From ashes of attacks rises compassion and cooperation | VailDaily.com
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From ashes of attacks rises compassion and cooperation

Geraldine Haldner

But from the devastation and death at Ground Zero in New York City, the smoking wing of the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and the scorched cornfield in Pennsylvania, a new confidence and sense of cooperation has risen and reached even this peaceful and serene valley of ours, local law enforcement officers say.

“I sat there and I was mad,” says Vail Patrol Officer Steve Erickson, of the moment that rattled and nearly destroyed America’s self-assured attitude.

Erickson was off that fateful day, but his wife, a dispatcher, called him and like millions of others, he pushed the remote and remained glued to the television, paralyzed by the peril played out before him.

“I watched all day,’ says the 18-year law enforcement veteran.

The same fear hit at the police station in Vail.

“I watched until I was tired and couldn’t watch no more,” says Moses Gonzales, a code enforcement officer with the town of Vail, who first caught a glance of the smoking north tower of the World Trade Center at the police department’s regular 7 a.m. briefing.

The tower had been hit 14 minutes earlier and the initial reports were still hopeful that the event was accidental. The television in the window-less briefing room at the Vail Police Department remained on, broadcasting the solemn new reality that America was now under attack at home.

“It was unbelievable, it looked like a movie. I had a really hard time comprehending what was going on,” Gonzales remembers. “It was just so surreal,”

Shock to the system

Sept. 11 was mostly quiet in Vail in terms of parking tickets and other minor violations, but it did include a medical call that ended in a man dying from a brain aneurysm, Gonzalez said.

More than 1,800 miles east, people were dying by the thousands in the rubble of two 110-story towers that had once been the symbol of the country’s business prominence.

In all, 2,786 are believed to have died in New York that day, another 184 lost their lives at the Pentagon, and 40 perished in a field in Pennsylvania.

Of them, 366 were emergency and rescue workers including firefighters and police officers.

The effect was immediate, far reaching and for the most part has stayed steady, Vail officers say.

“We suddenly had people supporting us in our jobs. All of a sudden there wasn’t that much negativity towards us anymore,” says Jim Applegate, a Vail field training officer.

Not that Vail cops are viewed with much antagonism, but law enforcement scandals – from the Rodney King incident to the Rampart scandal in L.A. – had their effects on the men and women wearing blue and beige.

“It was the first time people stopped before talking to a cop and said, “Do I have something negative to say?'” says Erickson, who remembers that in the days following Sept. 11, his work climate changed noticeably.

“People are a lot nicer, there are more smiles, more hellos when we walk around in the village,” he adds “More people now acknowledge us with a smile when we say hello to them.”

“It has changed people’s perspective of what I do,” says Vail Code Enforcement Officer Jennifer Rosely, who has worked for the Vail Police Department for five years. “I think there has been more respect since. I think respect for police officers was on the downgrade for a long time.”

The events of Sept. 11, officers say, showed people that police officers are human too.

“It’s always been that firefighters are here to help and cops are here to hassle you. When people see a cop they keep their eyes down,” says Erickson. “I think people realized from what they saw that we do emergency rescues too. They saw how many cops died there and that we are people too.”

Emotional wilderness

Following the tragedy as it unfolded in the days after the attack brought home feelings as wide-ranging as the effects the attack had.

While the Vail Valley’s sky remained blue and clear and void of any planes, while valley residents lined up to give blood or get their car washed for donations, Vail police officers’ thoughts turned to their fellow officers in New York and the idea that they could be facing the same.

“The reality that you can die is always there,” Erickson says when asked if Sept. 11 reinforced the inherent risk of the career he has chosen.

But Rosely says the enormous death tolls, the empty fire houses and empty seats in police briefing rooms, stunned her – especially since Vail police just five months earlier had lost one of their own.

Vail Police Officer Ryan Cunningham, 27, died while investigating a traffic accident on Interstate 70, May 6, 2001. Jumping out of the way of an oncoming truck, he fell over a bridge railing to his death.

“We lost one officer here and seeing all these fellow officers putting up their lives in New York, brought that feeling of losing Ryan back to me,” Rosely says. “We lost one, I can’t imagine what it feels like to lose whole shifts.”

While respect is nice and Vail, save for a few anthrax scares, remained untouched, Vail officers say the events of Sept. 11, as well as the Columbine school shooting and the Oklahoma bombing, have changed how they train and what is expected of them in the case of a disaster – man-made or natural.

“Going in blindly is required of us,” says Applegate, with Erickson explaining that prior to some of these tragedies, law enforcement officers “used to have that mental philosophy that you hold back until you know what you are dealing with.”

“Now we are expected to just go,” Applegate says. “We have come to realize that you just have to do that and don’t have time to think about it.”

A frightened valley

While evil of enormous proportions beset America as a nation, much good has come has sprung from the wake of the attacks, police officers and dispatchers at the Vail Communication Center say.

Beth Dobransky was working in the days following the attack, taking calls from people in emergencies as she had done for four 10-hour shifts every week for the last 10 years.

Though she multi-tasks between split-screens with never wavering stoicism and politeness, she says the aftermath injected more human emotions into flows of calls to the center and required more than efficiency and fast reflexes.

“I remember this one lady out in East Vail, who was struggling,” she says. “Suddenly there were calls, where we weren’t just taking calls, but taking care of callers.”

Dispatchers, who are required to know and dispense knowledge about everything from first aid to the region’s geographical layout, suddenly found themselves learning more about things like anthrax and other biological hazards that can be used in domestic warfare.

Though none of the calls they received in the months following Sept. 11 substantiated the existence of any dangerous substances in Vail or neighboring communities, they had to keep a clear head when people were scared and increasingly suspicious.

“We saw an increase in calls, because things didn’t look right,” Audrey Gulick, a Vail dispatcher for 14 years says of local examples of the “vigilance” President Bush had asked Americans to display in the weeks and months following the attack.

Coming together

Aside from vigilance and suspicion, Americans have also become closer as a nation, closing gaps caused by distance, age and prejudice.

Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger, who took the position at the helm of the town’s police department five months after the attacks, says he is seeing team-work between law enforcement agencies that previously tried their best to ignore each other, all in the name of national security.

“I think that the level of cooperation between agencies has improved 100 percent,” he says. “Especially the FBI has really reached out to try to help us and other police agencies understand and help people alleviate fears.”

Gonzales says that Sept. 11 in his eyes has helped people of several different generations to understand each other better.

“Our generation had never had anything like this happen,” he says. “I think it give us a new understanding for what our parents experienced with Pearl Harbor. We were attacked again. We had been so sheltered. Wars are always somewhere else. Suddenly we realized we are vulnerable here at home,” he says.

Feelings of vulnerability soon gave way to feelings of helplessness with people here experiencing the effects of Sept. 11 despite being thousands of miles from the impact. Erickson says the attacks brought a nation together in tragedy.

“In a way I think before 9-11, we tended to think regionally. Even though we are so far away, the attack made us appreciate a place like New York City a lot more. No matter if you are in LA, Chicago or here, we realized we are all Americans,” says Erickson. “We are all part of the same country.”

Most of all, the tragedy of Sept. 11, brought out the best in individuals.

Gonzales’ daughter, Tracy Gonzales, was inspired to volunteer in Minturn for the Eagle River Fire Protection District.

She has since passed her initial tests and is on her way to become a full-fledged firefighter, her father says.

“You always worry, of course,” Gonzales says. “But I’m real proud of her.”

Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at ghaldner@vaildaily.com


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