Retired police officer remembers 9/11

LIHU‘E — Today marks a decade since the deadly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Americans are still reflecting on how the events impacted their lives and shaped their country’s future.

The images of the planes crashing into the buildings have become iconic and heart-wrenching. Ten years later, the conversation often turns to the aftermath of the towers’ collapse, which killed more than 3,000 people.

A Kaua‘i resident was in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, where he served as a witness and participant in policing and humanitarian efforts.

William Kerbawy of Lihu‘e recently reflected on the good that human beings are capable of amidst unimaginable fear, chaos and horror.

‘Unique circumstances’

The former Kings County Court police officer worked in Brooklyn for 17 years. In a typical day, he and other officers with statewide police powers would escort up to 5,000 prisoners from holding cells to more than 100 courtrooms.

The courthouse was just across the Brooklyn Bridge from the WTC.

“God leads us along many different paths,” Kerbawy said, “and put me in unique circumstances.”

Sept. 11, 2001, started off as a pleasant Tuesday morning, he said. He was outside walking to the court when the first plane, American Flight No. 11, hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. It was unusual to see an airliner flying so low and above the buildings but the incident did not give them an indication that it was an attack.

“We thought, ‘We have an aviation accident here,’” Kerbawy said. “We were on alert but we didn’t know.”

The second plane, United Flight No. 175, collided with the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. He said before word even came down they knew the scenario was changing. The court complex was closed.

The Brooklyn bridge is nearest to the WTC and the court officers were ordered to close the eastbound lanes for emergency vehicles that were heading to the site from all five boroughs. The collapse of both buildings within 15 minutes of each other meant people had no way to escape on subways, buses or cars. They were trying to outrun a cloud of suffocating debris and wanted to flee the city.

“Naturally people wanted to get the hell out of there and all transportation service was stopped,” he said. “The only way out was the western lane of the Brooklyn bridge.”

With manic people coming over in shock and covered in ash debris, he said the front of the court became an emergency area with medical tables and equipment to treat victims. By the time the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m. he said an ‘all hands’ call for police, fire, court, ambulance and other emergency personnel was sent out to anyone on- or off-duty.

“When Tower 2 collapsed then you really had total chaos,” he said.

The World Trade Center had housed the NYC emergency response center, along with much of the city’s cellphone towers and radio antennas. This limited police, fire and civic authorities to 60-yard point-to-point radio contact and without the ability for interagency communication.

They got the word that martial law was declared, and Kerbawy said the focus was on immediate responsibilities. He was grateful that it was a relatively orderly panic in the evacuation. They continued working to just deal with helping the victims.

‘The widows wail’

The next day, Kerbawy was assigned to the WTC site for security support and perimeter assistance. He described a surreal world where his court complex was surrounded by concrete barriers, and he had to go through a series of checks and challenges just to cross the bridge each morning.

There was still an intense heat generated from wreckage. As hours and days went on he recalled the search for victims would reveal the bodies of his captain, Harry Thomason, and two other court officers, Mitchell Wallace and Thomas Jergens.

“When they brought out the bodies we all lined up and saluted as a way of respect,” he said.

The most difficult part was to attend the funerals and hear “the widows wail” when relatives cried for a fallen officer or fireman.

“That cry was really from their soul and I would be standing there at attention, holding back my own tears because that is what is required of you, but it still stays within my being,” he said.

The weekend following the attacks Kerbawy was assigned to the decommissioned aircraft carrier, Intrepid, a floating museum at the 42nd Street Pier. It was activated as the command communication center for the weeks and months following the attacks.

Here the security was intense, he said, as it was the first line of defense and at the time they did not know if more attacks were coming. It was an intense daily regimen of security protocols that went on for six months. He wrote the details in a journal at the end of each day.

New York is portrayed as cold and in-your-face and that may be true, he said, but whether a custodian or a policeman, people stepped up to do what had to be done that day. There was no looting or rioting. And if someone saw another fall, get hurt or stumbling about in shock and all covered in ash, they took care of that person. That was the prevailing attitude, Kerbawy said, and needs to be part of the memory.

“That day everyone one of us, whether directly involved on the scene like I was, or watching it on TV, or talking about it on the phone — we were all our brother’s keeper.”

Aftermath

Americans are now more aware of their vulnerabilities, and Kerbawy welcomes the elaborate surveillance systems that keep an eye especially on sensitive areas such as railroads and transit terminals.

Future security should have a common sense approach to what is practical and what is over-reactionary, he added, and would distinguish what is needed for security while not infringing on rights.

“The most important thing is not to let fear rule over faith,” he said. “If you do that then any one group, whoever they may be, has already won.”

When asked what he reflects on after a decade of learning so much more about what happened that day, Kerbawy said he would like for people to appreciate the frailty of life and make the phone calls, give the hugs, and do the good work that needs to be done, “because you never know when or what will happen next.”

“Human life is very precious,” he said. “Love all the people you love while you can.”

When asked for his political or historical perspectives related to the attacks, Kerbawy said he strongly recommends people make it their responsibility to inform themselves about their government, what it is doing, and to be active in the process from the community level on up.

“That again is the way we take responsibility,” he said.

The memory of 9/11 should not be used in any way that projects a political or sectarian interest, Kerbawy said, or takes away from the reality of the people who sacrificed their lives for humanity.

Not pointing out any one in particular, he said simply that it is wrong to put relatives and families of the fallen in a position which makes it a political or religious issue.

“To do that only undercuts what they did their jobs for, which was to save human life,” Kerbawy said. “No one that day, that I know, was doing anything but the jobs that they were trained for and dedicated to do, and gave their lives for.”

A true New Yorker

Kerbawy was raised along Rockaway Beach, a southside area of Queens on Long Island. He was raised with a strong sense of faith but it wasn’t until he was in high school that he learned about Arch Priest Basil Kerbawy, his grandfather who came from Lebanon in 1898 to incorporate a new Antioch Orthodox mission in 1910 at the Cathedral in downtown New York on State Street.

His grandfather was an Archimandrite, the highest ranking abbot allowed to marry in the Archdiocese of New York. Although he was a priest for 39 years at Saint Nicholas Cathedral on State Street in Brooklyn. He died in the 1940s  and so never got to know his grandson.

“I always felt that he was my spiritual mentor,” he said.

Kerbawy was a theology student at Saint Joseph College when through his mentor priests he learned they knew his grandfather. They presented him with the book he wrote, “The Old Church in the New World,” along with his crucifix, which Kerbawy wears to this day.

“My shield offers me secular protection and my cross is a spiritual symbol of protection,” he said.

Kerbawy served as a sub-deacon for 20 years, while also earning a bachelors degree in social science and a minor in theology from Saint Joseph College in 1974. After a year of graduate school at NYU he decided to enter the academy.

He traces his desire to be a police officer back to 1960 when he was awarded a certificate of merit for his work as a school crossing guard. He went on to earn an associates degree in recreational supervision from Kingsborough Community College in 1970. He worked as a nursery school teacher for some time and said he still loves kids to this day.

“The best break that kids can get is to be born to parents with unconditional love,” he said, “the kind of love that says you are worthwhile, just because you are.”

Retirement

Kerbawy did not expect to be eligible for retirement until he completed 25 years of service. He was just 52 years old with 17 years when he accepted an early buyout in 2002.

He moved to Kaua‘i with his family in 2002 and continued working security until retiring last year. His son and daughter went on to attend school on Kaua‘i and now live on the Mainland.

“I thank God for each day for that is all that we have.”

• Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or by emailing tlaventure@ thegardenisland.com.

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