Vertel Martin, an associate professor of criminal justice and co-coordinator of the Criminal Justice Program at Northampton Community College, was the investigative coordinator of the 9-11 NYPD Missing Persons Task Force.
She was well qualified to handle the position. A graduate of the FBI National Academy, she served as a lieutenant with the New York City Police Department, from which she retired in 2002. But nothing could prepare a person for such an incredibly difficult task at hand after 9-11.
As a leader of 100 officers, Martin mustered her squad to rescue and recover victims. They conducted a protracted inquiry and investigation in order to account for the status of the more than 7,000 people who were originally reported missing.
Following are her personal observations on that most critical time in American history.
Q: How were you personally affected by Sept. 11?
A: I label my own state of being today as "wound-struck." Back then, I created a protective shell around myself in order to accomplish the mission. I called upon my lifetime's supply of experience, training and education to go on.
Q: What was your daily schedule like right after the attack?
A: At 4 a.m. daily, I would arise, put on my uniform, firearm, body armor and radio and hit the street towards the confines of Ground-Zero. Often, especially in the first few days, I stopped to help other officers or first-responders with operational problems and snags.
Although the initial hours were helter-skelter, the lock-down of the city occurred relatively quickly. External roadways and arteries to Manhattan were sealed off or otherwise secured. Access and egress to the city had to be controlled for security and to facilitate emergency operations.
I'd arrive to the work site between 5 and 6 a.m. We would begin working on what we called "the list." Each name represented an invaluable member of humanity. Each mattered dearly to someone.
We treated each name with the dignity and respect due a VIP. We'd chip away at the list bit- by- bit. I'd provide daily briefings and an accounting to the executive corps.
We'd sustain ourselves with natural energy drinks and food-to-go as we executed our tasks in non-stop mode. A constant line of investigators reported their findings to me ("Found, Confirmed/Verified, Unverifiable, or Fraud"). Then, they would take on a new case.
I maintained and updated a large tally board in my office because I had to keep the numbers up-to-the-minute current in order to accurately respond to the official inquiries.
Late at night, the board was displayed for all Task Force investigators to see before we ceased our daily operation. It was a double-edged sword; it served as a reminder of all that we were accomplishing, but it also indicated how much work still remained to be done.
I recall my break-away message to investigators. I'd have to wrench them from their investigations to tell them to go home and rest. I'd say, "The citizens are depending on US!"
Q: And your team took their work home?
A: Many investigators worked their cases when they got home, and they'd gleefully report "findings" when they arrived at work the next morning. They were unbelievably dedicated and committed civil servants. They displayed a tenacious endurance in spite of the most extreme provocation to act otherwise.
Q: What did you do when you got back home?
A: I would arrive home late in the evening, and vent and eat. I'd fall into a tumultuous sleep with the remaining seemingly endless number of "unsolved" missing persons cases on my mind.
Q: And what got you through it all?
A: The support and understanding of my immediate family members, and a small group of close friends helped me to forge ahead. They provided me with the nurture that I needed to keep up the pace, even though I was remiss in tending to their needs during these most difficult times. My city and my country needed me. I could not stop to tend to my own loved ones. I had to accomplish what I knew would probably be my final mission.
Another source of inspiration was that everyday, regardless of the hour, groups of civilians assembled on street corners or on the centered roadway dividers along the route to Ground-Zero, and they literally cheered and waived American flags as our "official vehicles" proceeded to, or exited from, the restricted-access areas. I readily admit that these citizens provided the last "sight and sound" energizing stimulation that I gulped down and digested before I entered the ominous zone.
Q: How did your team handle the stress?
A: The stress of the times rarely, but occasionally, broke down an investigator's psychological and/or physiological defenses. I'd have to send him or her home, or to a hospital. Most would return to duty in short order, more committed than ever. Miraculously, only a few were unable to go on.
Over their objections, I'd have to order them to do what was necessary for them to recuperate. I would praise them for their heroic services, and tell them to hurry up and get well because we needed them back in the trenches. There would be a time of silence and reflection in investigators' cubicles immediately after one of these losses.
I didn't just pray for the speedy recovery of my colleague; I also prayed for the strength to go on. I knew that at anytime I could falter.
Q: Was there a time that you did falter?
A: I did stumble once. On one occasion when an investigator had taken ill and had been whisked away in an ambulance, I went to take a short break outside, on a street corner, when it hit me.
The usual sirens and turret lights were in gear; the persistent, yet by then, familiar foul odor of burnt everything; the eerie absence of regular civilians just walking around; everyone present having some life-saving or sustaining purpose; the ash-heavy dark clouds that hung relentlessly over the scene.
A flashback to day one occurred in sudden onset. Weeks after that day of infamy, I experienced what I call a personal "tremor." I yelled at myself and prayed for the ability to continue to discipline and control myself physiologically and psychologically.
I asked, "Was this my time? Was I going to have a heart attack before my work was done?"
I fought off the tremor with every bit of my being.
Finally, it passed, just as quickly as it had arrived. I looked around, somewhat startled, but I was still standing. I checked my watch, briskly returned to the Task Force headquarters, picked up the telephone and called the commander of another unit and requested one of her "most talented" investigators to replace my own, who had been hospitalized.
It was well known that department heads came to dread my calls because it meant that I was calling to deplete their already strained pool of available personnel.
Nonetheless, this delicate work had to move forward. And it did, long after I retired from this noble profession.