On Sept. 10, 2001, New York Police Department officer James McEniry was at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn teaching a class in chemical emissions. The lifelong East Meadow resident and East Meadow firefighter was a member of the specialized New York Police Department Emergency Service Unit, as were the men he was training. The next day, 14 ESU officers died at the World Trade Center. Nine were in the class, including Sgt. Michael Curtain.
McEniry is a 1983 graduate of W. T. Clarke High School. Two days after graduation, he joined the Marines and left for boot camp. He served active duty for five years before becoming a police officer in 1994. Curtain had served in the Marines with McEniry.
“My job for 29 years in emergency service was to go to every kind of disaster, planes, car crashes,” he said. “And I belonged to a [Federal Emergency Management Agency] team too, so I was trained, but how do you train for something like 911?”
McEniry, 55, joined the EMFD in 1986, serving as a captain twice for Engine Co. No. 1. A longtime member, he was active before Sept. 11. He said being a firefighter was critical to his survival that day.
On the morning of Sept. 11, he was in Garden City at a Marine reserve training. When he heard that a plane had hit one of the towers, he drove straight to his office in Queens, but had to turn around and go back.
“I was on the phone with Mike [Curtain] at 8 o’clock in the morning before the towers fell,” McEniry said. “He wanted me to bring him two Marine T-shirts, but I forgot them. I knew that would be the first thing he would ask for when I saw him, so I went back. So, I was delayed in leaving for the World Trade Center. If I hadn’t forgotten the T-shirts, I would have died there, too.”
When he arrived at his Queens office, he immediately left for Manhattan, with orders to perform a roof operation at one of the towers. But while driving there, he got a call from the chief to abort the operation because no one was on either roof at the trade center, likely because the doors were locked, McEniry said.
He parked his car at Stuyvesant High School, three blocks from the trade center. Then, wearing 40 pounds of gear, he ran down the West Side Highway toward the burning towers. When he was a half-block away, he spotted people jumping from the towers. “I thought it was pieces of metal, objects from the buildings,” he said. “When I realized it was people, I realized I had to look up to be sure I didn’t get hit.”
When the South Tower collapsed, he recalled the deafening noise. He was safe, though, because the North Tower was in front of him. Unable to see what happened, McEniry said he thought only a few floors had fallen, never imagining that the entire building had collapsed.
He made his way to the North Tower. A minute before he walked in, a police sergeant yelled that the building was coming down. “When the building fell, I heard a rumble, and it was like it was all in slow motion. For the first couple of seconds, I couldn’t comprehend that the building was coming down,” he said. “Then I dove under a fire truck and got blasted with debris. I couldn’t open my eyes. They were caked shut.”
Crawling out from under the truck, he realized he was at the rear of the fire truck. Feeling his way to reach the front, he hit a solid object. “It was a wall from the trade center, which I thought was weird,” he said. “Then I realized the whole thing fell right in front of me on the West Side Highway.”
When he opened his eyes, he saw a light through the thick clouds of dust that surrounded him and then one of his sergeants. They ran to 6 World Trade, the U.S. Customs House, to rescue a few police who were on the roof of the building, which had remained upright. Half of his team had been killed when the towers fell. Mike Curtain was among the dead.
McEniry couldn’t tolerate the pain in his eyes any longer, so he returned to his command post and then the hospital. His eyes were washed out and drops were applied. Forty minutes later, he left the hospital in time to see 7 World Trade, which had been burning for hours, fall.
He immediately joined the search-and-rescue efforts. With K-9 dogs, listening tubes and cameras, McEniry took part in an advanced search deep into the rubble over the area where the customs building had been.
“It was chaos. The area was still on fire, the steel and concrete, and there were bright red hot beams,” he said. “I didn’t see any furniture or personal effects, but we did find the body of a civilian.”
Then he scoured areas where people were reportedly trapped, but he found no one. “We were numb and tried to do the best we could,” he said. “At first I thought with the history of building collapses, I hoped that people would be in a void and survive, but my hope faded after a week went by and then two.”
McEniry worked at the site 15 hours a day until May, but then he was called to other operations, including the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in the Rockaways in October 2001, which was overshadowed by the events of 9/11, he said. He left to serve in Iraq and then Afghanistan for three years after he finished his work at ground zero.
He retired from the Marine Corps reserves in October 2012 and as a first-grade NYPD detective in July 2019.
Aside from issues with his eyes, McEniry said he feels fine, and lucky. He tries to focus on the positive moments of Sept. 11. “When I think of the guys, the ones we lost, I think of the funny things we did together,” he said.
He remains thankful for the help he received from volunteers, and he said he remembers the support by everyday people. “I remember going to the World Trade Center on the West Side Highway and all of these people were waving flags. It didn’t matter if it was day or night. They were so passionate,” he said. “Seeing them before and after was uplifting. Everyone was sticking together back then.”