A former New York City police officer now living in Winter Garden, Marvin Vasquez talks about being at the World Trade Center when the planes hit, the tough decision he had to make, and how a moment of comfort became an iconic photograph.
Marvin Vasquez was a block away when the first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m.
A 17-year veteran of the New York Police Department, Vasquez was working as a task force officer out of Madison Square Garden. Instead of being assigned a specific precinct, all of Manhattan was his beat. And so on the morning of September 11, 2001, he’d decided he’d start his shift down around the World Trade Center.
“By 6:30 a.m. I was already there,” says Vasquez who now operates a security firm for homeowners associations. “I had my morning coffee at my regular watering hole. So I was just hanging out, enjoying the people in the morning, you know, what New Yorkers do.”
Vasquez’s first thought was that “some dummy in a Cessna didn’t notice the towers because that had happened before.” But as soon as he rolled up in his emergency vehicle, he knew, “This was not a Cessna. The damage was from one corner of the building to the other. You could see the wingspan. This was a big plane.”
As Vasquez looked up, transfixed by the blaze, the smoke pouring from the building, he started to see people climbing onto the window ledges “to get some air, I’m thinking, because you can see a lot of smoke inside,” he says. “Then a lot of them turned to each other, embraced in a compassionate-type hug, and they just held hands and they jumped.”
Vasquez’s mind reeled. He could not fathom what he was seeing. “You go through a lot of emotions at that point: guilt, anger. I remember saying out loud, God, please take them on the way down because I didn’t want them to hurt.
“As a 17-year veteran, working in so many boroughs, involved in a lot of incidents, I was not prepared for this. Carnage wouldn’t even describe what I saw. The carnage was just too much. I didn’t know where to go at that time. Left? Right? Who do I help? Who don’t I help? The people who were jumping were beyond help. I had to concentrate on helping those who were traumatized by what was going on. I just tried to do the best I could.”
Vasquez ran into a deli and grabbed as many bottles of water as he could stuff into his uniform shirt, passing them out to people covered in dust, coughing and trying to get away from the crash site.
That’s when he saw a young father running toward him with his two-year-old on his shoulders.
“The boy was crying hysterically,” Vasquez says. “I took off my protective mask and put it on the little boy to give him some sense of comfort. Then I gave his dad some water. I directed them to go to Battery Park where I knew rescue operations would come through.”
Unbeknownst to Vasquez, photojournalist Mario Tama caught that moment on camera. People magazine published the photo in its September 21, 2001, issue. The image caught the eye of someone at the White House, and Vasquez was invited to the White House by President George W. Bush to be “recognized for the actions I took that day.”
That was exciting. But Vasquez, who worked at Ground Zero for four years after 9/11, was sinking under survivors’ guilt. “There were a lot of emotions involved. I have a lot of colleagues who didn’t make it. I was questioning why I made it. I was questioning God why he even put me there. I was questioning a lot of things and feeling very guilty.”
Finally, he says, he made the “toughest decision of my life.” He admitted that he needed help and sought out a therapist to explain “why I was crying every night and why I wasn’t sleeping.”
Seeking counseling for a mental health issue broke several taboos, Vasquez explains. “It can ruin your career. They say it’s confidential. They say it won’t affect you, but, realistically, it does. And being Hispanic, it’s that whole macho thing. Also, I’m a New York City police officer. I don’t ask for help. We give help. So for me to concede that I needed help was a big milestone. Toughest decision I ever made.
“But the things I, unfortunately, saw that day are beyond embedded. They will never go away. I have to manage it. What a lot of people don’t know is that many first responders committed suicide after 9/11. That’s the trauma that we deal with. Every September 11th is hard, but it becomes more manageable."
If you or anyone you know is thinking about suicide or is in emotional distress, the free National Suicide Lifeline network is available 24/7. Call 800-273-TALK.
En Español: 888-628-9454. Deaf/hard of hearing: dial 711, then 800-273-TALK or use your preferred relay service. The Camaraderie Foundation provides no-cost counseling to all branches of post-9/11 veterans, service members and their families.