ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — For hours, he held out hope. Hope that maybe someone somehow survived and was trapped under the rubble waiting for rescue.
It was with that hope Paul Dondorfer worked feverishly 20 years ago this week, at Ground Zero.
Dondorfer is now with the Rochester Police Department, but on September 11, 2001, he was fresh out of the police academy and thrilled to have a job with the NYPD.
Adam Chodak: When people ask you about your role in 9-11, what do you start by saying?
Paul Dondorfer: Normally when people ask me how my police career started I always tell them I was with the New York City Police Department from 2000 to 2005 and that’s when the light bulb goes off in their head and they say oh, so you were… I just nod my head and sometimes it leads into a conversation and sometimes it doesn’t.
AC: The question that everyone asks everyone about this is where were you…
PD: I worked nights at the time so when the first plane hit I was home. Close friends from Rochester were the first ones to call me and tell me what was going on and obviously your first assumption is it’s one of those sightseeing planes or a helicopter wasn’t paying attention, tried to get a little too close for a picture and hit, until you started watching the news and realized that it was far more than just an accident.
AC: Do you remember the moment you realized this was more?
PD: For me, it was looking at the fire and saying, Boy, that was an awfully big plane that hit then when all the other information started coming along and then the second plane hit, I think that was the real, OK, it’s time to go now, something super bad is happening.
AC: You must be trying to take in the remarkable, incredible nature of this and thinking about the logistics of doing your job?
PD: My first reaction was this is going to be a lot, so you’re trying to wake up. You’re trying to get yourself ready. I ended up packing a bag because I felt like it was going to be a long drawn out affair, unbeknownst to me what was happening in the meantime. You’re trying to watch on TV and kind of see what’s going on then try and plan accordingly and it’s just impossible to plan for something like that.
AC: Did you know the towers were eventually going to come down?
PD: Absolutely not. Never a million thoughts in my mind was that one of them that those buildings would collapse.
AC: So what happened next?
PD: I was actually into my precinct when the first tower went down and as I was arriving the second tower went down and that’s what it was go grab your stuff, all hands on deck, we’re going to head down.
AC: And you did?
PD: We did.
AC: And what happened?
PD: To be honest, in the beginning, there was just a lot of mass confusion just trying to salvage what we could salvage, who was running around, other problems that were arising from two of the biggest buildings in the world collapsing. Obviously it creates structural problems for the buildings around it. Getting some semblance of order to go through the pile and try and find people.
So you were just sifting through debris and we got some organization together and bucket brigades of men and woman lined up and pulling pieces of rock and rubble in buckets and moving it aside to try to find whatever we could find.
AC: Where was your head at that point? Were just kind of in work mode?
PD: 100% work mode. You have a job to do, we knew what our job was, we knew that there were people who needed to be rescued and that was our responsibility. We also needed to maintain the safety of everyone around us because obviously there was still a lot still in question. Is another plane going to come? Are there secondary explosive devices in and around the buildings so once a bunch of first responders are down there they’re going to detonate those? There was a million things going through your mind, but we had a job to do, we had tasks and we all completed those tasks.
AC: Is there one particular memory of the first 24 hours that stands out to you?
PD: I think honestly the thing that still stands out the most is getting down there, seeing the dirt and debris and just eerie silence. Whether that was me doing some sort of auditory exclusion that I didn’t know about, I don’t know, but it just seemed very quiet and surreal at that point.
AC: To me, I look at what you did, what the Red Cross did, what the firefighters did, it showed me that for the evil that happened that day, there was also this wave of good.
PD: Don’t forget the construction workers, steel workers that came with their big rigs because they knew that no man was going to move the bent, burnt steel that was down there. The sanitation guys that came down with their trucks and started moving as much rubble was we could to get in there and try and find people that may have been trapped. So really the entire community came together to help out with that.
AC: Did you see anyone get saved?
PD: We held out hope for a long period of time of finding people. I hate to compare the two, but realistically the building collapse in Miami, we were hoping there were air pockets of people who were trapped in certain spots. The parking garage that was down below, we were hopeful to find void spaces where people were able to survive for a period of time. The FBI, the federal government came in with their sonar equipment and did some listening. We had every available canine unit in the area and tri-state area there just trying to catch a scent of something.
AC: Did you have any health issues afterwards?
PD: Yeah, I have exercise-induced asthma. I have acid reflux which is attributed to that, but other than that, knock on wood, everything for me has gone fairly well, maintained with minimal amounts of medication.
AC: 20 years later, what are your reflections on all this?
PD: 20 years later I can still remember it like was yesterday. I still talk to the same people at the same time every year. Always get a little harder on this time of year, that’s what happens on anniversaries of things. It’s a tough spot right now seeing the country the way that it is and knowing what we could be and just hopeful that we could come to some common ground again, which would be a blessing for every single one of us.
AC: Did you see it that day?
PD: Oh yeah. And then some.
AC: What was that like for you to see that?
PD: Incredible. I was 22, 23 years old. I had just graduated the academy in June and just to see the support and people cheering you on, you felt like a big leaguer.
AC: What was it like in the days after?
PD: I think emotionally you were always at a 10 when you’re down there, either when you’re in that area or you’re at Ground Zero or you’re at other areas, you’re as vigilant as you can possibly be. Our country had just faced one of its greatest attacks in its history and you knew that it wasn’t over, but you didn’t know when the next attack was going to come, if it was going to come so the hyper-vigilance, it was exhausting mentally and the work physically was exhausting as well, but just to be constantly aware of what’s going on. It was no longer walking into the station house to take a break, you’re looking around, you’re scanning, you’re looking at all the parked cars in the area to see if there’s a potential explosive device in there to do one of the secondary or third attacks that were were very much expecting.
AC: Have there been any lingering issues when it comes to trauma?
PD: I think as a police officer you’re always a little more aware of your surroundings than your average Joe is. No, I go back to New York a lot and obviously you pay a little more attention when you’re in crowds like that, but no I don’t think anything more than your normal police and fire hyper-vigilance.
AC: Have you been to the memorials?
PD: I have. That was hard. I didn’t think it would be as difficult as it was, but you just get drawn right into it. They have a scrolling memorial of police officers and first responders and firefighters that were down there and seeing my name on there kind of brought it home a little bit more.
AC: Did you know anyone that passed?
PD: I knew some people but not well, but I knew of them.
AC: What made you decide to leave? 2005, you came back to Rochester…
PD: Yeah, my father suddenly passed away so I decided to bring it home, closer to family.
AC: How do you reflect back on your time with NYPD?
PD: It was the best time of my life. To be honest with you, I had never been to New York City before I took the exam for the police department, but you want to talk about a city that has everything to offer day and night, it was an incredible experience and I’m glad I had the opportunity to go down and do it.
AC: Any other thoughts as we approach the anniversary here?
PD: We have the saying Never Forget. Last year, we came close to forgetting. A lot of people, a lot of cities wanted to cancel the event and cancel the lighting of the towers and I just think it’s important that no matter how many years from now we don’t let it slip out of memory.