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.

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As a rookie in 1991, she was the first woman to be promoted into the prestigious plainclothes unit at the 110th precinct in Queens, while still on probation as a fledgling police officer.

Hard Work and Mentoring Made for A Rookie's Rapid Rise

"I really wanted to be in the plainclothes unit. I had to walk a beat first and I was out there making arrests hand over fist, and then six weeks later I'm in the unit," she recalled.

"You go for the knees," she commented when asked about going head to head with drug dealers or menacing street characters. "I wouldn't go up against a 6-foot, 200-pound guy," she added. "But our knees, they are all made the same way."

After being in plainclothes, she was moved to narcotics in 1993 and worked for two years in North Manhattan. "My arrest record was the highest in the squad and for a newcomer to the force," she said.

In a predominantly fraternal order like the New York Police Department, it was a distinction and honor.

"I was still a rookie, and a female," said Policastro laughing from the memory. "But I had a chief who believed in me, he picked me up when I was nothing."

She went on to earn her master's degree at Queens College in exercise physiology and cardiac rehabilitation, and simultaneously was given the title of sergeant.

"Women do not move up so fast usually," she said. "But my chief gave me chances no one else would give me."

Digging, Crowd Control, Opening Wall Street and the Stock Exchange

Yet her training and 48 hours of news television did not prepare her for the job she was about to do, and what she was about to see.

"Going through the tunnel on my way there, I could smell it. It was surreal. The fires were still burning and people were still being injured and killed," she said.

"We were responsible, my unit, for opening up Wall Street and the Stock Exchange that first Monday. Before that we were just down on site trying to keep people back," she said, paused. "We were also digging. We were digging for anything, just find something to give the families, a memento," she said. "We worked around the clock. I didn't sleep."

Not only has Policastro been working down at the site daily, in the past week she has become a saleswoman, hawking T-shirts and polo shirts with a logo that reads "Gone but not forgotten," bearing the insignia of both the New York Fire Department and the New York Police Department. Proceeds from the sale of the $20 shirts go to the fund for the surviving spouses and children. The sales have brought in $60,000.

"I think if anything can be learned from this situation," Policastro said, "it's that everyone can come together and be united."


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Maya Dollarhide is a free-lance journalist in New York City. She is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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