When two police friends from Australia told Sgt. Shane Gardner they were flying 25 hours to be in New York for the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and asked him if we would be willing to fly five hours to join them, he couldn’t say no.
Gardner, of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, booked a red eye with frequent-flier miles in January and made arrangements for the three of them to stay in a studio apartment near Central Park.
The trio were determined to make it to Ground Zero on the big day to pay respects to those who lost their lives in and because of the attacks.
“It’s a monumental occasion for law enforcement around the world,” Gardner said last week, back in Clark County.
The only problem: The site where the twin towers once stood was under heavy guard and the National September 11 Memorial was closed to everyone except family members of the attack victims.
That didn’t stop them from trying. And with a little bit of determination and people skills they were able to visit the memorial on the anniversary and meet three families of first responders who died.
“It’s crazy what happened,” Gardner said. “If there’s anything I learned this past week, it’s you keep your eyes open for opportunity.”
That opportunity came from his two friends, Michael Ackery and Greg Bishop of the Queensland Police Department, whose Australian accents attracted attention.
“Them being in America with their accents opened doors,” Gardner said. “It’s about building relationships with people.”
On Sept. 11, they went to a memorial ceremony at a police precinct near the apartment they were staying at. Turns out, an officer that the Australians met earlier in their visit was calling the shots at the service and invited the three to join in formation.
They were handed names of officers who died that day to read at the service. The ceremony started at the time the first plane hit the first tower, Gardner said.
He read the name Ramon Suarez.
Gardner decided he would learn as much as he could about Suarez when he returned home so he would be more than a name.
After the ceremony they declined an invitation to get a drink with the local police. They said they were heading to Ground Zero.
Even though everyone they ran into said there was no way they would get in, they didn’t want to travel that far without trying, Gardner said.
The three, along with a former NYPD officer, made their way towards the site. An on-duty officer let them past a barricade but an entrance guarded by event planners and a metal detector still stood between them and their goal.
Gardner’s Australian buddies “chatted it up” with another on-duty officer who advised them to try to get in through the exit, which was guarded by police officers, not event planners, he said. They walked over and got through.
They were backstage at Ground Zero on the morning of Sept. 11. “We had planned on this since January and were finally standing at Ground Zero,” Gardner said. “We were just trying to drink it all in.”
The three were mindful of the families that “needed to be there” and weren’t looking for special treatment, Ackery said.
“I think we’re the only guys who crashed the place,” Gardner said.
They heard Paul Simon play “Sounds of Silence” and met an officer who lost a friend in the attacks. Turns out the officer’s friend was Paul Taulty, the name that Bishop read at the ceremony. The officer introduced the group to Taulty’s family. They talked a bit and were thanked by the family for coming so far to pay tribute.
After that they looked for the name that Ackery read on the memorial, Santos Valentin. They found it and a man making a rubbing of the name was Valentin’s nephew. He introduced the three to Valentin’s mother, who didn’t speak much English. Her nephew translated the group’s story.
Her response stuck with Gardner. “She said, ‘God bless each of you,’” he said. “There were hugs and crying again.”
Gardner said it was time to find “his family.” He turned around and found a group of people wearing white T-shirts with the name Ramon Suarez printed on them.
He introduced himself, shared the story again and was introduced to Suarez’s widow.
“We had a personal connection to it because of the memorial service,” he said. “We were blown away.”
Trip of a lifetime
The group also managed to talk their way into sitting backstage at the David Letterman show, met actress Brooke Shields after a play, talked with Paul Simon after his performance, ran into “Law & Order: SVU” actor Richard Belzer while he was walking his dog, got tours around town and through a fire station and bumped into Charlie Chon, a friend of Gardner’s who is from Vancouver.
When asked which part of the trip was most memorable, Ackery said it would be like choosing which of his kids he loves best.
“It’s all been amazing,” Ackery said in an email. “Shane describes the time we spent in NYC perfectly as the musical without music.”
He said it was an honor to take part in commemorating Sept. 11.
“Reading the name of my fallen officer on parade at the 6th precinct was a moment of extreme pride and sadness for me,” Ackery said. “To meet his family was an honor and when his mother put her arms around me I instantly hugged her back as if she was my Mother and in a way I would hope Santos would have embraced my Mum if his and my roles were reversed.”
Bishop and Ackery are staying with Chon while they continue to explore the East Coast.
Gardner returned to Clark County last week. He plans to take his family to Australia next year to visit the officers.