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Story By John Murray
Fifteen hours after the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed in New York City on 9/11/2001, Waterbury detective Neil O’Leary was driving through Harlem in a Waterbury police car heading towards the disaster scene.
“It was eerie,” O’Leary told a gathering of first responders during a memorial mass marking the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, held at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury.
Waterbury Fire Department color guard outside the Basilica.
O’Leary has been the mayor of Waterbury for the past decade, but the memory of driving into Manhattan that night is seared into his memory. “The power was out in the city and all of Manhattan was dark,” O’Leary said. “Everything was closed and all you could see was a glow from the fires at the tip of Manhattan where the towers were burning.”
Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, middle, prayed during the memorial mass.
It had already been a long and emotional day for O’Leary. He had been standing in line at a wake at the Albini Funeral Home for a former police officer shortly before 9 am when his pager started vibrating 9-1-1. Seconds later it came again 9-1-1, and then again 9-1-1.
“The only time that had happened before was when a police officer had been shot,” O’Leary said. He was next in line at the wake and kneeled down and prayed at the casket, and then called into the Waterbury Detective Bureau to learn that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center.
On his way back to headquarters O’Leary received a call from his friend Richard Spagnoletti, who had just heard from his son, Greg Spagnoletti, in the South Tower. Greg, 32, was a bond salesman and told his father that he was okay, and would call later when he was safe and out of the building. Richard got off the phone with O’Leary and turned on his television to watch a second plane crash into the South Tower right where his son was working. Greg Spagnoletti died in the explosion.
By the time O’Leary made it back to headquarters he was now aware that a second jet had crashed into the South Tower, and all the detectives were gathered around a television watching the events unfold.
Later in the day O’Leary received a phone call from his sister’s husband, Gary Murphy, who had family in the North Tower. Gary’s sister, Lauren, was married to Matthew O’Mahoney, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower.
“Matthew had called Lauren after the first plane went into the North Tower,” O’Leary said. “He told her he loved her and would call when he got out of harm’s way. No one had heard from him since, and Gary asked if I would go down and try and help find him.”
So, O’Leary did. After showing his police identification he was able to get past multiple barricades and he and Gary reached Lauren’s apartment around 3 am on September 12th. The apartment was three blocks from Ground Zero and when they arrived Lauren was inside with five other women who all had missing husbands who worked with Matthew at Cantor Fitzgerald.
“The girls were devastated,” O’Leary said. “They had no information, the power was out, they had candles burning and they were huddled by the radio.”
O’Leary and Gary Murphy headed towards the rubble and O’Leary used his badge to get as close to the inferno as possible. “The heat was so severe there was no way anyone had survived,” O’Leary said. “I turned to Gary and said what are we going to say to them?”
They told the women that the scene had been total chaos, but unknown to them, and to the terrified wives in Lauren’s apartment, all 658 employees of Cantor Fitzgerald had perished in the fire and building collapse.
A few hours later the sun came up, the power came back on in Manhattan, and for O’Leary, reality set in. “It looked like it had snowed,” O’Leary said. “There was three inches of white dust on the ground, and everywhere you looked were glasses and pocketbooks and shoes that had been dumped by people trying to get away.”
O’Leary remembered that in the weeks that followed 9/11 many Waterbury firefighters and police officers went to Ground Zero to help at “The Pile”.
He also remembered America’s response to the terrorist attack. “We came together and united,” O’Leary said. “During the pandemic we divided. We need to reset and revisit what is really important in our lives; children, grandchildren, neighbors, faith and love. We need to move forward together.”