Our History

Women at Ground Zero: Rescuers, Rebuilders

Sunday, October 14, 2001

This is the first in a series on the women toiling at Ground Zero in the ashes of the World Trade Center. The women profiled are helping the city recover and rebuild--police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, construction workers. They are us.

Rebuilding New York: Women at Ground Zero

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Every day, at Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood, Police Sgt. Carey M. Policastro sifts through ash, dirt and debris, searching for bits and pieces of lives, crucial identification and mementos: maybe a diary, a wallet, a hair barrette. Or maybe a scorched shoe, a piece of bone or a shattered pair of eyeglasses. Maybe one more person no longer missing but confirmed dead.

Though this grim task is not usually a sergeant's job, Policastro also goes to Fresh Kills, the city dump in Staten Island, where debris from Ground Zero is trucked. There, again, she goes respectfully through unsavory heaps of debris, "trying to find that wallet, the necklace, the ring, anything that can be used to identify someone."

The nightmare that began four weeks ago continues, and as the bodies are discovered, and more names are added to the list of the more than 5,000 dead and missing, Policastro's job of sifting continues. This job, one of the most difficult emotionally, does not permit Sgt. Policastro to forget for a moment the human impact of the events of Sept. 11.

"Even working around the clock for three weeks, I'm still stunned from it," the 33-year-old officer said. "I knew a lot of these people who went in there."

She explained that she and her colleagues in the fire and police departments are trained to respond very differently to the roars of tragedy unfolding.

Most run the other way when they hear a gun shot, she said. "I'm listening to find out where the bullet is coming from."

"But nothing prepared me for this. None of us were prepared for this, and everyone was afraid. If someone told you they're not afraid, they are either stupid or lying," said Policastro. "What you saw on television was contained. You're not capturing the collateral damage." The police department lost 23 officers, the fire department more than 300.

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Policastro has worked down at Ground Zero for the past three weeks, weeks when she and her fellow officers have felt the tremendous support of nearly every New Yorker and most of the nation and the world.

When Terrorists Struck, She Was Flying Home From Florida Vacation

Policastro's experience of the attacks, at first, was identical to that of many Americans. She was on an airliner, heading back from a vacation in West Palm Beach, Fla., and talking on a phone with one of her officers.

"She's telling me the World Trade Towers are collapsing, and I'm thinking, 'yeah, and someone just saw the Easter Bunny, too.'" she said. Her plane was grounded in Macon, Ga., and the news got worse.

Initial news reports said, erroneously, that all the upper echelon of the New York Police Department was missing. "The upper echelon was my boss, it was Chief James Ward," said Policastro, her eyes growing large at the memory. "Finally, I heard from Ward, and learned that it wasn't the upper echelon of the NYPD, it was the fire chiefs.''

It took her almost two days to get back to New York and to Ground Zero, a harrowing and frustrating time for the sergeant. Ward was calling her and telling her to get back, she recalled.

"All I could do was watch the news, and it was so frustrating. Finally he orchestrated a flight out for me and I went from the plane to the site," she said.

Normally, Policastro assists the police chief in North Brooklyn. She ordinarily helps organize the squads and covers caseloads when they come in, and is part of the Strategic Tactical Operations of Brooklyn North that oversees the 20 squads in the precinct. Before Sept. 11, much of her day was spent monitoring the different squads' activities and keeping tabs on the crime in her area.

Policastro's family is from the borough of Queens, where Policastro still lives. Her father is a steamfitter who has worked at the World Trade Center; her mother works for a Queens physician.

She decided to become a police officer because of a radio advertisement she heard shortly after she had completed a degree in physical education at Queens College, part of the City University of New York.

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