9/11 first responder reflects on Surfside tragedy

Tony Makowski says first responders likely won't feel emotions of situation until later
Posted at 7:29 AM, Jun 30, 2021

SURFSIDE, Fla. — As the world watches search and rescue efforts continue around the clock in Surfside, many people are comparing the images they are seeing to those from 9/11.

While the circumstances and scope are certainly different, the desperate search for survivors remains the same.

Seeing the tragedy unfold is bringing up memories for some first responders who were in New York on that fateful day.

Tony Makowski is now retired after a nearly 40 year career in law enforcement. He spent 20 years with NYPD and then almost 17 years with the School District of Palm Beach County Police Department. He retired from the school district months ago after working his way up to the rank of major.

Makowski was right there at ground zero responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, doing some of the same work that he sees search-and-rescue crews doing right now in Surfside after the condominium collapse last week.

"You never know what's gonna trigger it," Makowski said. "One of the first things I saw was somebody posted security camera video of the actual collapse and, right away, 9/11 came back to me and I stopped the video and put down the phone, and that's something that happens. I didn't think I would be triggered by watching the video, but out of curiosity, you watch it and the feelings came back."

He said nothing can prepare someone for what first responders are seeing right now.

firefighters rest near ground zero after New York City terrorist attacks, Sept. 13, 2001
In this Sept. 13, 2001 photograph, firefighters rest near ground zero after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.

"You shut it out while you are there," Makowski said. "I spent a year down at the ground zero site in New York City and you don't process it while you are there. You'll process it later on. You have to learn how to deal with it and take care of yourself and, especially for the husbands, wives, significant others, family members, they have to learn that everybody processes things differently."

Makowski said looking out for a person's mental health is very important.

"My wife had a hard time that I wouldn't speak to her about it, but that's the thing about police work and rescue-and-recovery work," Makowski said. "You just kind of take it and put it in a box or in the back of your brain and you have to deal with it when it comes up, and everybody deals with it differently."

He said what kept him pushing forward against all odds is the same thing the Surfside first responders are feeling: hope.

"The hope of finding someone," he said. "It will be a little more difficult when it shifts from rescue to strictly recovery. I felt it and I'm sure everyone else felt it, a little bit of a let down when someone finally says there's not a chance of a rescue."

After 20 years at NYPD, Makowski dedicated the rest of his career to kids, becoming well known and respected as he moved up the ranks with school police. He said that desire and drive to take care of others is always with him.

"People would ask me afterwards, 'What made you go towards the building when thousands of people were running away?' I still can't answer that question almost 20 years later," he said. "No one ordered me to. No one told me to. It's just something that's in people that are in that line of work. They want to help and go in and do the best they can."

He knows that's how the first responders are feeling right now.

rescuers and dog search rubble of Champlain Towers South condo collapse, June 29, 2021
Rescuers and a dog search the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse, June 29, 2021, in Surfside, Fla.

"Right now, all those workers, I'm sure, are focusing on their mission, but, again, take care of yourself afterwards," Makowski said.

He said all of the community support truly makes a difference to those on the front lines. He recalls one of those early days in New York City when an elderly woman pushed her way through the police perimeter to give out homemade sandwiches to first responders.

"Anything we needed we could get, and that's a great thing for this country to see people put their differences aside and come together and support a cause that's a worthy cause, to get the job done," Makowski said. "And I'm sure those rescue-and-recovery workers appreciate it. It's important to keep them going and they don't have to worry about going to find a meal, getting something, staying well, taking care of getting water."

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