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Behind the Badge On 9/11, my first reaction was: ‘Where are our kids?’

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Lt. Chris Piombo

Posted: Saturday, September 10, 2011 12:00 am

I was sleeping when my wife walked into the room and touched me on the shoulder. I'd worked swing shift the night before, so I was out like a light.

She whispered, "Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center." I was in that half-awake, half-asleep fog. She said, "They think it might be terrorists."

I got up and went to see what was happening on the television. I saw the images we would all see over and over for the next 10 years. There was a sickeningly large gray cloud where the Twin Towers used to be. People in lower Manhattan were covered in dusty, pulverized cement. Reporters were literally screaming at anchors who sat behind desks wondering if their broadcast center in New York or Washington was next on the list.

It was Sept. 11, 2001.

As I slowly comprehended the reality of the attack, an uncomfortable shot of adrenaline shot through my body. "Where are our kids?" Our six-year-old son was a first-grader at Reese Elementary School, our four-year-old daughter was at preschool.

"Are they safe? What's coming next?"

We quickly decided that the kids would be safe where they were, and there was no immediate need to get them out of school. But the fact that we actually had to discuss the option of bringing them home was unsettling. We live in Lodi, for goodness sake. Not Chicago or Miami.

I went into work early that day. The department was bustling. The command staff met and decided there were certain locations we had to monitor. We made sure the SWAT team and bomb squad members were on-call. Extra officers came into work the street. Ten years later, people might say it was an overreaction. But on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, no one knew how widespread or coordinated the attacks were going to be. Was New York the opening salvo of a nationwide battle? Were smaller towns going to be targets as well?

We stationed officers near some of the religious sites in the area. People watched the power plants, water treatment plants and the railroad. Calls about "suspicious people" began to inundate our dispatch center. Citizens were confused and scared, and even seemingly ordinary activities like people hanging out near the Highway 99 overpass at Turner Road generated a police call. It was very busy, to say the least.

Weeks passed and nothing happened in the area. Gradually, people went back to their day-to-day routine and New York began to feel very far away. Occasionally we'd receive a call about someone behaving suspiciously but overall things returned to normal.

Four years later, our department received a notice from the federal government warning agencies across the nation about possible terrorist activity near two U.S. cities. The flier was quite colorful and informative. The two cities were Houston, Texas and … Lodi.

We were surprised, to put it mildly. Communication with the federal government back then was pretty much non-existent. To see our town listed as a possible location for terrorist activity seemed to be a stretch. We figured some hotshot in Washington had made a mistake.

Well, you all know the story. The FBI arrested a couple of local residents for terrorism-related activity. The next thing we knew there were giant white CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC and CBS satellite trucks parked on the grass at Blakely Park. Reporters from the British Broadcasting Corporation to big Los Angeles stations to KFBK Radio stalked local officials. I remember watching six or seven reporters standing at different spots around the park, either preparing for or giving their reports over live television. It was crazy. We actually took pictures of the bedlam just so we could show them to our grandkids some day. Lodi was the lead story on most of the major networks and in the headlines at every newspaper in the nation.

Time passed, and even that story moved out of the spotlight. Although the 9/11 casualty list had been finalized, the unnamed victims, the people who worked at Ground Zero after the attack, began to pass away. People we knew personally, like firefighter John F. McNamara, FDNY. Johnny Mac did not lose his life racing up the stairwells in one of the towers. He lost his life when he heroically chose to work in the toxic smoke of "the pile" for weeks as he looked for his fallen brothers and citizens. He knew the risks, but he did it anyway.

So what's changed since that day 10 years ago? Are we all safer? That's for each of us to decide on our own. Our department's relationship with the federal government is much better, and we do a good job of sharing timely information. LPD officers are well equipped and trained to deal with any major incident, whether it occurs in Lodi or a larger city like Sacramento or San Francisco. And we all know we have to be vigilant, even in our city, to keep a day like Sept.11, 2001 from ever happening again.

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