Retired Fort Lee Chief of Police Thomas Tessaro smiled as he recounted a memory from that fateful day, Sept. 11, 2001.
"We instructed everyone to drop their weapons into the box before they boarded the bus," Tessaro said. "We told them they would all have immunity as long as they removed from their bodies all weapons. You can’t even imagine the things we collected in that box."
Almost immediately after the planes hit the World Trade Center, all traffic was closed to the George Washington Bridge, and Fort Lee police came out in full force to redirect traffic away from the bridge. But Tessaro also had to deal with a traffic problem of a different sort.
"Thousands of people were congregating at Bridge Plaza because everyone was letting their employees go home early," he said. "People don’t realize that most of the people who work in Fort Lee’s hotels, diners, food stores and restaurants live across the bridge in Washington Heights. We had to somehow figure out a way to get them back into the city because there was no way we could house them all. So we commandeered some buses, collected weapons and sent them home across an empty bridge."
It’s stories like this that don’t make it to the evening news. Stories like this that resonate with people eager to know how we, as a community, ever made it back to normal. Stories like this--when the Chief of Police of the little town that houses the busiest bridge in the world collects weapons from people in good faith, while making sure that these very same people are safely transported home.
Chief Thomas R. Tessaro had just returned from his daughter’s wedding down the shore when he learned that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
“I was getting ready to go into headquarters when I heard on the radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Center,” Tessaro said. “I immediately got in my car and headed to headquarters. That’s when the second plane hit. From my office window, I could see the rising smoke from the fires burning in both towers.”
It became immediately apparent that the Port Authority had suffered many casualties at the World Trade Center; Tessaro and his department stepped in and became a vital support network for the Port Authority that day and for many days that followed.
Tessaro, along with his liason Jan Goldberg, the late Mayor Jack Alter, and the chiefs of all the emergency service units in Fort Lee, coordinated security and assistance efforts with the Port Authority, the county and state police and every agency in between.
"The truth was that we didn’t even know what we were really securing; Nobody did," Tessaro said. "Nobody knew what was actually happening. We were all working together trying to create a plan of action for we didn’t know what."
Chief Tessaro was born and raised on lower Main Street in Fort Lee. Graduating from “Our Lady of Fatima” grammar school (before it became “Madonna” and then “Christ the Teacher”) and Don Bosco, class of 1960, he had a short stint with the Fort Lee Post Office before joining the ranks of the Fort Lee Police Department.
It was on 9/11 that the Fort Lee Police Department patrolled and secured the bridge.
"My team was out there training on that bridge in order to fully secure it," Tessaro said. "They were climbing cables and getting familiar with all the different aspects of the bridge preparing for anything they may be called upon to do."
At one point durning the day, while driving through town with Councilman Jan Goldberg, Tessaro noticed a Westwood Police Car directing traffic on one of the roads in Fort Lee.
"The level of cooperation that day was incredible. Every police department came to assist us,” he said.
Tessaro attended many daily briefing meetings at Port Authority headquarters in Fort Lee.
"Heads of all the emergency services units and agencies would be there so we could all know what the immediate task at hand was," he said. "Don’t forget, we not only had to protect the George Washington Bridge, but we had other vital businesses in town like the phone company."
Although the George Washington Bridge was a primary concern for law enforcement, Tessaro says that all points of entry were patrolled.
"With the number of commercial trucks that cross that bridge every day, you don’t have to harm the bridge to damage the economy," he said. "All you have to do is disrupt or damage a ramp, an overpass or any road leading to the bridge, and you can cripple the economy of the entire eastern seaboard."
In the midst of all the madness, Tessaro learned that some of the Port Authority commanders who lost their lives at the World Trade Center were men with whom he had trained as he made his way up through the ranks.
"That made what happened real," he said. "Knowing that these men were gone, and here I was in their headquarters giving orders."
Ten years later Tessaro says he can never forget the level of volunteerism that permeated Fort Lee on 9/11.
"Everybody wanted to help and everybody did," he said. "That’s what I can never forget."
Tessaro often plays tour guide for his family when they come to visit from out of town.
"Every time I drove them across the bridge, I’d point out the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers," Tessaro said. "Now there’s a hole in the horizon where the towers once stood.”