The Tragedy Inside Ourselves

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Anthony La Femina

La Femina, now 37, is a New York City police officer and also owns the Suffolk County tattoo shop Inklinations, where he has tattooed dozens of people who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center free of charge.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at home. I was a detective in the narcotics division, but I'd taken the day off for the grand opening of my tattoo shop. After the second plane hit, I knew it was an attack. I drove to my precinct in Brooklyn, got dressed in my uniform, and waited for hours for a command to go down to the site.

Those next couple of days I did whatever I could to help out. In total we spent a few months between Ground Zero and the Staten Island landfill, and it's the landfill that stands out in my mind the most. We would take a rake and sift through rubble. I remember finding a woman's hand and forearm, and a partial rib cage. I found lots of hair and scalp. Can anyone imagine they would ever have to rake a bunch of rubble in search for human remains? I wish I never had to do that. That's the one memory I can do without.

I haven't noticed if I'm very different than I was before Sept. 11. But I can tell you this: I have more friends than I did before. I have more compassion for the human spirit than I did before. I have more patience with people. I think, on a personal level, I am able to relate to people better. I look at my brothers John and Fred, both New York City firefighters, and my sister Eileen, whose husband state trooper Joe Aversa was killed in an undercover operation in 1990 and who is now a New York state trooper herself, and I can see something different in their faces, like a familiarity — like we belong to some secret club, those of us who where there that day and for days after.

How 9/11 Changed My Life

In their own words

The Survivor

• The Burden of The Living
An executive made it to safety, but is wracked with guilt knowing his firefighter brother-in-law did not

The Widow

• Death in the Public Eye
An actress accustomed to exposure is stunned by the very public death of her husband

The Firefighter

• It Was All Part of the Job
A lieutenant with the FDNY survives that day, only to be forced into retirement due to crippling lung problems

The City Councilor

• The War Zone
The politican responsible for the World Trade Center's district went from worrying about potholes to worrying about poisonous air

The Cop

•The Darkest Moment
After spending months raking debris for remains, an NYPD officer finds solace in therapy

The Complete Coverage

The 5th Anniversary of September 11


•Photo Essay: 9/11 First Responders
September 11th has left its mark on these heroes

•Photo Essay: 9/11 The Turning Point
How Americans have tried to commemorate the tragedy across the nation

•Video: Memories In The Landscape
Historian Niall Ferguson looks at the effects of 9/11 from the year 2031

Somewhere inside ourselves we all have had a terrible tragedy, no matter how grand or minute. I've seen marriages broken up. I've seen loved ones lose their spouses, children lose their parents, or parents lose children. Occasionally now I drive by Ground Zero. I find it difficult to think of downtown Manhattan any other way than I see it in my head. There will always be that huge airplane tire lying in the street. There will always be the pieces of airplane lying amid tons of dust and rubble. We just clean up and move along with our lives, a bit wiser, with a bit more respect for each other.

Talking about 9/11 used to be difficult for me. I am not afraid to tell everyone that, yes, therapy was an option and I took it. From September 11, 2001, until about June of 2002 I was miserable. I reached out to my family doctor who guided me to the right road to recovery. I thank him every chance I get. Those of you who think that means I should feel down and irritated all the time, you're wrong. Through therapy I am more open with everyone. I have a better relationship with my wife and two children. I can't imagine how miserable I would be right now if it weren't for therapy.

Since March of 2002, I have been assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a NYPD/FBI task force. I feel like I'm doing a lot more — not just for the city, but for the world. The NYPD has really increased its terrorism involvement. The training and education given to me as well as countless others is very impressive, and you can see just by reading the daily paper or watching the news how the NYPD has increased its relationships with international law enforcement agencies, as well as other city and state agencies. Our city is no doubt the safest around.

Today, I find I have a special bond with my fellow brothers and sisters of the New York City Police Department, both officers and supervisors alike. I have a hard time explaining what that bond is like. But it's just like we are a lot closer as a family then we were on September 10, 2001.

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