Next to the metal detector inside One Police Plaza is a radio blaring Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Fifty feet down the hallway, inside the building’s redbrick auditorium, is a terrible silence. A painting of a police officer shielding a child looms above the stage used to bestow promotions, commendations, medals for heroism. This morning, the Day After, the stage is empty. People are slumped forward in the rows of hard metal seats. They are huddled in groups of three, four, five, their shoulders shrouded in coarse gray blankets. These are the families of the missing cops.
Father Peter Colapietro treads gently through the room. It’s been a dreadful morning – he’s just learned that a fellow priest has been killed and another who lived opposite the World Trade Center is missing. But that’s personal; his job is to comfort others. Some people hug him, hard; some cry into his black shirt; others don’t want to see him at all, treating his very presence as a bad omen. Anxious to cover all spiritual bases, police chaplain Father Bob Romano and Rabbi Harry Berkowitz organized the group of four Roman Catholic priests, two rabbis, one Protestant minister, and an imam.
One of the first people to approach Colapietro is the father of a missing Emergency Services cop. He shakes his head slowly as he describes the extension his son just finished adding to his home in Wantagh. And the 2-week-old daughter inside that home. “If my son dies this way,” the man says quietly, “he goes to Heaven, doesn’t he, Father?” Colapietro nods. “Yeah, he’s a martyr,” he reassures him. “He gave up his life for other people. He’s a martyr.”
Colapietro is trying to hold on to a sliver of his pre-tragedy schedule, as both his duty and an affirmation that life and hope will go on. That evening, he dashes back to his parish, Holy Cross Church on West 42nd Street, to lead a wedding rehearsal. But before he can strap on his clerical collar and race back downtown, a call comes into the rectory: A close buddy from his seminary days, who later quit, is missing. Father Peter’s confident, six-foot, 200-pound bearing seems to deflate.
A garrulous man, Colapietro grew up in the blue-collar Bronx. These days, he’s equally at home at Elaine’s or among his many struggling immigrant parishioners. Particularly on his mind today is the prankster cop who, as best man at his brother’s wedding, handed him bullets instead of the wedding rings; then there’s his pal Tom, with whom Colapietro, as a young man, tended bar in the Hamptons and who is now a firefighter. And “the kids” he knows at Cantor Fitzgerald from his days working on the Upper East Side. When I ask this loquacious man how he’s holding up, all that comes out of his mouth is “Mmmph.”
He removes his glasses and tears course down his cheeks. He pauses. “As a priest, you’re supposed to react in a different way,” he says. “But you know, ah, you love these people. They aren’t just somebody who said, ‘Hey, will you baptize my kid?’ These are people you hung with, people you grew up with. These are people from home.”
He lights another Merit, gathers himself, tries to return to the big picture. “We’re just scratching the surface now. We have no idea what the next few days and weeks and months hold for us. We have no clue. And I’m worried. We’re not equipped for this. We’re not equipped for this in any way.”