As members of the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit (ESU), Detectives Robert Zajac and Steven Stefanakos are no strangers to putting themselves in harm’s way and facing off with some of the most dangerous situations the Big Apple has to offer. Trained in multiple disciplines including first aid and rescue work, they put their lives at risk on a daily basis.
Still, nothing haunts their souls quite like the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
For both Zajac and Stefanakos, the ESU is akin to a family that prides themselves on protecting one another, a bond which cannot be easily broken. On 9/11, this full family tree was deployed to help save lives, but in doing so, their unit was forcibly fractured in the worst way imaginably — leaving irreplaceably empty seats in the squad.
When Stefanakos was racing to the World Trade Center that day, he only knew one thing: an aircraft had collided with the building. The full extent of the horror only became known as he approached the scene and a second plane collided.
“Chief [Joseph] Esposito came over the radio — and I never thought I would hear these words — he said: ‘Central ,notify the White House and the Pentagon, we are under attack,’” Stefanakos recalled. “We get to Church and Vessy and at that moment in time we get out of the truck and Chief Esposito came running up to us and said: ‘Hey guys, there is a third plane coming into our airspace and we don’t know what it is’. We actually stopped for a second and heard it coming, it ended up, thank God, being the air national guard from Massachusetts. You actually saw them and then heard them, it was like when they came flying over… it was unbelievably because at first you were scared out of your f**king ass and then these guys come and thank God they are up there.”
This breathtaking instance was just the calamitous beginning of Stefanakos’ day. From that momen,t his team began preparing to enter the South Tower, donning special rappel gear and gathering equipment. But a twist of fate sent him in another direction.
Fellow ESU members Tommy Langone and Paul Talty, who were already outfitted with their gear, told Stefanakos they would switch places.
“Tommy goes, ‘Steff, we will go with John Coughlin, you go do what we were going to do.’ I said, ‘Tommy, are you sure?’ The last words he said to me were ‘I will see you later,’” Stefanakos said.
Tears welled in his eyes as he remembered seeing his brothers in arms for the last time.
Despite everything happening so fast, that moment is etched in his mind, knowing he lost a friend who on the fly switched roles with him.
Stefanakos explained that the following seconds, minutes, and hours were full of heartache and terror — from the unforgettable sound of the Souther Tower falling to rushing through an opaque cloud of white dust. He was not only fighting for his own survival, but he was also racing through the madness to save others.
While Stefanakos left that morning unaware of the full extent of the situation, Zajac had the distinction of knowing exactly what he was heading into.
“We had the luxury to know the full effect, which is quite scary. We knew it was a terrorist attack, it was tough. I was fortunate that day to say goodbye to my wife, to my daughter, and my mother and father … I made it home, Steve made it home, there were a lot of people who didn’t make it home,” Zajac told amNewYork Metro.
Zajac explained that there was also great fear there would be a ground attack in addition to the assault from the air. He was instructed to be equipped with rifles and armored cars. Loading up on a ferry, he was transported through the smoke and the debris. While riding up Broadway, he recalled witnessing the North Tower fall.
At this time, Stefanakos charged through the smoke, and Zajac said he also experienced pandemonium. Getting off the ferry, he saw 40 or 50 people in the water but seeing them was just the tipping point. Zajac found body parts and all manner of macabre remnants of the attack.
Although the day is remembered for the extraordinary loss of life, both detectives like to recount it for all the lives that were saved thanks to the response and recovery effort.
“That was the one bright side of the day. For the upcoming weeks it gave you hope.” Everyone talks about 3,000 people died, these guys performed the greatest rescue in American history, saved 25,000 people. You know, people don’t speak about that enough, it’s a huge number. It’s a huge thing to me, they got to go home have kids, have grandkids,” Zajac said, his eyes welling.
Although the two men experienced some mentally devastating sights, they charge the worst experience to be facing the family members. No matter how exhausted they were, talking with relatives of those still lost spurred them on to keep pushing, to keep working.
“That night — it must have been one or two in the morning — we went to One Police Plaza where a lot of the families were. There is a survival thing there, like why did I make it and why didn’t they? But you owed it to them. They are the most important thing to me about Sept. 11. I am here because two people took my spot going into the towers, and I owe it every day to do my best whatever I do,” Stefanakos said.
With all those who were killed on that day and have passed away since due to 9/11 related illnesses, as men who are still here, still working, they feel as though their time could come at any minute.
“Everyone that we worked with came down with some kind of illness, most 40-or 50-year old’s don’t get these illnesses. I am waiting for the hammer to drop on me, when is my turn? That is always in the back of your mind,” Zajac said.
Despite the hell they went through, both Zajac and Stefanakos say they would do it again tomorrow if it meant saving lives.
“If the bell rang now, we would do it again. It is just who we are,” Zajac said.