Paul Dondorfer’s shift with the NYPD had finished a few hours before the first plane struck.
After a friend from his hometown of Rochester called Dondorfer to let him know what had happened, he flipped on the TV.
Minutes after the second plane flew into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Dondorfer had his uniform back on and soon found himself at Ground Zero not long after the towers collapsed.
“You always try to think positive, you always try to think that the outcome is going to be better than it sometimes is going to be. We all obviously were hoping there would be pockets of space available where people were somehow able to get into and we were going to be able to find more survivors,” Dondorfer said.
Dondorfer sifted through rubble, worked at triage stations all the while treating everything in front of him like a crime scene.
It was later he’d learn of the health risks.
“I have exercise-induced asthma, I also have the acid reflux that I’m on medication for, which are both secondary to the dust and debris that we breathed in down at Ground Zero,” Dondorfer said.
Dondorfer didn’t escape traumatic events upon his return to Rochester.
In January of 2009 Dondorfer was one of the first Rochester police officers to respond to the call of an officer down.
His friend, Anthony DiPonzio, had been shot in the head.
Dondorfer was in the car that rushed DiPonzio to the hospital.
“I kind of kicked back into ambulance mode, the assessment that I did, I knew what was happening with him, nothing that I could have done in the backseat of a police car, so we just kept his airway open and got him in the best hands we could have gotten him into,” Dondorfer said. “I think he is a miracle beyond miracles.”
Several years later, two children fell into the Erie Canal near Genesee Valley Park.
Dondorfer ran to the screams, immediately jumped into the icy water and rescued one of the children, while others pulled out the second.
“(Public service) never ends,” he said. “We’re never off duty. My family makes fun of me every time we enter a restaurant and I scan the room, sit with my back to the wall, you’re never not paying attention, you’re never not going to come to someone’s aid.”
Today, Dondorfer helps lead a group that was there for him after several of these high-stress situations, the Badge of Honor Association.
“It’s a great organization that has peers helping peers … It’s a lot easier when another officer who’s been involved in a situation like that can come up and say, ‘Listen, I know what you’re going through’ and just try to be there for them that way and be there for their family,” he said.
Badge of Honor does not just try to support officers; it also raises money for families of officers who die in the line of duty.
To learn more, click here.