CHRONICLES OF 9/11
Grisly Assignment: Fresh Kills Landfill
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Toya Lane Bowden, then a detective with the NYPD Internal Affairs, now living in Oneonta, was headed to the World Trade Center to drop off her department-issued beeper for repairs.
By first, she stopped by the stationery store in Long Island City to buy ribbon for a friend’s retirement party.
“I heard on the store radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Center,” she said. “I went home, grabbed my bag of equipment and drove into the city. As I was coming over the bridge, I saw the second Tower go down. And I realized, if I hadn’t stopped to buy ribbon, I would probably have been in there.”
A command station was set up under the Manhattan Bridge, and Bowden’s first assignment Ground Zero security. “The air was white,” she said. “You could cut it with scissors, and all we had were these little paper masks. It was surreal, like a post-apocalyptic movie.”
In the next few days, she would receive her main assignment – Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island. “They’d cart in debris and put it on a conveyor belt,” she said. “Or they’d have you in the yard, looking through the twisted metal of the big debris for anything that might be able to identify someone.”
Dressed in a HAZMAT suit, gloves, a gas mask and goggles, Bowden and her colleagues spent between 10-12 hours a day sorting through the wreckage to try and find whatever they could to identify the victims – an identification badge, a police shield, even body parts.
“When we found something, we’d flag a spotter to stop the conveyor belt,” she said. “They’d come and take what we found to the makeshift morgue.”
They were also tasked with looking for “black boxes” from Boeing passenger flights, which were never recovered.
“One of the things that amazed us was that we’d find bags from The Gap, and Gap clothing, completely untouched,” she said. “We would joke that when the apocalypse came, we should all be wearing Gap so we’d be safe.”
The days were long and the job emotionally and physically grueling. “We couldn’t talk to each other through the masks, so we’d all bring in radios and listen to the same station,” she said. “You would see someone dancing a little, and you’d know what song they were dancing to.”
She remembered that Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” was big that year. “When we were in the yard, that song would come on, and we’d be raking to the beat. It took our minds off the task.”
She was at Fresh Kills from September 2001 to February 2002, driving two hours from her home in Suffolk County before taking a 35 minute ride to the top of the landfill for her shift. “I remember the fatigue,” she said. “When I got home, all I could do was elevate my feet.”
But she also remembered the volunteers, including actor Stephen Baldwin, who staffed the relief tents, including a mess hall and a “fresh air” tent.
Bowden retired in 2004 and moved to Oneonta to be closer to her sons, both living at Springbrook. She is now a residential supervisor with Opportunities for Otsego.
She has put much of it behind her, but every so often, she’s reminded of the physical toll First Responders faced. “It’s frightening to go the doctor,” she said. “I had nodules on my thyroid, and I was immediately sent for a biopsy because I had been a First Responder,” she said. “Thankfully it came back clear, but I’m on a Facebook group of people who were there, and I’ve watched so many of them succumb to cancer.”
She has not yet been to the 9-11 memorial, but watched the dedication ceremony on TV.
“What’s missing now is that people don’t have the empathy that they did on that day,” she said. “People were so kind that day, because for that day, we were all Americans.”