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‘Absolutely surreal’: New York state trooper recalls 9/11 ground zero

New York state trooper Tom Mungeer said that the Sept. 11 attacks demonstrated that anything is possible when a powerful country like the United States comes to...

When the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were unfolding, New York state trooper Tom Mungeer was not on duty.

He was at home, watching in disbelief as the two massive towers at the World Trade Center came crashing down to the ground.

Then it happened.

He got called in to work during one of the most difficult days in history for the city and for the entire nation.

“The phone call came that we were getting called back down to the city,” Mungeer said. “It was just absolutely surreal.”

During his ride through New York City, Mungeer saw people covered in dust, walking around dazed. There was a big plume of smoke rising from the site where the World Trade Center used to stand.

At that point, it was clear America had been attacked.

Initially, after the first plane hit, many people thought it was likely an accident.

Once the second plane crashed, there was no longer any doubt.

“Like any police officer, we didn’t think twice about going there, but your mind is trying to comprehend what is going on,” Mungeer said. “When we saw the damage that was done, we were just awestruck that this could actually happen on our soil.”

Within about two hours after the attacks began, there were a couple hundred state troopers deployed to Manhattan.

Many of them were there for traffic control and to establish choke points to keep people away from the downtown area.

“I shuttled back and forth from ground zero to the Red Cross just moving people and resources to where they were needed throughout lower Manhattan,” Mungeer recalled.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Mungeer’s work days were 16 or 18 hours.

Although he knew the area very well, it was difficult to get his bearings due to all the rubble, smoke and confusion constantly surrounding him.

Many times he wasn’t even sure what street he was walking on.

“It was probably similar to what our astronauts saw on the moon because we walked through this powder all over the ground,” Mungeer said. “Every step you took there were plumes of dust coming up.”

As Mungeer surveyed the devastation, he said he “couldn’t believe that this had actually happened.”

The 9/11 anniversary

Today, Mungeer is still a state trooper, and he serves as the president of the New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association.

Mungeer said that every time the 9/11 anniversary arrives, “it seems more and more distant.”

A lot of current troopers are from a completely different generation and didn’t experience anything close to what Mungeer witnessed firsthand.

Rather, the 9/11 attacks were something most of them learned about in school.

“I think only 10% of my membership of active troopers right now were even on the job when the attacks happened,” Mungeer said.

Still, during each anniversary, Mungeer has a renewed feeling of “patriotism” and “togetherness” similar to what the nation as a whole felt in the days following the attacks.

“It also makes me a little sad because we don’t really have too much of that anymore in this country,” Mungeer said.

The anniversary brings back memories of troopers who responded that day alongside Mungeer and ultimately died as a result of long-term health complications.

Many first responders eventually became ill after being exposed to the intense smoke, thick dust and chemical fumes around ground zero.

“Years later, that stuff was a death sentence for a lot of cops,” Mungeer said. “I’ve lost about 20 troopers since that day due to 9/11-related illnesses.”

How have things changed?

The 9/11 terrorist attacks changed everyone’s lives.

For first responders, communication became much more important, and agencies became more connected.

“We learned that we can’t operate on our own islands,” Mungeer said. “You have to share information and you have to talk to each other locally and on the state and federal levels.”

As a result of lessons learned on 9/11, law enforcement agencies became more proactive when it comes to awareness and prevention.

“There would have been other attacks for sure,” Mungeer said. “I think law enforcement has risen to the occasion and is able to protect the people of this country.”

Mungeer said that the Sept. 11 attacks demonstrated that anything is possible when a powerful country like the United States comes together and acts as one nation.

“We took over Manhattan within a couple hours of being deployed,” Mungeer said. “Everybody upped their game. Not only troopers, but New York City police officers, FBI, CIA and everybody else involved.”

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