Staff Photo: John Bohn Lawrenceville sisters and retired NYPD officers Cindy Rosario, left, and Norma Carrion.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Tradition holds in the New York Police Department that when a cop dies in your command, you wear a black mourning band around your shield, the police badge that serves as an identifier, bastion of pride and, often, family heirloom. If the officer worked with you, custom dictates that you wear the mourning band for a week. If not, you wear it until the officer is buried.
In a quiet, leafy neighborhood off Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road, in a split-level home at the nadir of three sloping yards, sisters Cindy Rosario and Norma Carrion keep their shields close at hand, though they both retired from NYPD in the earlier half of the last decade. The shields serve as reminders they not only survived 20 years on the 30,000-strong police force, but emerged from it with a calloused wherewithal, a fearlessness. The shields they carry are enduring symbols that were not broken by the carnage of Sept. 11, 2001, which the sisters committed themselves to for days, weeks, months on end, infusing their lives with the images and scents and deplorable disrespect that haunts them now.
A decade hence, the sisters' shields still carry the black "NYPD 9/11" mourning bands. Their lives, in a sense, bear another kind of mourning band. One that cannot come off. One that hurts. And they wouldn't have it any other way.
For Cindy and Norma, these peas-in-a-pod sisters from the Bronx, the anniversary of Sept. 11 each year is the anti-Christmas, a perennial slap in the face. An appalled nation watched from afar while they were in the dust, scooping up buckets of the prodigious mess, kicking pebbles off the mountain, emerging only to shower and sleep, or to attend an untold number of funerals, so many they can't stomach an estimation.
Like many before them, the sisters were introduced to Gwinnett County by visiting a relative who had blazed a trail here before them, in their case their uncle, a 20-year veteran of the Suwanee Police Department. Metro Atlanta reminded them of upstate New York, laid-back and pretty but with a fair share of metropolitan amenities. On a recent, sweltering afternoon, on Norma's deck that's hugged by a manicured backyard and soaring pines, the sisters recounted -- with nimble, rhythmic dialects straight from Bronx central casting -- their commitment to their police department and native city in the stark aftermath of destruction.
"We talk about it sometimes," Cindy says, a tad unconvincingly.
At 54, she's older than her sister by a year, and though she's always been physically smaller, she fought many a schoolyard bully -- and was disciplined often -- for punching out her older sisters' bullies. Hers is the brawny bulldog personality to her sister's pussy cat, an attribute when your job is to work the official Sept. 11 morgue for months without a day off. She wears a tiny, replica badge with her shield number (3301, bestowed by a friend's brother) on her necklace; on her wrist, a bracelet of silver hearts.
Both smokers, the sisters keep packs handy as the conversation veers toward 8:46 a.m. that morning. As the memories flood in, Cindy stabs a half-smoked Marlboro Light 100 into an ashtray. She stabs and stabs and stabs.
The morning of, Cindy was working at the Bronx District Attorney's Office, in central booking, signing in cops coming to court and processing up to 300 arrests daily. Norma ran the desk at a precinct connected to a subway station at Yankee Stadium. Cindy summarizes the mindset at central booking when the second plane hit with a single word: Crazy. "Every cop that was in there just left," she says. "They wanted to go downtown. Everybody wanted to go downtown."
That day, higher-ups relegated Cindy to the menial task of transferring prisoners to an under-construction detention center. Norma had to watch the desk. Her son, Alex, had just enlisted in the U.S. Army. She knew before noon that day her son would be going to war.
The next day, the sisters were allowed to join the so-called "bucket brigade," the nonstop clean-up assembly line made famous by early newscasts. Upon first seeing the crumbled towers, Cindy recalled the vintage World War II movies she loves, the apocalyptic images of post-war Dresden.
"Everything was covered in thick, thick dust, and the smell was something you couldn't get rid of. The smell was something that wouldn't go away," she says.
Supervisors wrangled officers from vacations, from leave, and assignments were divvied. Some never left "the pit," as Cindy calls it, catching naps on pews in nearby churches. When a whistle blew, the sisters recall, the site would fall quiet. Someone had thought they heard a cry for help in the rubble, but each time the promise of rescue was false. They never witnessed anyone pulled out alive. They'd run home, eat, shower, sleep, return, repeat, for days, except when they'd swap sleeping with attending funerals. They trolled the New York Daily News, feverishly searching each day for familiar names under "missing" and "identified" categories.
Given her expertise at fingerprinting, Cindy was pulled from the bucket brigade to join about 40 officers per shift at the Bellevue Hospital morgue, the forensic processing center for the New York attacks. She worked 14 hours per day -- no days off -- until sometime after Christmas, pulled back each day by the site's strange magnetism. At night, she'd come home dusty, a standoffish ghost to her children. She'd take a shower, have a bite, then sit down, watch the news, cry herself to sleep and repeat.
"My thing was, I thought they were going to find somebody when I wasn't there. That was where my head was at."
"I don't think we felt exhaustion," Norma remembers. "It was weird."
In her months at the hospital morgue, Cindy saw very few human remains, as most had been incinerated. She saw just one intact body, a youngish Port Authority cop whose hand still clutched his holstered gun.
"To me, when I saw him, it looked like he was running," Cindy says, dabbing tears. "Whatever fell on him, whatever covered him up, his body stayed frozen in that position."
Asked if deep down there was some sense of relief that more human remains weren't recovered, thereby sparing her what surely would have been amplified psychological trauma, Cindy stares blankly for a moment and collects her thoughts. Her reply:
"I was prepared to see whatever I had to see. I had been on the job 18 years, you know I had seen my share of stuff. I would have preferred to do what I had to do. If I would've had to print a hand, then so be it. The frustrating part was not having enough. Not having enough answers for the families out there. We're cops, we're firefighters. I went down there to do something, and I wanted to do it, and I felt helpless everyday. You know, there's thousands of people out there who will never have any piece of anything from their loved one because it just wasn't there to get."
That's not to say recoveries weren't made.
Hats, wallets, gold rings, bits of clothing with inscriptions, it all streamed in and was documented in morgue log books. Anything that might contain perishable DNA was channeled to huge refrigerated trailers outside the morgue for testing that continues today. Cindy's voice cracks in recalling the ritual that commenced each time traces of service members arrived. Be it a police shield or firefighter's boot, the item was carried in on a stretcher, draped in the American Flag, and every morgue worker came to attention, saluting this tattered symbol of bravery and selflessness that did not flinch.Sisterhood, family enduresBorn to a U.S. Marine father, the sisters grew up on tight-knit 182nd Street in the Bronx, proud of their Puerto Rican roots. Summers brought trips to City Island, eating fried shrimp at the end of the dock, visiting the Bronx Zoo, popping in on friends who ran the bodegas. Cindy, especially, was bedazzled by the '60s television series "Honey West," starring Anne Francis as a female private detective. The show served as a seminal example that women could hold down tough jobs.
Norma joined the U.S. Navy after high school -- where she'd later be hailed as the first Hispanic aircraft mechanic for Navy fighter planes -- while her sister got married and came aboard NYPD. As a rookie, Cindy walked patrol areas, or foot posts, chasing prostitutes -- "the proz" -- away from commercial districts in the Bronx and a pre-Disney, smuttier Times Square. Norma joined later as a transit officer, and neither let the megatropolis intimidate them, making "collars" like their male counterparts.
They inadvertently met on the job once. Norma had collared a guy on the train who made crazy threats and had friends. A "10-13" officer distress call went out, and among the throngs of police responders Cindy came rushing in. She looked to her partner and blurted, "That's my sister!"
Through the years they established friendships in police and fire department ranks that were severed en masse a decade ago. They recognized many names, faces of the 23 NYPD officers who died, and some they knew very well.
On the backyard deck, poking at a bulky laptop, Cindy pulls up the official 9/11 Memorial website, fishing for familiar faces. Norma joins her, and it's clear the site will serve for them as a sordid yearbook, a depository of lives ripped away. For the majority of Americans, the names stretched around the towers' footprints are vestiges of strangers. These people were the sisters' flesh and blood.
For instance, Moira Ann Smith, born on Valentine's Day 1963, worked in transit with Norma. "I felt so sorry for her," Norma says, "she had three kids." Another name and Cindy's close friend, NYPD Officer John D'Allara, 47, bolted downtown at the first word of trouble. And there's Rescue 1 firefighter Lt. Dennis Mojica, 50, a handsome guy with a robust mustache, whose name now graces a lane in Brooklyn. The loss of Mojica was especially tough to swallow. Cindy had called the missing persons hotline incessantly, until one day his name was in the morgue's log book. No explanation, no description of articles recovered, just the name.
"He was a clown," Cindy says. "I have a picture of him dressed up like the Three Musketeers."
Their uncle, Officer Elias Casanas, has logged more than two decades with the Suwanee Police Department and watched his nieces remain close over the years. He recalls visiting them on Thanksgiving 2001, a big festive gathering where the pall was kept mostly at bay. In his eyes, the sisters' actions in the fallout of the attacks captured the "true American spirit of stepping up to the plate when things go wrong," though they also summoned emotional repercussions.
"I did notice in the following years a sadness in these women," Casanas says. "They didn't speak a lot about what they saw and experienced."
For Norma, the consequences of her actions traversed psychological realms when she was diagnosed with B-Cell Lymphoma last year, after inhaling something toxic that she and doctors are confident came from Ground Zero. The prognosis is good after surgeons removed a piece of her lung last year. Cindy, meanwhile, suspects her damages fall in the neighborhood of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, though she brushes off the notion that it's too severe.
"It's just emotional stuff," Cindy says, "that's it."
Later, at a Caribbean restaurant, the sisters razz each other about Cindy's penchant for pineapple-coconut ice cream. They discuss the atrocities that big-city police work entails, the bodies under subway trains, the jumpers from bridges, the floaters in the Hudson River. Cindy keeps her police shield, or at least the facsimile of it they gave her at retirement, in her purse. She nibbles on plantains. They talk about their grandchildren and compliment their sweet potatoes and coco bread, discuss the feasts they customarily prepare for family. They watch a Gwinnett police officer park his cruiser, and they count the merit badges on his sleeve. After a half-century finishing each others sentences, the ideas and observations they bounce off each other do not lose momentum, but rather intensify, like the movement of heated molecules. It's the fire that long before police work and suburban motherhood forged their bond as sisters. And it's reason enough to move forward with life and family, to nudge death and colossal tragedy aside, though it's always there, never buried, watching like a thief in the bushes.