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Police chief McCarthy reflects on 9/11 -- day he lost several friends

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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Updated: November 9, 2011 11:52AM

On Sept. 11, 2001, Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy was in the shadow of the twin towers when they collapsed and on the front line responding to the attack.

McCarthy was a top official in the New York Police Department. After the airliners struck the towers, he selected a Wall Street office building near the World Trade Center as a makeshift command post.

But when the south tower fell, debris cascaded around the command post, shattering the windows and filling it with smoke, McCarthy said.

He and other officials — including then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani — were trapped for about 10 minutes before they could escape.

McCarthy lost 13 friends on that day, two of them among his closest buddies. He spent six months digging at Ground Zero. While he gained a “coolness and confidence” from the experience, the memories of the day have not become any less painful.

He’ll mark the day by calling a few friends but otherwise “I want to be alone.”

“9/11 seems to be getting worse for me and my friends every year,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “The emotions are stronger.”

McCarthy recalled the day in an interview with the Sun-Times after Osama bin Laden was killed:

“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 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 machineguns. 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.

The harrowing experience also gave McCarthy a “much better understanding” of 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.”

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