Retired Detective from the Bergen County Sherrif's Department and former Fort Lee Battalion Chief Joe Viola said just standing there watching was a horrible feeling.
“The worst thing for an emergency service worker is to stand still and watch," Viola said. "But that’s all we could do on 9/11. We just stood on the roof of the Bergen County Bureau of Criminal Identification Unit in Hackensack and watched as both towers of the World Trade Center burned.”
When he was Battalion Chief of the Fort Lee Fire Department in 1985, Viola had a decision to make. Fulfill a lifelong dream and become a New York City firefighter, or join the Bergen County Sheriff’s department and pursue a career fighting crime.
Ultimately, he chose to join the sheriff’s department, but a large part of his heart remained with the guys he knew who were members of the New York City Fire Department, and it’s in those firehouses that he could often be found. Whether it was Engine 75 Ladder 33 in the Bronx, known as “Animal House,” or Engine 69 in Manhattan, Viola spent a lot of off-duty time across the bridge with friends he was proud to call “brothers.”
On September 11, 2001, Viola was a detective assigned to the Street Gang Unit of the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department. He was on his way to a seminar when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Having stopped by the Hackensack Police Department to pick up another detective who was also scheduled to attend the seminar, he watched as the second plane hit Tower Two.
“I could feel nothing but shock watching those two towers in flames," he siad. "The only other time I remember feeling shock like that was in 1969 when the first birthday they called for the first Vietnam draft lottery was mine.”
Being a seasoned firefighter, Viola knew when he saw the way the towers were spewing jet fuel flames that a lot of firefighters would be lost that day. There was no way that an inch and three-quarter hose was putting out a fire of jet fuel. Those firefighters were on a rescue mission, and they easily saved 20,000 people that day.
“Every firefighter who saw those images that day knew the odds," Viola said. "But we also know that in those situations, you move against the fear. You honor the oath you take to protect life and property at the possible expense of your own. You know the dangers, but there’s no way in hell you’ll ever retreat. You charge forward, with your brothers in gear, and no matter how daunting the task in front of you, you just keep moving forward. Those firefighters who lost their lives on 9/11 saved thousands of lives that day knowing they wouldn’t save their own.”
After the second tower and the Pentagon were hit, it became clear to all of law enforcement that the George Washington Bridge could be a target, and the focus in northern Bergen County was to secure the bridge. All law enforcement members who grew up in Fort Lee and knew the territory well were assigned to secure all roads leading to the bridge, the cliffs of the Palisades and the GWB itself. Viola was one of those people.
“Before my shift at the bridge began I stopped at the (Fort Lee) V.F.W. to visit my dad," he said. "When I saw those World War II veterans watching the television set with tears in their eyes, I got choked up. These guys who lived through an attack on America were living through something worse, and that scared me.”
On the evening of September 11, Detective Viola was assigned to guard the base of the George Washington Bridge, right at Bunty’s Dock. The only company he had were two New York City Police boats from the Marine Unit that were docked in the river.
The bridge had been closed to all traffic, the Hudson River was closed to all recreational and commercial boats, and except for the moon, it was completely dark.
“I remember the darkness," Viola said. "I never knew darkness like that before and I hope I never know it again. I could smell the ash and sulfur, and as dawn rose, I could see the still rising smoke from where the towers stood just hours before.”
Viola recounts the eery silence. A silence so powerful that it actually throbbed in his ears. Standing all alone on the shore of the Hudson, at the base of Bunty’s dock where he and his friends had spent endless summer days crabbing and swimming, standing all alone with nothing but the unnerving silence he realized, “New York was brought to its knees and the whole world was bowing its head in silence.”
In addition to securing the George Washington Bridge, Detective Viola was assigned to the Port Authority for five weeks escorting cargo to Ground Zero. What surprised him most was seeing a Miami Dade heavy rescue truck on Sept. 12.
“I couldn’t believe how fast they got here from Miami," Viola said. "They must have driven non-stop.”
When he wasn’t working 12-hour shifts, Viola spent his days going to funerals.
“It seemed like there would never be an end to the funerals and memorial services," he said. "I spent my days in churches and cemeteries. I knew 17 people who died in the towers that day, one of them was my best friend’s son. It was his first day working as a carpenter in one of the towers. Initially, he made it out, but he went back in to help people. He never came back out again.”
The focus of law enforcement changed after 9/11. For Viola, the focus of his department was shifted from Street Gang Unit to Terrorist Interdiction Unit.
"You can see the change just by looking at the training certificates in my office," he said. "Up until 2001 they were all concentrated on street gangs. After 9/11 it’s all terrorism training.”
And now that 10 years have passed, Viola remembers 9/11 like it's a snapshot frozen in memory. And there's not a day that goes by when he doesn't stop to think about all that was lost and all he has to be thankful for.
“Ten years later, I wonder if the man upstairs had a plan for me," Viola said. "I was torn between taking the job with the FDNY and the Sheriff’s office. Had I gone with FDNY I might have been a part of the crew that went into those towers and never came out. You never know how the decisions you struggle with turn out.”