For 20 years, Jim Maloney has carried a terrifying memory: running for his life when alarms went off, warning that a hotel might collapse near the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.
He carries something else, too: an emergency inhaler.
Like other Chicago cops and firefighters who volunteered to go to New York and help search for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Maloney is haunted by what he saw there. He’s also dealing with medical problems he believes were caused by breathing the talcum-like dust that blanketed Lower Manhattan like a snow storm.
“I never had asthma issues before,” says Maloney, who retired from the Chicago Police Department as a lieutenant.
Maloney says he developed a persistent cough after 9/11 and is now in the World Trade Center Health Registry, a research group created by New York City and the federal government.
“They sent me to a pulmonologist, and I got a regular inhaler and an emergency inhaler,” says Maloney, who arrived in New York on Sept. 15, 2001, two days after his brothers Pat and Tom, both Chicago firefighters, arrived.
About three-quarters of the nearly 100,000 people enrolled in the federally funded World Trade Center Health Program were rescue workers and other responders. The rest are described as survivors.
Maloney says he decided not to go to the 20th-anniversary memorials in New York and not to watch on TV, either.
“It’s emotional,” he says. “I think about my own family. My kids were young, and they were so worried. I plan to do a meditation weekend for myself.”
Jim Maloney (right) hugs his brother Pat Maloney on Sept. 15, 2001, after they found each other near the site of the World Trade Center’s collapse. Jim Maloney was a Chicago police officer. Pat Maloney was a Chicago firefighter.Robert A. Davis / Sun-Times file
His brother Pat Maloney, a retired Chicago Fire Department battalion chief, has been treated for cancer, which he thinks was caused by his time in New York. He also is in the national 9/11 health registry.
Still, he says, “I wouldn’t have done anything different. Maybe wear my mask a little more.”
He was planning to go to New York this weekend with his sons — a Marine and a Skokie firefighter. He was there for the 10th and 15th anniversaries of 9/11, too.
When Maloney retired from the fire department last year, some of the New York firefighters he met during 9/11 came for a ceremony at the Engine 14 fire house in West Town. They’ve been friends for 20 years, having bonded through the grief and horror of digging for victims at Ground Zero.
Now-retired Chicago Fire Department Battalion Chief Pat Maloney at the World Trade Center site in 2001.Robert A. Davis / Sun-Times file
“I will never forget the guys from New York’s Ladder 18,” Maloney says. “We saw the rig just demolished. I see a guy’s helmet, and it says Ladder 18. I ask, ‘How many guys you lose?’ He says, ‘We did OK.’ He says an engine company also ran to the scene. He says, ‘We went left, they went right, those guys got killed, and we didn’t.’ I said I am grateful for you and sorry for the loss of your brothers.”
Chicago firefighters worked grueling hours on top of The Pile, using their hands and heavy equipment to remove rubble in bucket brigades. Every time a New York police officer or firefighter was found, the Chicago firefighters would solemnly trek back to their encampment, some with tears streaking down their dirty faces, allowing their brethren to carry the remains away.
Chicago police officers searched the dangerously tilting office buildings nearby for survivors.
Accompanied by a New York cop who survived the collapse of the twin towers, Chicago cops were getting ready to enter one building when laser monitors triggered an alarm warning that the structure of the nearby Millennium Hilton Hotel had shifted.
“Everybody ran,” Jim Maloney recalls.
The officers sprinted and didn’t stop till they got about three blocks away. But the hotel, though leaning dangerously to one side, remained intact. It reopened in 2003.
Former Chicago police Sgt. Kenneth Boudreau in Bridgeport, where he was recently in charge of security on a movie set.Pat Nabong / Sun-Times
Kenneth Boudreau, a since-retired Chicago police sergeant, remembers searching the battered American Express building near the fallen towers. Giant pieces of twisted steel that fell from the towers were lodged against the 52-story building. The lobby was deep with fluffy, white powder — pulverized concrete, glass, ceiling tiles, you name it.
The floors tilted like the deck of a rocking ship.
The police officers, in helmets and face masks, huffed up the stairwells. They used yellow flashlights to scour floor after floor, looking for people. They didn’t find any.
They did find a half-eaten pie on a desk and purses and cups full of cold coffee.
“It was like time stood still, and all the people were gone,” Boudreau says.
Boudreau has remained friends with retired New York police Sgt. Mike Stefanovich, who continued to experience the devastation long after the Chicago cops left.
“They didn’t put out the fire until December,” Stefanovich says. “No lights or power. It’s what it must have been like in Japan when they bombed it, to a smaller degree. You were reminded of it daily. They were still recovering body parts over a year later. There were funerals every week. It was overwhelming. It seemed like it would never end.”
Stefanovich, who retired two years ago as a sergeant in midtown Manhattan, says that, because of 9/11, the New York Police Department developed informants in the city and overseas in an effort to prevent more terrorist attacks. He says it’s been successful, though many of those successes haven’t been made public.
“I think we stopped a lot more than they committed,” says Stefanovich, who was on duty when a man tried to blow up Times Square with a car full of gasoline and fireworks.
Stefanovich says he suffers from respiratory problems, too.
“I’m still sick from it,” he says.
Kevin Gyrion, now the police chief in Clinton, Iowa, was a Chicago police lieutenant who went to New York after 9/11.Clinton police department
Kevin Gyrion, a retired Chicago police lieutenant, was planning to spend Saturday, the 20-year anniversary of the attacks, speaking at a 9/11 memorial service in Clinton, Iowa, where he’s now the police chief.
He knew it would be tough for him to talk about even now. Like a lot of his fellow cops who were in New York, he won’t even watch the latest documentaries about 9/11.
“It brings back too many memories,” Gyrion says. “When we got there, everything was still smoking. I remember walking past empty firehouses with candles. They lost their whole fire house. I saw firefighters crawling through the rubble.”
He also remembers standing outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, directing traffic in blue jeans and a Chicago police shirt.
Uniformed New York police officers and firefighters were there for a funeral.
Jim Maloney remembers then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani walking up and thanking him and the other Chicago cops. Maloney says he gave Giuliani a Chicago Police Department patch.
“People on the streets were cheering for us,” Gyrion says. “New York policemen were walking up, hugging us. That’s what I want to remember.”
Then-New York Gov. George Pataki thanks Chicago police officers for coming to New York after 9/11.Robert A. Davis / Sun-Times file