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9/11 In focus Part 4

NYPD officer recalls choking cloud of dust when twin towers fell Add to ...

As Richard Adamiak sought refuge, the choking cloud of dust came in with him.

“It was coating everything. It was getting everywhere,” he recalls. “But it was better than being out on the street, breathing it.”

Even within the sanctuary of the deli, it was almost impossible to draw a breath.

“Your mouth felt like someone took a bag of powdered concrete and threw it in.”

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Patrol Officer Adamiak had been ticketing motorists when the call came to attempt crowd control amid the chaos of fleeing business people and frenzied journalists.

He remembers the moment he knew the first tower was about to fall.

“You ever look at the top of a barbecue during the summer and you can see waves coming off the top of a barbecue? You can see the wobbled steam heat coming off? Literally, that’s what the top of the tower looked like.

“And then it really was just time to turn and run.”

He made it only a few metres before something caught him in the shoulder, tore his shirt and knocked him to the ground. He managed to squirm underneath an emergency vehicle, and huddled there until the din gave way to silence.

“I heard someone start making noise: ‘Gimme a hand over here!’ ”

An officer from a nearby courthouse had taken a baton to the glass window of the Stage Door Deli. The produce case inside was the only source of illumination in the dark cloud of debris. “I just went towards that light.”

In the immediate aftermath, he had no recollection of the photographer who took his picture as he leaned against the glowing glass case, which was still full of chilled food, for what seemed like eternity.

Months later, in a follow-up interview, New York Times photographer Ruth Fremson had to remind him of his reaction when he noticed her taking his picture.

“I basically told her to get lost because she was shooting away,” he said. “It was a little weird, yeah. There was other stuff going on and she was concentrating on what she had to do, I guess.”

In the meantime, elbows slightly bent, shoulders rolled forward as he braced his hands against his legs, he was just concentrating on his breath.

“It seemed like I was in the deli for an hour,” Officer Adamiak says, “but I know by the Times I wasn’t.”

Within minutes he was back outside, trying to find the officers he’d been with before.

“Someone yelled, ‘The other one’s coming down!’ ” Officer Adamiak says. “I didn’t bother to turn around and look.”

He ran again, this time north up Church until he met up with a colleague. They washed up at a fire station nearby and made their way on foot to the Cabrini Medical Centre.

“They checked us out, they pumped some albuterol into us to get us breathing and I was out of the hospital by about 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”

The deli photo was first published in Time magazine’s special photo section following the attacks.

Officer Adamiak was flipping through with a friend to see photos of a lieutenant who’d been there with them when he came across a familiar face. “They flipped back a few pages, and then all of a sudden there I was.”

He is still with the NYPD, only now he’s doing traffic duty on Highway One. Like many others, he had sporadic sinus infections thanks to the dust he inhaled. But apart from that, he said, he hasn’t been plagued by the health problems that sidelined thousands. At least not yet.

“It was surreal, I guess,” he says, to see himself reprinted for years in coverage of 9/11 memorials and tussles over compensation for sickened rescue workers.

“But there was a lot of things that seemed strange then. ... I think being there pretty much cemented the way you remember the day.”

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She went toward the light and helped win the Times a Pulitzer

New York Times photographer Ruth Fremson probably resembled a first responder as she drove downtown, tailing an emergency vehicle to make it to the Twin Towers amid panicked gridlock and closing roads.

She trailed the convoy, press pass wielded like a badge out her car window, all the way from her assignment in Queens to the World Trade Center plaza.

She saw the first tower start to implode through her viewfinder, tilted up to catch the source of the deep and growling rumble she heard – which she thought was the noise of another jet engine, and a third plane.

“At first, I saw people running and I thought, ‘Okay, they’re panicking. Keep it together. But then I saw police officers and firefighters running.” So she followed suit.

Ms. Fremson sought shelter in the deli after ducking, cameras protected beneath her, under a truck. Once inside, she kept shooting.

“The power was out, but the light inside the bologna case was still on. So the room was filled with this eerie green light.”

When the dust cleared, she ventured back outside to shoot the last tower standing against what was otherwise a peerlessly blue sky. She made it back to the newsroom – walking, and hitching a ride partway in a packed delivery van – in time for the noon news meeting.

She cleaned up, got a change of clothes and was checked out by a nurse. She was shooting again at dawn the next day, and sweet-talked her way up a 40-storey residential tower to get one of the first aerial shots of the site.

The photo of Richard Adamiak in the deli was part of the package that won the Times a Pulitzer prize in 2002 for breaking news photography.

“To some people, it was significant that he was a police officer,” Ms. Fremson said. “But to me, it was just important he was a human being.”

Anna Mehler Paperny

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