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Police back on day-to-day beat after 9/11 nightmare

Port Authority officers are back on the street beat.
Port Authority officers are back on the street beat.  

From Beth Nissen

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Six weeks after cleanup ended at the site of the World Trade Center, police officers who worked at the twin towers before September 11 are back on their beats, patrolling the city's commuter train stations after months of looking for human remains at Ground Zero.

The police officers are members of a special force under the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey -- the organization that owned and ran the trade center. Port Authority police are responsible for patrolling New York and New Jersey's Port District, which surrounds New York Harbor.

They recalled what it was like returning to their regular jobs after their harrowing experience.

With clean-up efforts at Ground Zero complete, Port Authority police return to their regular beats. CNN's Beth Nissen reports (July 20)

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"Raking through 2 inches of rubble or debris, trying to figure out for five minutes whether something was organic or synthetic, you know?" said Port Authority Police Officer Ed McQuade. "... what was a bone, what was plastic... You know, when you think about it now, it almost seems so far away and distant. "

It is fading in memory for these men: the 12-hour days, six days a week -- 37 weeks in all. But the hard truth remains: they may have failed to recover all the human remains, even though they did all that was humanly possible.

"The last thing I saw down there was a man with a broom, sweeping out the bottom of that hole, right on the cement," said Officer Richard DePietro. "And there was nothing left."

Few places were more changed after the terrorist attacks than the Port Authority Police Command Center in New Jersey, just across the river from where the World Trade Center once stood.

"On September 11, roll call, we had 19 police officers," said Lt. Michael Brogan. "Thirteen of the 19 police officers that we turned out at 6:45 that morning were killed."

Officer McQuade described how the place had changed. "This is transformed from a police station into a cathedral, in a way," McQuade said. "Every place you go in this facility is a reminder of a person, a place, a moment, an event. Things you did together."

In one of the meeting rooms, there is a bulletin board of photos -- a pictorial roll call of the lost.

"There's a lot of memories here," McQuade said. "A lot of good memories."

Overall, the Port Authority Police lost 37 of its officers on September 11. The New York City Police lost 23 and the New York City Fire Department lost 343 people in the attacks.

"When we were over at Ground Zero, we really didn't have the time to process [the bad memories]," McQuade said. "Now we have time, things slow down a little bit. There's a lot of downtime to police work. And you have a lot more time to think. "

All Port Authority Police have had the crucial benefit of debriefing sessions and seminars on post-traumatic stress. These officers know that symptoms often don't show up until 10 to 18 months after the traumatic event. So far, few are showing signs of profound stress -- just melancholy, sadness and weariness.

Routine patrols take the Port Authority Police to the commuter train station, now closed, that used to lead to the World Trade Center. Sometimes they will stop and look across the river.

They see there, in a blank space of sky, the ghosts of the twin towers the Port Authority once owned. They see the 110 stories, times two, that used to stand there. They see the 2,823 lives that ended too soon. And they -- like hundreds of fellow recovery workers and like millions of fellow Americans and others connected to the attacks -- try, still, to understand what may never make sense.




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