By Special Guest Writer Captain Christian Gulotta (Ret.)
I recently retired from a 25-year career as a Captain in the NYPD, I was hired as a police officer in New York City in 1998. As I meet people from around the country who are part of the public safety community, I frequently get asked about what it was like to be a New York City Police Officer on September 11th, 2001.
When people ask me this question, I feel very uneasy and anxious. Last September, I was at a leadership conference, and a presenter played a 911 phone call of someone who was trapped in the World Trade Center, and I calmly walked out of the room. I will never listen to that phone call.
But throughout my career, there is one radio run that I have never forgotten, an event that took place after September 11th that had nothing to do with a terrorist attack. This story was not newsworthy, and to the average first-responder it might not even be memorable, but it’s an event that I’ll never forget.
One day in mid-October 2001, I was assigned to patrol in my precinct on the day tour. Just to give context to this story, I was a police officer in the 23rd Precinct, Spanish Harlem, located in northern Manhattan, which is a 15–20-minute drive downtown to the World Trade Center. It was a very big deal to me to be assigned to patrol on this particular day, because it was the first time since 9/11 that I was not assigned to work at the WTC or some other duty that was 9/11 related. It was a clear and beautiful sunny day too, just like it was a few weeks earlier on September 11th.
At about 11:00 a.m. my partner and I were dispatched to a wellness check in front of a 4-5 story walk-up residential apartment building. Upon arrival, we met an older Italian couple from Staten Island. They explained to us that their son, and his six-month old daughter (their granddaughter), lived in this apartment building, and that they normally speak to their son every day, but they hadn’t heard from him in three days, and they were very concerned.
We started asking some questions. I asked them where the baby’s mother was, and they explained that she was a crackhead and that she was out of the picture. Leading to the next question, I politely asked, “OK, so what’s your son’s story?”, to which the parents replied that he had a drug habit, but since the baby was born, they believed he was clean and sober.
We all walked up a narrow old staircase to their son’s apartment which was on the second floor. We knocked on the door, and of course there was no answer. There was a wide gap between the bottom of the door and the floor, so I went down on my hands and knees, put my nose to the door, and smelt the air in the apartment... and I smelt death. Every cop knows the smell of death. My partner notified our dispatcher that we needed the patrol supervisor to respond. When the sergeant arrived, we gave him all the details (out of earshot of the parents) and told him that we needed to gain entry into the apartment. Our sergeant was very experienced, and he took pre-emptive action and notified the dispatcher to have an ambulance respond to be on standby, since there was a baby involved.
To gain entry into the apartment, my partner and I were able to go through the apartment next door onto the adjoining fire escape. We stepped onto the fire escape and looked through the window, but we didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. We were able to open the window, and then I jumped into the apartment and announced myself, “Police Officer Gulotta, NYPD” but there was no response.
The apartment was so quiet it was eerie. The TV was on, but the apartment was still so silent, it was creepy.
I looked around the apartment from left-to-right, and I casually told my partner that I didn’t see anything. I then looked to my right again, down on the floor, and I saw this guy, the complainant’s son, lying dead on the floor. He was only wearing black underwear, rigor mortis had already started, and he had a needle sticking out of his right arm.
I calmly yelled out to our sergeant on the other side of the door (who was standing right next to the deceased’s parents), “that’s affirmative”, and he knew exactly what I was talking about.
I gave my partner a concerned look and calmly told him, “I don’t want to see a dead baby.” He then went into the bedroom and came rushing out, proudly carrying a car seat with a beautiful baby girl who was alive and well.
I will never forget this baby. She was beautiful. She was so happy... she was smiling, she had blonde hair, these big blue eyes, and she was only wearing a plain white diaper that was soaked with pee. In her father’s last act of being a parent, he knew what he was going to do, and he strapped his daughter into the car seat so that she would be safe.
We rushed the baby out of the apartment, and it turned into a controlled semi-chaotic scene. We were making notifications to our dispatcher and other NYPD units, EMS was talking to their dispatcher, and I think the Fire Department was there too. It was all hands-on deck. The baby was brought to the ambulance, and after things settled down, I was standing alone outside of the deceased’s apartment with his parents.
The father then said to me, and I’ll never forget his voice and his inquisitive tone, “Officer, where’s my son?”
I answered his question as delicately as possible, “Sir, I’m very sorry, but your son passed away. It appears he died of a drug overdose.”
I was only 26-years-old when I told this older gentleman that his son was dead. Their reaction was everything you’d expect. The mother put her head down and started to cry, and the father put his head down too and let out a gasp of air, he looked like I just punched him in the gut. It was brutal to watch. Now, as a parent, I can’t imagine what it was like for this married couple to hear these words about their child.
First-responders deal with situations like this on a daily basis. While job descriptions may vary among job titles and jurisdictions, police officers, 911 dispatchers/operators, EMTs, and firefighters share similar roles: they help people during the worst times of their lives, and the term “worst times of their lives” is a phrase that is unimaginable to most of the public. Then we go home, have dinner with our family and play with our kids, and move forward, like it was just another day at the office.
While our city and country were in turmoil during this period of time, nothing else mattered to this family... what mattered was a mother and father knowing that their son and granddaughter were safe, and subsequently getting closure. I wish these parents could know how difficult it was for me to tell them that their son was dead, and I wish they knew that in my 25-year career I have never forgot them and their granddaughter. And many times I’ve wondered... what ever happened to that little baby girl, where is she now?
About the Author:
Christian Gulotta is the owner and founder of TEN-4 Consulting, LLC. He recently retired from a 25-year career as a Captain with the NYPD, where he spent the last decade as a leader in the public safety communications space; first as an executive in New York City's 911 Communications Division, and then tasked with leading the NYPD's radio communications division. He has supervised and led hundreds of people, providing positive changes as a leader through employee engagement, process improvement, and professional development. His goal is to continue to improve outcomes within the national 911 community.
About TEN-4 Consulting, LLC:
TEN-4 Consulting, LLC, is deeply committed to enhancing public safety. We understand the critical role 911 agencies play in emergency response, and we're here to support those agencies facing challenges with dispatcher/operator recruitment & retention. Our Mission is to help 911 agencies optimize staffing and elevate service levels, ensuring exceptional experiences for employees and the communities they serve. By strengthening 911 agencies, we enhance first responders' overall effectiveness and emergency services.