Coming out of the Dark
Pause here to join this annual remembrance of 9/11.
As has become the custom, this 9/11 tribute honors all law enforcement officers lost due to the attacks. There were the 72 from the initial attacks, including 37 members of the Port Authority Police Department, many of them members of Port Authority Local 116. And 300 who responded that day and have passed during the 21 years since due to 9/11-related illnesses.
In the wake of the death, destruction and rubble left following Sept. 11, 2001, the New Jersey State PBA joined in a response that accentuated the never-say-die resilience of law enforcement. For the next 86 days, the PBA manned its first special services trailer near Ground Zero, bringing food, water, a place to grieve and relentless support for those working the search and rescue and recovery efforts on that ghastly pile.
As NJSPBA Special Projects Coordinator John Hulse, who was there for most of those days, has famously noted, “I’ve always said that the pile, the pit was a terrible place filled with the best people in the world who were there doing such wonderful things trying to bring everybody home. And if there is a light, it came from within that.”
The images in this tribute once again recall that light. They recall how members worked 24 hour shifts to lend support, how they braved getting covered in so much soot and debris that they had to throw out their uniforms when they came home and how the PBA trailer became a hub for personnel on the pile from across the country to come for a break.
So join in this annual remembrance to honor the 37 heroes from the Port Authority Police Department and Local 116, who are forever enshrined on the last column standing from Tower 1 that now is on exhibit at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. And the 372 officers who have perished. And all those who responded.
Seeing the Light
How the tragedy of 9/11 motivated future PBA members to serve
By Esther Gonzales
When the E train Rob Kulawiak was on arrived at the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11, he saw a group of Port Authority and NYPD officers, with radios blaring, get on.
Then a loud boom pierced the air. The West Milford Township Local 162 member, who worked across the street in IT at the time, felt a wave of heat radiating around him.
“Maybe there was a fire or a bomb,” Kulawiak remembers thinking.
When he stepped out onto West 4th Street, he noticed people were running in every direction. Then, Kulawiak looked up. There was a gaping hole in the Trade Center. He began running.
“I worked down there for six years, and that day, I was just lost,” Kulawiak recounted. “The next thing I know, I’m over by City Hall. I walk up, and I’m like, ‘Holy cow.’ At this point, I’m thinking, ‘They hit the World Trade Center, they could hit City Hall.’”
Kulawiak took off running again until he reached the Brooklyn Bridge just as the second tower collapsed. He followed the mass of people covered in dust, water and debris across the bridge. Eventually, Kulawiak found his way to a McDonald’s, where a crowd had gathered and people were handing out food to one another.
“I remember sitting there,” Kulawiak recalled. “I knew everybody where I worked weren’t going to make it. I knew they were done. They were dead. I knew it. So I was just [asking myself], ‘What am I doing?’ IT was not what I really wanted to do in life.”
The devastating tragedy of 9/11 served as a catalyst for four eventual PBA members and led them on a journey to a career in law enforcement. As another year of honoring those lost on 9/11 passes, it is also a time to honor what has been gained. Like Kulawiak, many PBA members saw what happened that day and realized it was their calling to make a difference, to join the fight to defend freedom.
The light at the end of Wall Street
As a young boy, Kulawiak had dreamed of becoming a law enforcement officer. And even though he had joined the U.S. Navy and served in Italy for four years as a gunner’s mate for the sole purpose of becoming an officer, he had found his way to Wall Street instead.
It was there in that McDonald’s that Kulawiak convinced himself that now was the time to change paths.
“I think about the amount of cops, firefighters and EMTs that ran into that building, and I’ll never forget their eyes,” Kulawiak described. “You can see it right in their eyes. They all were going in there. And there’s no doubt, a lot of those guys didn’t make it. And that just shows their dedication, courage, devotion and who those people were. It woke me up to say, ‘What am I doing?’ to the point of ‘I’m going to leave this career to do what I really want to do.’”
When Kulawiak gave his notice to his employer shortly afterward, he was told he was crazy to take a pay cut. But now, 20 years after he came on with West Milford, Kulawiak said he has no regrets about transitioning to a new career.
“In a way, for me, it was God’s plan,” Kulawiak related. “I crossed paths with those people and their families. And I was in their lives for a brief period of time. There’s not a day I forget about those men and women that I worked with.”
As Kulawiak watched the 9/11 memorial coverage on TV this year, he saw numerous officers walking through the rain to pay tribute at the memorial. The nightmare of that day and the immense heartache of losing his co-workers felt fresh all over again.
“I owe it to them to seek out and live the life that they couldn’t and that was taken from them that day,” Kulawiak added. “And that’s what I’m doing. And seeking out everything that I want to do and being complete.”
A 12-year-old’s dream
The door to Lou Mayanga’s seventh grade classroom swung open. The principal from his Catholic middle school stood there, ushering children out. Mayanga, now a Passaic County Corrections Officers Local 197 member, didn’t know what was happening as one by one, children left class. Soon, it was just him and four other students.
At the end of the school day, a priest gathered the remaining students in the cafeteria. And he broke the news.
New York City had been attacked.
“What does he mean, attacked?” Mayanga said he thought to himself.
It wasn’t until later, when his mother picked him up from school, that he learned the Twin Towers had been knocked down. He didn’t believe her until he finally turned on the news.
“It took me a moment, watching the news and imagining what everybody had to go through,” Mayanga recalled. “As a 12-year-old, I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was really, really heartbreaking.”
Watching first responders rushing into the burning rubble to risk their lives, 12-year-old Mayanga decided he wanted to become a cop.
“What those heroes did and how they put their own lives in danger, saving other people who they don’t know, inspired me,” Mayanga recalled. “I want to help my community and be able to give back. It’s about helping others, being there for people who are in danger and being a helping hand.”
Mayanga came on the job seven years ago. As he reflected on the victims and families while watching the 9/11 memorial coverage this year, he thought of his own 8-month-old son, who is now his motivation to continue finding strength to keep fighting for freedom.
“My son is basically my motivation now of getting up and going to work. I’m doing it to keep him and my wife safe.”
Leaving it all behind
Trent Fettes stopped his landscaping work and listened intently to the news. After hearing of the events of 9/11, there was one question on his mind: All right, what’s next?
In the following months, one of Fettes’ friends joined the Marine Corps. And that compelled Fettes to want to do something more, too. He was willing to leave his family’s landscaping business and his position as a Berkeley Heights volunteer firefighter if need be.
“With being a firefighter and having this happen, I just wanted to do something else, be a part of something bigger than what I was just doing,” Fettes explained. “I was upset about what had happened and wanted to get payback.”
So Fettes decided to leave it all behind and follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, who served in the Navy during World War II. Fettes joined the Marine Corps in 2002, served for four years and eventually made his way to becoming a Berkeley Heights officer.
“This was continuing my grandfather’s fight and patriotism for our country,” Fettes related. “It was my contribution for our country to protect it and do my part, like my grandfather did.”
After the Corps, Steven Stamler, a fellow Berkeley Heights officer, took Fettes under his wing. He guided Fettes to pursue a career in law enforcement.
Fettes started as a dispatcher in Berkeley Heights before going to the academy in the alternate route program. He found serving as a law enforcement officer became his way of extending his service to his country.
“I think [9/11] is always in the back of your mind, especially with us in such close proximity to New York,” Fettes explained. “You think about it every time you get close to the city and you see the Freedom Tower. It’s always a constant reminder of what the significance of our job is and how the Marines made me to be a better person, better police officer and better American.”
Answering the call
Anthony Dellatacoma’s eyes fixated on the TV screen. The Middletown Township Local 124 State Delegate stood up in the middle of the bullpen of cubicles in his office, where he
worked as a manager at Prudential Financial. He stared out the window that faced lower Manhattan.
Across the river, a billow of smoke rose into the air. It was coming from the second tower.
A few weeks later, when Dellatacoma was flipping through the Star-Ledger, a full-page ad caught his attention.
The Port Authority Police Department was recruiting officers.
“At that moment, I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to try it. I’m not getting any younger,’” recalled Dellatacoma. “I was at the point in my career where it could have gone either way. And I said, ‘What’s the harm in just taking a few tests?’ There was no rhyme or reason.”
Without hesitation, Dellatacoma left his career in finance and insurance to pursue something completely out of his comfort zone.
“Everybody at that time was upset with what happened,” Dellatacoma recounted. “And then you watched the news and saw what our military was doing at the time. They were stepping up and tracking down these terrorists. And for me, it was a call to service at that moment. It’s like someone was kind of tapping me on my shoulder, telling me, ‘You should try this, I think you’d be good at this.’”
Every time Dellatacoma sees a Port Authority shield, the sight motivates him as he continues his journey in law enforcement.
“I pinch myself every morning that I have the honor of being a police officer,” Dellatacoma admitted. “I never take it for granted. And I try to put my best foot forward every day and try to help someone every day.”
Now, 19 years later, Dellatacoma hasn’t looked back.
Serving is his way of paying tribute to his fallen brothers and sisters, like Port Authority Officer Kenny Tietjen, who was killed while rescuing victims when the first tower collapsed.
The 9/11 memorial in Middletown Township honors Tietjen, a resident of the town and an Explorer with the department.Anytime he gets a chance, Dellatacoma visits the memorial
headstone to pay honor to his brother.
“You get goosebumps,” Dellatacoma described. “This is why we do it. We do it for Kenny and for everyone else we lost that day.”