He was nice to me at a time when he didn’t have to be. It was the early 90s and I was a young reporter who couldn’t find the ocean if I fell out of a boat; he the police commissioner of Schenectady brought in to straighten things out. His name was Charlie Mills and by anyone’s standards he was a very nice man. Technically his name was “Charles”, but after meeting him once, didn’t matter if you were the Mayor or a guy selling hotdogs on the street corner, he’d insist you call him Charlie. So I did, for the four years he ran the police department in the Electric City and the following three when he did the same in Troy. When he finally left the area in 1996 I assumed Charlie was heading for a much-deserved retirement. I mean, 26 years as a cop in New York City, another half dozen running police departments in the Capital Region, if anyone deserved the gold watch and rocking chair it was him. Then September 11th happened. The planes hit, the towers fell and my heart sank when I learned Charlie died in the attack. What I wasn’t surprised to learn was he died a hero.
I covered the terrorist attacks on 9/11 from ground zero for local television and saw the fall-out first hand; the grieving family members, the smell of the buildings burning, the sight of fighter jets over Manhattan. The images stay with me like a stain that won’t wash out. I went back a year later to mark the occasion and then traveled back down the thruway on the 10-year anniversary to watch them ring the bell and honor the dead once more. But it wasn’t until recently that I got my own closure on what happened that terrible September morning, when I paid a visit to the 9/11 Memorial.
It’s free to see, but you do have to get a ticket in advance. The first thing you notice is the new Freedom Tower they’ve built right next to where the original towers fell. It’s shiny and majestic and soars to the clouds. Large walls block your view of the actual memorial; to see that you get into a long line which stretches towards the first of three metal detectors and security checks. Be prepared to take off anything metal including your belt. Despite the tight security it was only a few minutes before I was inside and then everything changed.
You instantly go from the noise of a big city to silence. It’s like a cross between a cemetery and a beautiful park complete with trees and benches to sit on. At the heart are two square pools, each representing a tower that fell. Surrounding the pools are the endless names of the fallen etched in stone. They’re not alphabetized; instead they’re sorted by category – firefighters, police, civilians, etc.
Much like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, at any given moment if you look to the left or right you’ll see someone standing in silence, tracing their fingers over a name of a person they loved. Some place flowers next to the etching, others take photos, most just stare. I didn’t have to walk more than 10 feet when I found Charlie.
I wanted to turn to the people around me and say, “I knew him. He was a great guy. Did you know he was a cop his whole life, but on the day this happened he wasn’t chasing bad guys, he was saving people? He stayed on that 87th floor of the south tower making sure all his co-workers and friends in the tax department got out safely. He died so they could live.”
But I didn’t say a word. Instead, I touched his name and snapped this photo you see on this page. I spent an hour looking at all the names of those who perished and knew in my heart that each one had a story to tell. Each one loved and left a mark.
On the train ride home from Manhattan I Googled Charlie Mills’ name and smiled when I saw that one of his five children, his son Charlie, had become a police officer after his father’s death. It was never his plan, but after seeing how his dad lived and died for others he picked up the badge in his honor. I think his old man would have liked that.
One of the nice things about the memorial is when you look deep into those pools of water you can’t see where it’s flowing. Death is like that, no one knows for certain where the path leads but you believe it’s a better place. History tells us 2,977 people died on September 11th, 2001 in New York, Washington and in a field in Pennsylvania, but I want you to remember a bigger number – 25,000. That’s how many people survived that day because of heroes who ran toward the danger to save others. One of those people was Charlie Mills.