As was the case for his patron, Rudolph Giuliani, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything for Bernard Kerik, ramping up his career trajectory from local-boy-makes-good to national hero. His bestselling autobiography, rushed out in November of that year, recounts an inspirational story of “The Lost Son” of a prostitute who—through talent, true grit, and hard work—rose to become New York’s police commissioner. After 9/11, Kerik found himself in the stratosphere—honored by the queen of England, dispatched by the White House to rebuild the Iraqi police force, and, in 2004, nominated by President Bush to be secretary of homeland security. Sadly, Kerik’s downfall was swift. The nomination vetting process revealed him as a dirty cop whose lies and corruption ultimately landed him in prison. After pleading guilty to various felonies including tax fraud and lying to White House officials, he began serving a four-year sentence last summer. Today Inmate 84888-054 writes from the minimum-security facility in Cumberland, Md.
Sept. 11, 2001, began like most days. Around 6 a.m., I gave my wife, Hala, and my daughter, Celine, a kiss before heading out, in sweats, for my morning workout. It was a blue-sky day. After a jog on the treadmill in the back of my office at NYPD headquarters, I took a shower and started shaving. Suddenly, two members of my staff banged on my door. I was in a towel, with shaving cream all over my face, when I answered. “A plane hit Tower 1,” they said.
Within minutes I was there. Debris was falling from the top of the North Tower. People were running out of buildings, screaming and crying. A police sergeant ran toward me and my men. “Back up!” he yelled. “They’re jumping!” As I turned around to give an order to one of my men, an enormous explosion and fireball blew out of the north side of the South Tower. I was confused at first. What just happened? Then I heard that a second jet had hit the second building. In that instant I knew we were at war.
Before going to headquarters that night, I took one more walk past what had already become known as “Ground Zero.” For me, it was like looking into the gates of hell, the smoke and fires and the smell. It was hard to breathe. I thought of those we were missing. I thought of the men and women who were there working. How could this happen, and why? All in one day, I had witnessed the worst and the best in humanity ... the evil that had attacked us and the courageous men and women working tirelessly around the clock in an attempt to rescue any possible survivors.
Every day after that, I witnessed great heroism and experienced great loss, as did all of America. Any of us who were at Ground Zero saw things that would haunt the strongest of men. I remember the day I got the news that they had found two of my cops. I went to Ground Zero immediately. There were hundreds of workers, but it was still and silent. “Who is it?” I asked. My deputy and my department chief told me the names of the two cops. “Where are they?” They pointed toward two orange Home Depot buckets. I walked toward the buckets and looked inside. Each contained an exploded gun, a magazine, and, I believe, a set of keys and handcuffs. There was no body, vest, boots, uniform, or belt. There was nothing else. The men were completely gone. To this day, I hate the sight of orange buckets.
The initial shock of finds like this was overwhelming. Some never recovered. The men and women serving on that battlefield we call Ground Zero, including many volunteers from across the country, somehow found the strength to work through these circumstances, through the death and devastation. The emergency responders deserve so much more credit than people have given them. Anyone who refuses or questions medical support for the men and women who worked on those piles has absolutely no concept of what they went through. Day in and day out, they put their lives on the line for the people of the city of New York, but it was not until 9/11 that the entire world got to see them at their best. They never cowered, and they did not flinch. In the face of death, their strength, dignity, valor, and grace were unparalleled.