Saving Don Sadowy

It was Sept. 12, 2001. After one of the most disastrous events in American history, it was time for Don Sadowy to contact his family to let them know that he had survived. When it was time to dial, though, he paused and began to cry.

“I couldn’t remember my own home phone number” Sadowy said.

The then senior specialist for Merrill Lynch security had suffered serious trauma from the collapse of the Twin Towers and could not recall where he lived or how to get in contact with his family.

It marked the beginning of a long road to normalcy for the now 52 year-old St. John’s public safety officer.

Sadowy, a retired New York Police Department bomb squad detective, served as one of the lead investigators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He has been featured in numerous documentaries and texts, including a 2001 History Channel special. Breaking protocol (and almost getting thrown off from the investigation as a result), Sadowy dug through piles of rubble in the sub-basement of the World Trade Center.

Just two days after the bombing, Sadowy successfully recovered a piece of the van frame that had carried the bomb, a piece of evidence that proved vital in the prosecutor’s case against the bombers.

After retiring from the bomb squad, Sadowy took an executive job with Merrill Lynch early in 2001. On Sept. 11, he and a fellow supervisor were scheduled to take a computer course at Pace University.

“It was going to be kind of a fluff day,” Sadowy said.
Or so he thought.

After the first plane hit the North tower of the World Financial Center, Sadowy volunteered to leave his Merrill Lynch office and cross the street to assist the authorities at the World Trade Center. When the second plane hit the South Tower, Sadowy and a group of more than a dozen authorities realized that this was no accident; this was an act of terrorism.

Avoiding falling debris and jumpers seeking escape from the extreme heat in the upper floors of the South Tower, Sadowy cautiously headed back to his office to help his colleagues evacuate the building.

As Sadowy carefully headed down Church Street, the South Tower began to buckle and screech in a noise he describes as “metal screaming.” The South Tower began to collapse from above the point of impact and Sadowy and surrounding pedestrians began to run for their lives.

Rushing for protection towards what Sadowy describes as a “short, stubby fire truck,” two men followed suit. As the three men jolted for cover, one of the men was killed instantly by a large piece of glass that had fallen from the South Tower.

“It cut him right in half like a guillotine,” Sadowy said. I remember the look on the guy’s face…it was one of horror and disbelief. I saw his insides and his legs go forward and his torso go in another direction, and the look on his face. His body was severed in half.”

After diving onto the back of the truck, which was tucked under a pedestrian walkway, and curling up under some fire hose, the third pedestrian hurried closely behind Sadowy’s tracks. He too was killed when he became engulfed in a cloud of debris before he could reach the truck.

Thinking death was at his doorstep, Sadowy was heavily pelted with debris and was taken for a brutal ride as the fire truck jolted in every direction as if a “three year old was shaking his toy fire truck,” Sadowy said.

When the tidal wave of debris ended and the South Tower had completely collapsed, Sadowy began to laugh hysterically. There was nothing funny about this disaster; rather, Sadowy reveled in the joy that he was still alive.

“I just got finished doing some serious talking to God,” Sadowy said. “Next thing I know, I’m alive. I made it. I started to giggle uncontrollably.”

Feeling the affects of the falling debris, Sadowy slowly got himself up and wrapped his neck and face with his shredded suit jacket. He raised his hand in front of his face, only to see nothing but grey.

“I thought, ‘I’m blind,” Sadowy said. “I can’t see. But then I told myself, ‘relax, you’re alive and you’re okay.'”

Sadowy could feel something on his arm as he checked his body for any cuts or other serious injuries. As he soon realized, his eyes, mouth, ears, and nose were filled with cement dust. He wasn’t blind; he was just in the middle of the thickest dust cloud imaginable.

“My initial reaction was to run,” Sadowy said. “After I calmed down, though, I realized that I couldn’t breathe very well and that I was beginning to suffocate. I needed to get away from the dust. I entered the back of the fire truck and jammed the door shut with some of my tattered clothing. I just waited there hoping for someone to rescue me.”

Sadowy explained that it became increasingly hard to think once inside the truck, as the cement dust continued to pour into his lungs, suffocating oxygen from getting to his brain. Again, it looked as if Don Sadowy was about to meet his maker.

“This was just too ironic,” Sadowy said. “I had served in the marine corpse for four and a half years and as a cop for over 20 years. I lived a dangerous life by choice. I planned on retiring now as a civilian and I’m going to die like this?”

For Sadowy, death seemed too real.

“I went unconscious for I don’t know how long,” Sadowy said. “Next thing I knew, I had fallen out of the truck and I heard two muffled voices talking very calmly. I thought they were angels bringing me to God to be judged for all the bad stuff I had done in my life.”

Much to the delight of Sadowy, these were angels of a different nature. Two firefighters scanned the abandoned truck before noticing Sadowy’s waving left hand emerge from the piles of debris. He was rushed over to a few EMTs who would attempt to remove the dust from his affected orifices.

When the second tower began to fall, though, everyone ran, leaving a crippled Sadowy again hopeless. Retired lieutenant Ray O’Hagan, who lost his firefighter brother in the disaster, would soon help him back to a local high school. Sadowy was then taken to a nearby Merrill Lynch office for refuge from the smoke and dust that plagued his lungs.

Don Sadowy had survived. Twice.

Three-and-a-half months of counseling and 18 months of physical therapy followed as Sadowy attempted to recover from what he describes as the “Pearl Harbor of our generation.”
“This was a devastating attack not just on our city, but on our entire country,” Sadowy said.

To this day, Sadowy struggles with physical ailments, including asthma, lung damage, and acid reflux. Spiritually, however, he seems to be healing well.

“After Sept. 11, I needed some answers, so I spoke to a clergyman,” Sadowy explained. “I wanted to know why God saved me.”

The priest Sadowy spoke to challenged him with a question. “He asked me ‘what are you going to do with your second chance?” Sadowy said.

Five years later, Sadowy wants to remember his lost friends and continue to move on with his life. Now a public safety officer at St. John’s, he is focused on putting his two children through college.

“I miss it,” Sadowy said, alluding to his time in the line of fire. “My daughter tells me “Daddy, I’m glad you did everything you did for this country, but I’m also glad that you’re not doing that any more.”

Sadowy said he still speaks to God like he did so fervently and desperately on Sept. 11.

“I used to go to church for my kids and I kind of went through the motions,” Sadowy said. “Now I have such a huge faith in God. It took a building falling on me to wake me up.”