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.

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.

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.