9/11 oral history project: Rafael Orozco

Ralph Orozco, a retired NYPD officer, was supposed Ralph Orozco, a retired NYPD officer, was supposed be in the World Trade Center towers the morning of the 9/11 attacks. These days, Orozco has dedicated himself to his loved ones, church and community. (Aug. 11, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

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When Rafael Orozco retired from the NYPD on Oct. 31, 2003, he walked into his Central Islip home and did something he didn't normally do. He smiled.

"I never used to smile much, to be honest," Orozco, 53, told the interviewer for an oral history project. His daughter, now 23, took a photo to capture the moment.

"To this day she has that picture," he said.

Orozco, whom friends call Ralph, was a detective in community affairs in the Brooklyn North Precinct on Sept. 11, 2001. It was a job that kept him away from his wife and three children. "I was a workaholic, like every other cop," he said.

But the World Trade Center attacks changed that. Now the owner of a vending machine business and a limousine service, he makes sure he goes to all the family get-togethers. He is deeply involved with his church and he serves on the Central Islip School Board. He is even thinking of going into politics.

Several things drove the change. For one, he believes he was spared a certain death. In addition to his police job, his side business in vending machines had a World Trade Center contract at the time and was scheduled to work on them that Tuesday. But that Sept. 11 was a primary election day in the city and Orozco was assigned to work an early-morning shift instead of his usual night shift.

"I got a reprieve," he said.

That morning he watched in shock from a hill in Brooklyn as the planes flew into the towers. Within minutes he and his partner had returned to their command center. There, awaiting orders, they sat watching the first tower fall on television.

"All of a sudden you could hear the officers who were trapped on the radio - they were still alive.

"That was one of the most helpless moments in my life because unless I wore a Superman suit there was no way I was going to take off 110 stories of debris," he said.

He and three other officers sped to the scene, where they clambered over burning debris in air so thick they couldn't see each other as they searched, in vain, for survivors. He worked for 72 hours straight.

For the next four months he was assigned to help keep the area secure and to escort cleanup crews and family members of victims - a job he found emotionally exhausting.

"There's no way to tell a person to stop crying, so you either hold them or cry with them," he said. "The negative aspect is that you take all that grief with you."

It also took a toll on his physical health. He now has respiratory problems, gastroesophageal reflux disease and has a hard time sleeping.

Until last year, he said, he thought about his time at the site every day. "I finally could say, 'Move on, get over it.' "

Now, he said, he is more determined than ever to make the most of the rest of his life.

"No matter what, that incident will not define me."

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