NEW YORK – Nineteen years ago, Grace Ridley was nearing the end of a successful career in the New York Police Department and counting down to retirement. Then, on September 11, 2001, the world came crashing down.
As a member of the NYPD since 1982, Ridley quickly rose to the rank of sergeant and had a variety of assignments during her tenure. She spent time working in employee relations, organized crime, internal affairs, public relations, the criminal justice bureau and even conducted undercover operations in the narcotics division and the vice enforcement unit.
However, it was her work in the Queens and Manhattan morgues and her role as a peer support officer that provided her with the specialized skills that were key after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and would prove to be equally valuable when she chose to join the Transportation Security Administration.
On the morning on September 11, 2001, Ridley was just getting off the night shift at the Brooklyn auto impound location. She was driving home across the Queensborough Bridge and “I glanced at the Twin Towers in my rearview mirror and thought to myself, ‘what a glorious sunny day this was going to be.’ Sadly, it was the last time I would ever see the towers again.”
When she arrived home, Ridley turned on the TV and saw what she thought was a commercial for an upcoming action-packed movie being filmed in New York City. If only it had been.
Ridley turned away from the TV for a few moments and when she turned back, she witnessed the second airplane hit the North Tower. “I thought to myself, ‘This looks so realistic.’ And as I continued to watch, I realized it was actually happening.”
As an NYPD officer, Ridley was trained for critical incidents and disaster planning, what she refers to as “all hands on deck.” Ridley packed a “go-bag” to head back to work. She figured she would need to pack for a week. She was gone for eight months.
As Ridley walked around the site, she found it to be “very emotional as my thoughts of the workers and children who would usually mingle in the sitting area flashed before my eyes,” she says. Ridley thought about her own two children who worked in the vicinity of the World Trade Center (WTC). Her youngest son’s job as a bus operator took him past the WTC hourly. Her oldest son, a NYPD officer, worked in the Emergency Service Unit and was dispatched to the WTC site when the first plane hit. Fortunately, both were safe.
Ridley was assigned to the “hot zone,” which later became known as Ground Zero. She was assigned to handle logistics, and coordinated operations out of the nearby Federal Reserve Bank Building a few blocks away from Ground Zero. She also organized the Police Officers Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA), a voluntary and confidential peer-based program, which provides emotional, psychological and personal assistance for officers and persons dealing with traumatic events.
As the logistics manager, Ridley coordinated and set up the temporary morgues for the intake and cataloging of human remains discovered in the rubble and debris of the towers. At the end of her regular eight-hour shift, Ridley transitioned to a second shift, and worked with the POPPA teams to help provide supplies, equipment, and providing sleeping details for all visiting first responders. Some of the peer support was geared for people who were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts, as a result of the attacks and its aftermath.
Her POPPA teams also gave meal and relief breaks and supported first responders who had been searching and digging daily in search of survivors. Ridley’s training in identifying and supporting those who showed signs of fatigue and depression were key. “I realized that the first responder teams would not voluntarily stop digging on their own, so I ordered my teams to ensure that first responders took a break from looking for survivors,” she says.
When her days would come to an end, she would retire to the nearby Federal Reserve Bank, where a floor had been dedicated for police officers. There she would sleep on a cot.
“The smell of burning airplane fuel, the sight of liquefied bodies of those who jumped from the towers and the smell of burning flesh, are etched into my memory forever. Even though I had worked in two active morgues for years, the smells will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am grateful that my life’s work with the POPPA personnel aided me in maintaining a healthy overall work-life balance, both mentally and physically,” Ridley says.
In May 2001, eight months after the towers fell, Ridley finally went home. She retired from the police force the following month.
Nineteen years have passed and Ridley has not returned to the site of what is now Freedom Tower, the 9/11 Memorial and the 9/11 Memorial Museum. “I have seen the new tower from a distance. I cannot bring myself to go back, as I can still see and smell the horror of what happened on that day and the days that followed.”
Two years later, in July 2003, Ridley joined the Transportation Security Administration where she currently works as a program analyst at John F. Kennedy International Airport.