Few occasions arise when a person has the opportunity to be a witness to history – or in former NYPD Detective Enrique Colon’s case, to be called directly to it.
Colon, like many American citizens, witnessed the crash of the first hijacked plane into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 and was summoned to duty soon after the second plane also made its collision. A near 21-year veteran who retired from the police force in 2006, Colon, 46, came to the of the Ocean County library on Friday afternoon to share his story to a small, but rapt audience.
“I’m not here to discuss things that are especially graphic, or to bring up depressing issues," Colon emphasized. “I’m more here to talk about things that I experienced and felt which were emotionally uplifting.”
Before discussing Sept. 11, Colon shared his memories of being a rookie undercover officer in the mid-1980s, in some of New York’s most treacherous neighborhoods. His success in Fort Apache and the South Bronx led him to be promoted to Gold Shield Detective.
“It was a pat on the back, especially after only a few years,” hesaid.
When asked what it was like to be an undercover officer, Colon replied that it was an enjoyable job, but a dangerous one. At one point, Colon had a $50,000 contract put out on his life by some local drug dealers who felt he was “disrupting” their operations.
“I wasn’t that scared, because I knew that backup was only a minute away,” Colon said.
However, the efforts of Colon and his fellow officers paid off, as the numerous arrests they made led to people in communities like Harlem and Washington Heights get more involved in making everyday life safer for one another, and gradually, the neighborhoods improved.
“It was like a domino effect,” Colon said.
As far as that fateful September day a decade ago, Colon was supposed to be in court that day at 8 a.m. for a case he had helped close. The courthouse was in the immediate vicinity of the World Trade Center.
“If I had went to court that day, I would not be alive today,” Colon said. However, after the impact of the second airplane into the World Trade Center, the detective knew that it was time to roll.
“I don’t think I got to my car so quick in my whole life,” Colon said. “I grabbed a few basic necessities and jumped in my car.”
An audience member asked how he proceeded to the site, and the former detective explained how he lived 78 miles away from the George Washington Bridge, and made it there in one hour.
“I was driving on grass, anything just to get there. It was a freaky feeling though; to be the only person driving on the George Washington Bridge, with no traffic behind me,” Colon said.
Colon joined his fellow officers in a van waiting at his precinct, and then headed straight to the fallen World Trade Center, but they couldn’t reach it directly.
“There were so many police, fire and ambulance vehicles, and so much smoke, that we had to run the final half-mile just to get there,” he said.
In response to an audience question, Colon described the feeling of not knowing what his duties would be when first reaching “Ground Zero."
“They held us back at first, because we’re not trained to walk among the remains of collapsed buildings. Also, for days afterwards, fires were still burning there, so if you picked up the wrong piece of rubble, you took the risk of getting burned,” Colon said. He reinforced his point with a slide photograph of a pair of his boots which had the soles scorched.
In the aftermath, the former detective told of the scene at St. Paul’s Chapel, where several rows worth of pews were filled with letters from children all across the United States, thanking the rescue workers for their efforts. He also remembered driving to the World Trade Center site on one occasion at 4:30 a.m and being greeted by clapping and cheering groups of civilians standing alongside the West Side Highway.
“It’s one of those things you don’t forget,” Colon said.
Colon also recalled a moment where he appeared at the World Trade Center site to see a lot of unfamiliar uniforms around him. “They were officers from Colorado, California, and all these different places. The airlines were shut down, and they drove cross-country to help us. I will never forget that,” he said.
The former detective also described the now-infamous respiratory hazards at the site.
“We were breathing in a lot of bad things,” Colon said. “But when we first responded, you didn’t have a time to stop and buy a mask.” Colon noted that masks were later distributed to workers on site.
“For the first 90 days, debris from the site was taken to Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, N.Y., where were sifting through it in freezing weather looking for identifiable objects; or bones,” Colon remembered.
Several months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Colon noticed a persistent cough – which turned into developing asthma and sinus infections every five weeks.
“Like clockwork,” Colon said.
In Feb. 2002, he was disallowed from returning to the World Trade Center site or Fresh Kills Landfill. Colon has undergone six surgeries in his life, four while on duty and two since he’s left the force.
“Technically, the World Trade Center site was a crime scene, and White Shield Detectives aren’t sent to crime scenes,” Colon explained. “Therefore, Gold Shield Detectives were used more frequently. Unfortunately, it’s also these cops who are dying from cancer and black lung much more often than other units.”
In retirement from the New York Police Department, Colon is now a Florida resident, and focused on his family. He has two daughters, ages 20 and 11, and a son, age 15 months. The proud husband and father said that he wouldn’t change a thing about what he and his fellow officers did in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
“If we could do it again, knowing we would get sick, we still would have responded,” Colon said.