“Mustangs Ahead” will be doing a series to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. LRHS staff had the opportunity to share their stories relating to the historic event and how it has impacted them today. In this story, LRHS school guardian and former New York City policemen Louis Cruz shared his experience on 9/11 with Charlize Ucciferri.

Charlize Ucciferri – Mustangs Ahead

(LAKEWOOD RANCH, FL) – In regard to 9/11, I was a detective assigned to the Manhattan Special Projects Division. I was already on my way to work knowing that the Twin Towers were hit. While taking the Long Island Expressway to Midtown Tunnel, I put on the radio, listening to what I was getting into. Everyone working in the New York Police Department (NYPD) was being directed down to the World Trade Center site.

LRHS guardian Louis Cruz (l) serves after the 9/11 attacks

All I remember was getting there as fast as possible. I didn’t even know where I parked my car. When I arrived, I immediately saw everyone was running away from the Towers. I went over by Vesey and Church Street and positioned myself in front of the Millennium Hotel that was directly across from the North Tower. While I was standing there I just kept looking up. I saw things that nobody should ever see. I was wondering how the fire department was going to put this out.

I knew I was not going into the building. My division was not qualified for it. It was the fire department’s job. I was wearing my suit with my shield and lapel out to let everyone know that I was here to help. I had my radio in my hand telling people to run and keep running away from the buildings.

A detective I worked with in the Bronx, New York named Steve Rodriguez told me that his wife was on the 72nd floor of the North Tower. We already had intel that the fire was on the 83rd -86th floors. Rodriguez told me that we needed to go in and find her. He kept repeating that he needed to go get his wife. I knew that if we went into the building, we wouldn’t know where she was. “It would be like finding a needle in a haystack but if you want me to go with you, I’ll be right by your side,” I told him. From where we were standing, we could see the thousands of people that were rushing out of the towers and running away. We stood by the make-shift triage, so we saw all the injuries and those who needed help. We thought we might be able to see her over here. “Do you want to go in,” I asked him again. He thought about it for a couple seconds and decided that we should just stay where we were. He knew that there was a greater chance of us finding her from the outside than the inside. If he said he wanted to go into the building, I would’ve been in there walking up to the 72nd floor.

I go back to helping people by directing them to safety and sitting them down to get medical treatment. Then came the unthinkable. The South tower started to make a noise. Nobody knew what the noise was. I looked up at the bright blue sky and saw the Tower falling. Literally imploding. At this point, there wasn’t much time. I ran with everyone else. This was the first time I have ran from anything in my police career. In over 30 years of service, I had never run from anything until that day. It didn’t take long for the building to collapse. I didn’t get far due to all the debris that was falling from of the sky. I was bleeding from everything that was hitting me, but I didn’t even realize. I was focused on getting as far as possible from the building.

If you look at the footage from 9/11, you can see the cloud of smoke that rushes through the streets. I happened to be in the smoke. Not on the edge, not on the perimeter, right in the middle of it. I remember being engulfed with smoke. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe to the point where I thought I was dying. I felt like I was drowning in water, but instead of water, it was smoke. I couldn’t breathe at all.

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I started saying my “Hail Marys’’. I was giving myself my last rights. I was saying goodbye to my daughter Bianca and all my family members. Shortly after I finally found a glass window to a store. A fireman was standing next to me. I pulled out my small 38 and put it on the glass. I started firing rounds in order to break the glass. I remember letting three rounds go. I didn’t think about what would happen if I use my gun. I just wanted to be able to breathe. I was desperate. The glass breaks and the fireman and I rushed right through it. Once we were in we both hugged each other. He ended up writing my name down to remember me. It was a store that was closed. We went into another store and found water to wash the debris off of us. We helped each other for about 30 minutes then decided to go out and start finding people.

We walked out of the store and can’t see anything. It’s black outside. I couldn’t see what was in front of my face. We were only a block or two away from the Twin Towers. As we were making our way towards the site, we heard the noise. The same noise the South Tower made earlier before it collapsed. This time we can’t see it. We could only hear it.

As I was running, I stopped at a little corner store where they sold candy, newspapers, cigarettes, sodas, etc. I lost the fireman that was with me earlier. While I was in there, another rush of smoke in the direction of the fallen building. It was consuming the street. In the store with me were many civilians and a four-star chief. His name is Chief Ziegler. I knew who he was and he knew of me. He asked me if I was okay. He looked like he was in better shape than I was. You could tell that he was in the NYPD. His uniform was a little dirty. I was covered in fallen debris. I’m surprised he knew who I was.

All of a sudden I heard loud banging come from the door. People inside were pushing me and hitting me to not open the door. I opened it anyway and pulled people in to safety. Each person that grabbed me held on for dear life. I probably got about 10 people inside of the store. They all hugged me but I had to keep doing my job and directed them to the back where it was safer.

We all sat in the store for some time. We waited for the dust and smoke to get to the point where we could walk in it. I took the tie that I was wearing and wrapped it around my nose and mouth to try and keep me from breathing in the debris. I couldn’t see and I was bleeding everywhere. I made my way over to the command center and was given instructions on what I needed to do. It ended up being one of those investigative days. I was there until 11:00 that night.

Supposedly when I was walking to the building I worked at, two detectives I worked with saw me and immediately saw that I was not okay. They ended up driving me to Manhasset Long Island Hospital.  The medical workers treated my injuries and helped me get back into good shape. I ended up being there for a few hours. I left with a couple stitches on my forehead and bandages on several parts of my body from where I was cut. Afterwards, they drove me home.

The next day I got dressed in a pair of jeans that I didn’t care about and a pair of boots. I was at the (Word Trade Center) site from early in the morning to late at night, searching through the debris and helping investigate the attack. I did this for the next six months. A couple of guys that I knew from the job died, one being a fireman named Sergio Villanueva.

My health has never been the same since that day. I take at least 12 pills a day for various illnesses that have affected me. I still have the scar on my chest and stomach from when they tried to fix my esophagus and digestive track due to the debris. I suffer from high blood pressure, headaches, and asthma. The government helps the first responders who were affected by 9/11 to help let us know of any long-term effects like cancer.

As well as my physical health, my mental health hasn’t been the same. It has still been hard to watch and view any footage from that day. I am very fortunate to have survived an event like that. I thank God every day to be alive.