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Sifting through World Trade Center debris for proof of lives lost on 9/11: 'It was rough'
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Sifting through World Trade Center debris for proof of lives lost on 9/11: 'It was rough'

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The conveyor belt carried terrible truths with the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

For almost three years, Rodney Hodges used a pitchfork to sift through debris for proof of the lives lost in an attack that brought down the twin towers in lower Manhattan, killing 2,753 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

Hodges, then an internal affairs detective for the New York City Police Department, collected framed photographs and college rings, cellphones and pagers, driver’s licenses, fragments of clothing and other fleeting possessions into bins to trace the people who once held them.

But the conveyor belt at the former Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island also carried arms, legs, bone fragments — sometimes flattened torsos — that provided the clearest, saddest evidence of all.

“It was rough,” he said. “I don’t think I slept.”

Hodges, 55, now an officer for the Virginia Division of Capitol Police, carries memories of 13 friends lost that day. Many of them were fellow NYPD officers, such as Glen Pettit, a member of the police video production unit who was last seen filming near the South Tower before it came down. His body was recovered three months later, according to the website NYPD Angels.

Others were firefighters, who suffered a grievous toll with 343 dead that day.

“Those guys went into the building and never came out again,” he said.

Hodges was working out in a gym in lower Manhattan that morning, watching televised coverage of a plane that had hit the North Tower of the trade center and thinking, “They’re probably filming some movie down there.”

Another officer soon let him know it was no movie, but a likely terrorist attack, which sent Hodges and other officers scrambling to respond. They reached Hudson Street, on the lower west side, and watched from a distance as tiny figures jumped from the burning towers to their deaths. Then the buildings fell, as thousands of people rushed to escape the cloud of debris and dust.

The next morning, Hodges was part of a police detail set up on the West Side Highway to serve as a triage center for survivors. No one came that day, or the next. They soon realized no one was coming “because everybody was pretty much pulverized,” he said.

That reality played out day after day at Fresh Kills, a recently closed landfill that then-Gov. George Pataki reopened after the 9/11 attacks to serve as a forensics site for police teams to sort through 1.3 million tons of debris carried by barge from the World Trade Center site to Staten Island.

“It was all hands on deck,” Hodges said.

He and other police officers worked seven days a week, up to 16 hours a day, to find any evidence they could to identify people killed in the attacks so their families would finally know, not wonder or dread.

Hodges remembers the telephone calls that came every day: “’Have you found my husband?’ ‘Have you found my child?’”

One woman was sure her daughter had escaped the towers. The daughter had called after running out of one building. But she was still missing.

Hodges was there when they found her, one of the flattened bodies that sometimes came down the conveyor belt. She had likely been hit by a falling slab of concrete as she ran.

He called her mother with the news. “She just broke down in tears,” he said. “It was sad, but at least she had some closure.”

Closure has been hard for Hodges and the other officers who worked at the Fresh Kills recovery operation. They wore Tyvek suits and masks to protect them from the hazardous chemicals mixed into the debris, but they have suffered a much higher death toll from related diseases in the past 20 years than on the day of the attack.

The 9/11 tribute page on the NYPD website lists 23 officers who died that day — and 247 who have died since of related illnesses.

“All types of cancer they got,” Hodges said.

But not him. “I’m good so far,” he said.

Hodges has worked for Capitol Police since 2017, when he and his family moved to Chesterfield County into a house directly across from his widowed mother, now 88. His daughter, born in 2003 when he was still working at Fresh Kills, is a student at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“It’s very slow-paced down here, nothing like New York,” he said.

Sadly, Hodges now has more former colleagues from New York to mourn — 17 who died from COVID-19 during the pandemic, mostly men like himself, still relatively young and fit.

“They survived 9/11 and died from COVID,” he said. “Ain’t that crazy?”

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