One by one, grieving family members of fallen NYPD officers stood outside One Police Plaza on Tuesday morning to collect medals honoring their loves ones during what has become a solemn, yearly ritual.
Among those attending the 90-minute Medal Day ceremony were relatives of NYPD Lt. William Wanser III, of Farmingdale, who died of pancreatic cancer in March 2018 after working at Ground Zero more than 16-years before.
His daughter Kristen said he would have done the recovery work again without hesitation.
“We are very thankful they did something like this for all the officers that were related to 9-11,” said Kristen Wanser, a Sachem High School 11th grader at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center.
“I saw him six hours in two weeks … he would come home and wash his lieutenant’s shirt and go to sleep and go right back at it,” she recalled of her father's days spent at the Ground Zero pile after the attack. “We are all very proud, it is just amazing that everybody is being honored the way they are."
All 47 gold Distinguished Service medal recipients — including at least a dozen from Long Island — died in recent years from illnesses related to the attacks so it was left to their family members to stand in the brisk, unseasonably chilly June sunshine and receive the medals from Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill.
For the family of detective Sixto Almonte, a Bablyon resident when he died in November 2017, the moment particularly touched the crowd which applauded when Almonte’s son Julian embraced his mother Yvonne — who was overcome with emotion — as she was given the award.
“I felt everyone clapped for me,” said Julian Almonte after the ceremony.
The NYPD ceremonial unit escorted each family of those who succumbed to illnesses to receive medals.
“This is one of the most significant days in the year for us because we honor those gave their lives for the people of this city and we also recognize those whose remarkable bravery, instincts and skill carried them through situations that would have panic most other people,” O’Neill told a gathering of hundreds in the plaza outside headquarters. “That is the job and nobody does it better than the NYPD.”
De Blasio urged the crowd to remember those the department lost recently, including Detective Brian Simonsen of Calverton, who was killed during a friendly-fire shootout during an armed robbery in February. He also singled out Sergeant Paul Tuozzolo of Huntington, who was awarded a medal in 2017.
“We remember, on this day, that those that we honor today are part of a history, part of a tradition over a century-and-a-half long and they have upheld this tradition with great honor.”
The NYPD also bestowed 41 others awards, including the highest Medal of Honor, as well as the Police Combat Cross and Medal For Valor in the latest version of a venerable police tradition Fifteen department units were also given special citations for their performance last year.
The Medal of Honor is awarded in cases of bravery in the line of duty in the face of personal danger. It is modeled after the Congressional Medal of Honor and has 12 white stars on a green ribbon, the stars representing the original 12 police constables in the city in the 1700s. The Distinguished Service medal was first issued in 2008 as the mounting toll of September 11 related deaths began to be felt.
Also honored for September 11 work was former chief of detectives William Allee, who died in May 2018.
As he gave a benediction for the crowd assembled in Lower Manhattan on a chilly day, deputy chief chaplain Msg. Robert Romano made a remark in jest to the Almighty: “In case you don’t know, it is June. It could have been a little bit warmer.”
Romano’s comment brought chuckles from the hundreds in what is one of the most poignant days for the department as it marked a tradition which police historians say goes back to 1871.
Medal of Honor recipients involved in the shooting that took Tuozzolo’s life in November 2016 included Lt. Emmanuel Kwo, Sgt. Arvid Flores and Officer Elwin Martinez.
Tuozzolo was fatally wounded during attempts to apprehend Manuel Rosales, who had threatened his own family. During a chase and shootout, in which the suspect fatally wounded Tuozzolo, officers Martinez and Flores returned fire and killed Rosales. Kwo was wounded in his left leg during the exchange of gunfire.
Tuozzolo was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2017. His widow Lisa, accompanied by their two son, was present at Tuesday’s ceremony.
O’Neill reminded the crowd that officers may go through their entire careers without facing true danger but have to be prepared nevertheless to face it.
“What had been a normal day could become that day, you find yourself wondering when that day comes, when that call comes over the radio how will I respond,?” O’Neill asked.