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Chicago’s new top cop was NYPD’s operations chief on 9/11

New police Superintendent Garry McCarthy Monday May 2 2011. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

New police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Monday, May 2, 2011. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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When Garry McCarthy heard the news about Osama bin Laden, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so he did a little of both.

McCarthy, Chicago’s newly-appointed police superintendent, considers himself a “survivor” of the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center Towers a decade ago.

“If I were to sum up the whole thing about last night, it was closure. That’s what [he and his former co-workers] were talking about last night. It’s been lingering for ten years. It helps,” McCarthy said.

“9/11 seems to be getting worse for me and my friends every year. The emotions are stronger.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, McCarthy was operations chief for the New York Police Department. He lost 13 friends on that day, two of them among his closest buddies. He spent six months digging at Ground Zero, but didn’t find a single person alive.

McCarthy said he arrived at the scene right after the second plane hit, took over the offices of a Wall Street company and turned it into a command post that included then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and police brass.

“When the South Tower fell, it kind of fell north. Basically, it fell around our building. The windows all broke and filled up with smoke and debris and we couldn’t get out. We were kind of going around and around and finally got out of there [after 20 minutes] — just in time for the North Tower to come down. We basically ducked into a hallway and the same thing happened,” he said.

McCarthy said what he remembers most about that fateful day is the fear of what would come next.

“The whole time, I’m waiting for guys to come up out of the subway with machine guns. I mean — what’s next?” he said.

The “most poignant moment” came when McCarthy made the decision to set up shop at City Hall Park, a “low-lying, fenced-in area” because police headquarters was a potential target.

“I said, `Let’s get…one of those buses we have as command posts. Let’s get some heavy weapons. We have a defendable perimeter.’ We’re thinking like militarily. And in the middle of that, all the sudden we heard planes,” McCarthy recalled.

“We knew everything was grounded in the country and we thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ The feeling that I had was overwhelming. I see two F-16’s going wingtip to wingtip up the Hudson River between the buildings. And in a heartbeat, I went from, ‘Oh, my God’ to, ‘Thank God, they’re ours to, ‘Holy crap, the military is protecting New York City.’ Talk about a roller-coaster.”

McCarthy said his experiences at Ground Zero taught him to cherish every day because tomorrow is promised to no one. It gave him a “coolness and a confidence” under fire that has guided his police career ever since.

The harrowing experience also gave McCarthy a “much better understanding” for his father, a World War II veteran who was a tough act for a kid growing up.

“My dad was a World War II Marine. He was at American Samoa, Guadalcanal, New Guinea, New Britain, Iwo Jima and the occupation of Japan as a machine gunner,” McCarthy said.

“Growing up with him was not a real easy task. [But] I could just imagine….I have this one [traumatic experience]. But he did it for four years before the age of 25. That’s got to affect you moving forward.”

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