From nightmare to reality
Cop sorts through physical, mental impact of 9/11
The following story is one in a series of profiles based on interviews from "Tower Stories," an independent project showcasing firsthand accounts from those directly and indirectly affected by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- He had seen many friends, his co-workers on the New York police department, reel from gunshots. He had hurdled over bodies wounded by gunshots on the Empire State Building's observation deck in late February 1997 to snare two children and carry them to safety. He had witnessed many drug deals and narcotics-related confrontations on his beat.
But nothing prepared Detective Steve Alonso for what he saw on September 11.
"I looked around, I was in awe," he said of reporting to Ground Zero from Staten Island, where his narcotics unit is based, soon after the towers collapsed. "It was like a dream -- everything was in slow motion. Everybody was in total shock."
The nightmare stayed with Alonso for months as he dug for lost colleagues on "The Pile" and sorted through related debris at Fresh Kills landfill, all in addition to his regular shifts.
"For a while I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep," he said. "The tragedy was sitting in my mind, playing back, re-running every night."
In time, though, his appetite and daily routine returned, just as drug dealers and the like came back the streets after a brief post-September 11 reprieve.
But his experiences on that and after day left him with strong convictions -- about New Yorkers, terrorism and the "heroism" displayed by police officers every day.
At his girlfriend's request, Alonso, 33, on September 10 had requested the next day off. He was still sleeping around 9 a.m. on September 11 when his mother called and woke him up, telling him a plane had just hit the World Trade Center.
Alonso turned on the TV, guessing some "moron" had accidentally run off course. He then called his supervisor who said, "Get in here. A big plane just plunged into the towers."
He raced from Brooklyn to Staten Island, pulling into the station as a low-flying commercial airliner soared overhead. Thirty seconds later, the plane slammed into the South Tower.
By the time he and several officers reached the site, both towers had collapsed. The scene was pure "Armageddon," said Alonso. Wearing jeans, windbreaker and boots, he plunged into the rubble searching for survivors.
"That whole day, everything was on fire, buildings were collapsing, people running north," he said.
That day, Alonso got a surge of hope when he spied a clenched hand sticking out from the debris. He began digging furiously, grabbing the arm -- which had $40 in cash in its hand -- and nothing else. As he did often over the next few days, Alonso called for a body bag.
"I found a lot of body parts," he says. "I felt I was the last to interact with this person, putting an end to their horror."
'Being a cop is an act of heroism'
After several weeks, Alonso was transferred to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, where 1.8 million tons of Ground Zero debris had been floated on 100,000 barges for a thorough, final search.
Workers sifted through the debris as it passed by on a conveyor belt and found all types of personal mementos while looking for evidence that could lead to a victim or aid the investigation.
The scale of the destruction was hard to fathom at first. "You look at this crushed metal and wonder, 'How does a three or four-ton beam crumble up like a piece of paper,'" says Alonso.
But the attacks had also strengthened the city, he says, bringing New Yorkers together and, after several scandal-ridden years, putting police in a positive light.
Despite the dangers inherent in the job and the public's love-hate relationship with police, Alonso says he loves being a police officer -- and having the chance to make a difference.
"Me being a cop, I think, 'Is this what I want to do the rest of my life?'" he says. "But being a cop is an act of heroism. You have to deal with it every single day."
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