed the attack.
There, investigators and emergency personnel combed through 1.8 million tons of debris, spread out over a 175-acre field. They found remains of 200 victims and about 75,000 personal items.
More than 2,600 people perished in the buildings and on the ground as a result of the attack, in which terrorist hijackers flew two jets into New York's iconic skyscrapers.
And, Martin pointed out, it could have been worse. About 15,000 of the estimated 17,500 people believed inside emerged from the Twin Towers alive after the hijacked airplanes struck.
Under normal conditions, there would have been about 40,000 people inside the World Trade Center, Martin said. But on this day, there was a municipal primary in New York State and the first day of school in New York City, and those factors, as well as the early hour, may have kept the Tower workforce and casualties lower than they might have been.
While rescue and recovery was the primary focus of emergency responders in the weeks that followed, Martin was tasked with leading the effort to sort out the thousands of missing-persons reports that the tragedy generated from a multitude of sources, including the Red Cross, the media, friends, relatives and acquaintances.
“It was not uncommon to have 10 reports generated naming the same person,” Martin said.
“Many reported their acquaintances', friends' or relatives' information using variations of his or her name, dates of birth that differed by month or year, incomplete or inaccurate last known addresses or places of employment.
"Reports were also generated from people who hadn’t seen or heard from their relatives in years” with information that was very outdated.
There were reports of missing homeless people or illegal immigrants whose presence would be hard to trace or verify. Some people with mental illnesses filed reports of missing personalities, non-existent people or long-dead relatives, Martin said.
There were also scam artists who made reports of missing relatives to score some assistance from non-profit agencies helping victim’s families. Arrests were made as a result, Martin said.
Martin described the investigatory process for the operation as “painstakingly meticulous” and “protracted.”
“In the majority of cases, they discovered that people who were originally reported to be missing as a direct result of the World Trade Center attack were, in fact, alive somewhere in the world,” she said.
That happy news, which had to be verified through a personal contact by a police officer in New York or another jurisdiction, was trumpeted with a bell that rang in the hallway of the task force offices.
“When an investigator found someone who had been reported missing alive, she or he would sound the ‘found’ bell. ‘Ding!’ That ring was cathartic and gave us the psychological fortitude to carry on,” Martin said.
“When I retired, the task force investigators gave me that bell as a memento and I will cherish it for the rest of my life.”
Investigators in the task force worked double shifts, seven days a week for months on end in trying to bring closure for families. Some paid a heavy price with illness and psychological trauma.
“I label my own state of being today as wound-struck,” Martin said. “Back then, I created a protective shell around myself in order to accomplish the mission.”
When one of her colleagues would get ill on the job, she said, she would pray, and not just for the other officer’s speedy recovery. “I would pray for the strength to go on myself,” she said. “I knew that at any time I could falter.
“I did stumble once when an investigator had taken ill and had to be whisked away in an ambulance.”
She had what she described as a flashback of September 11th – a “personal tremor.”
“I yelled at myself: Vertel! And I prayed -- please God -- for the ability to continue to discipline and control myself, physiologically and psychologically.
“I fought off the tremor with every bit of my being,” she recalled. “And finally, it passed. Just as quickly as it had arrived. I looked around, somewhat startled, but still standing.”