9/11 oral history project: Christine Famiglietti

Christine Famiglietti, of Bay Shore, carries the physical Christine Famiglietti, of Bay Shore, carries the physical and mental scars of her work at Ground Zero after the attacks. To this day, Famiglietti, a retired NYPD officer, is worried and prepared for another attack. (Aug. 10, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

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Christine Famiglietti said she always lights a candle - either red or blue - on Sept. 11 and hangs the American flag outside her Bay Shore home.

"Especially on a beautiful day," she said, recalling the cerulean blue morning when the towers fell.

The retired NYPD officer, 49, said she has other reminders of that day and the months after: her ill health and her readiness to escape if another terrorist attack comes.

"I'm a little more jumpy, a little more prepared," she told the interviewer for the oral history project. "I have a little cabin in the mountains that's stocked up. It's that weird."

Famiglietti, a street cop in the 113th Precinct in South Jamaica, Queens, had just returned home from her midnight-to-8-a.m. shift when a friend called her about the planes flying into the World Trade Center.

She immediately packed a bag and called her parents in Florida. Driving her truck back into the city, she decided to stop by her precinct, where she knew there were batteries, lanterns and other supplies. She soon found herself with 25 other police officers on a "war bus," stocked with Meals Ready to Eat, body bags and other supplies. The bus drove around Queens for about 12 hours.

"I guess they were waiting for another attack," she said. "We were like horses at the gate. It was frustrating. But they didn't want us all down there and have no cops [left]."

After a return home and a short nap, she was back at work for the 4-a.m.-to-4-p.m. shift. That Wednesday morning she found herself at the World Trade Center site.

"Nobody spoke," she said. "We can see the firemen and cops, see their eyes, like hollowed-out eyes, like they have no souls."

They were told to try to find survivors. There were none. "The first thing I saw was an entire body burned into rebar," she said, referring to the reinforced steel bars used in buildings. She then picked up what she thought was a woman's handbag. Instead, she said, it was the top of a skull, the hair burned into a solid mass.

That first day she worked 27 hours. On Friday, the sergeant she had gone to the site with was killed in Queens trying to intercede in a domestic dispute. The mental health counselors were at a loss, she said, to handle this tragedy on top of the large numbers of dead at the World Trade Center. "The counselors said, 'We don't even know what to tell you at this point. We don't have an answer.' "

For the next eight months, her shift was two days on patrol in Queens and two 16-hour shifts at Ground Zero.

Those days took their toll on everyone, even the rescue dogs. "The dogs were getting depressed because they weren't finding survivors," she said. One day she and others volunteered to hide in the rubble. "The dogs started barking, and life came back to the place and everybody started clapping," Famiglietti said.

Her health suffered. During those eight months she began taking over-the-counter antacids and inhalers to help relieve her gastroesophageal reflux disease and breathing problems.

She said she decided to retire in 2006 after responding to a shootout in Queens. "It was time," she said.

The next year she ended up in the hospital after she collapsed, unable to breathe. Many of her days now are spent visiting doctors. Asked if she would do it all over again, she was quick to answer: "I would do it again."

"But," she added, "I don't think I could."

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